The Story Of Rachel
Outside of the English-speaking peoples the nineteenth century
witnessed the rise and triumphant progress of three great tragic
actresses. The first two of these--Rachel Felix and Sarah
Bernhardt--were of Jewish extraction; the third, Eleanor Duse, is
Italian. All of them made their way from pauperism to fame; but
perhaps the rise of Rachel was the most striking.
In the winter of 1821 a wretched peddler named Abraham--or Jacob--
Felix sought shelter at a dilapidated inn at Mumpf, a village in
Switzerland, not far from Basel. It was at the close of a stormy
day, and his small family had been toiling through the snow and
sleet. The inn was the lowest sort of hovel, and yet its
proprietor felt that it was too good for these vagabonds. He
consented to receive them only when he learned that the peddler's
wife was to be delivered of a child. That very night she became
the mother of a girl, who was at first called Elise. So
unimportant was the advent of this little waif into the world that
the burgomaster of Mumpf thought it necessary to make an entry
only of the fact that a peddler's wife had given birth to a female
child. There was no mention of family or religion, nor was the
record anything more than a memorandum.
Under such circumstances was born a child who was destined to
excite the wonder of European courts--to startle and thrill and
utterly amaze great audiences by her dramatic genius. But for ten
years the family--which grew until it consisted of one son and
five daughters--kept on its wanderings through Switzerland and
Germany. Finally, they settled down in Lyons, where the mother
opened a little shop for the sale of second-hand clothing. The
husband gave lessons in German whenever he could find a pupil. The
eldest daughter went about the cafes in the evening, singing the
songs that were then popular, while her small sister, Rachel,
collected coppers from those who had coppers to spare.
Although the family was barely able to sustain existence, the
father and mother were by no means as ignorant as their squalor
would imply. The peddler Felix had studied Hebrew theology in the
hope of becoming a rabbi. Failing this, he was always much
interested in declamation, public reading, and the recitation of
poetry. He was, in his way, no mean critic of actors and
actresses. Long before she was ten years of age little Rachel--who
had changed her name from Elise--could render with much feeling
and neatness of eloquence bits from the best-known French plays of
the classic stage.
The children's mother, on her side, was sharp and practical to a
high degree. She saved and scrimped all through her period of
adversity. Later she was the banker of her family, and would never
lend any of her children a sou except on excellent security.
However, this was all to happen in after years.
When the child who was destined to be famous had reached her tenth
year she and her sisters made their way to Paris. For four years
the second-hand clothing-shop was continued; the father still
taught German; and the elder sister, Sarah, who had a golden
voice, made the rounds of the cafes in the lowest quarters of the
capital, while Rachel passed the wooden plate for coppers.
One evening in the year 1834 a gentleman named Morin, having been
taken out of his usual course by a matter of business, entered a
BRASSERIE for a cup of coffee. There he noted two girls, one of
them singing with remarkable sweetness, and the other silently
following with the wooden plate. M. Morin called to him the girl
who sang and asked her why she did not make her voice more
profitable than by haunting the cafes at night, where she was sure
to meet with insults of the grossest kind.
"Why," said Sarah, "I haven't anybody to advise me what to do."
M. Morin gave her his address and said that he would arrange to
have her meet a friend who would be of great service to her. On
the following day he sent the two girls to a M. Choron, who was
the head of the Conservatory of Sacred Music. Choron had Sarah
sing, and instantly admitted her as a pupil, which meant that she
would soon be enrolled among the regular choristers. The beauty of
her voice made a deep impression on him.
Then he happened to notice the puny, meager child who was standing
near her sister. Turning to her, he said:
"And what can you do, little one?"
"I can recite poetry," was the reply.
"Oh, can you?" said he. "Please let me hear you."
Rachel readily consented. She had a peculiarly harsh, grating
voice, so that any but a very competent judge would have turned
her away. But M. Choron, whose experience was great, noted the
correctness of her accent and the feeling which made itself felt
in every line. He accepted her as well as her sister, but urged
her to study elocution rather than music.
She must, indeed, have had an extraordinary power even at the age
of fourteen, since not merely her voice but her whole appearance
was against her. She was dressed in a short calico frock of a
pattern in which red was spotted with white. Her shoes were of
coarse black leather. Her hair was parted at the back of her head
and hung down her shoulders in two braids, framing the long,
childish, and yet gnome-like face, which was unusual in its
At first she was little thought of; but there came a time when she
astonished both her teachers and her companions by a recital which
she gave in public. The part was the narrative of Salema in the
"Abufar" of Ducis. It describes the agony of a mother who gives
birth to a child while dying of thirst amid the desert sands. Mme.
de Barviera has left a description of this recital, which it is
worth while to quote:
While uttering the thrilling tale the thin face seemed to lengthen
with horror, the small, deep-set black eyes dilated with a fixed
stare as though she witnessed the harrowing scene; and the deep,
guttural tones, despite a slight Jewish accent, awoke a nameless
terror in every one who listened, carrying him through the
imaginary woe with a strange feeling of reality, not to be shaken,
off as long as the sounds lasted.
Even yet, however, the time had not come for any conspicuous
success. The girl was still so puny in form, so monkey-like in
face, and so gratingly unpleasant in her tones that it needed time
for her to attain her full growth and to smooth away some of the
discords in her peculiar voice.
Three years later she appeared at the Gymnase in a regular debut;
yet even then only the experienced few appreciated her greatness.
Among these, however, were the well-known critic Jules Janin, the
poet and novelist Gauthier, and the actress Mlle. Mars. They saw
that this lean, raucous gutter-girl had within her gifts which
would increase until she would he first of all actresses on the
French stage. Janin wrote some lines which explain the secret of
All the talent in the world, especially when continually applied
to the same dramatic works, will not satisfy continually the
hearer. What pleases in a great actor, as in all arts that appeal
to the imagination, is the unforeseen. When I am utterly ignorant
of what is to happen, when I do not know, when you yourself do not
know what will be your next gesture, your next look, what passion
will possess your heart, what outcry will burst from your terror-
stricken soul, then, indeed, I am willing to see you daily, for
each day you will be new to me. To-day I may blame, to-morrow
praise. Yesterday you were all-powerful; to-morrow, perhaps, you
may hardly win from me a word of admiration. So much the better,
then, if you draw from me unexpected tears, if in my heart you
strike an unknown fiber; but tell me not of hearing night after
night great artists who every time present the exact counterpart
of what they were on the preceding one.
It was at the Theatre Francais that she won her final acceptance
as the greatest of all tragedians of her time. This was in her
appearance in Corneille's famous play of "Horace." She had now, in
1838, blazed forth with a power that shook her no, less than it
stirred the emotions and the passions of her hearers. The princes
of the royal blood came in succession to see her. King Louis
Philippe himself was at last tempted by curiosity to be present.
Gifts of money and jewels were showered on her, and through sheer
natural genius rather than through artifice she was able to master
a great audience and bend it to her will.
She had no easy life, this girl of eighteen years, for other
actresses carped at her, and she had had but little training. The
sordid ways of her old father excited a bitterness which was
vented on the daughter. She was still under age, and therefore was
treated as a gold-mine by her exacting parents. At the most she
could play but twice a week. Her form was frail and reed-like. She
was threatened with a complaint of the lungs; yet all this served
to excite rather than to diminish public interest in her. The
newspapers published daily bulletins of her health, and her door
was besieged by anxious callers who wished to know her condition.
As for the greed of her parents, every one said she was not to
blame for that. And so she passed from poverty to riches, from
squalor to something like splendor, and from obscurity to fame.
Much has been written about her that is quite incorrect. She has
been credited with virtues which she never possessed; and, indeed,
it may be said with only too much truth that she possessed no
virtues whatsoever. On the stage while the inspiration lasted she
was magnificent. Off the stage she was sly, treacherous,
capricious, greedy, ungrateful, ignorant, and unchaste. With such
an ancestry as she had, with such an early childhood as had been
hers, what else could one expect from her?
She and her old mother wrangled over money like two pickpockets.
Some of her best friends she treated shamefully. Her avarice was
without bounds. Some one said that it was not really avarice, but
only a reaction from generosity; but this seems an exceedingly
subtle theory. It is possible to give illustrations of it,
however. She did, indeed, make many presents with a lavish hand;
yet, having made a present, she could not rest until she got it
back. The fact was so well known that her associates took it for
granted. The younger Dumas once received a ring from her.
Immediately he bowed low and returned it to her finger, saying:
"Permit me, mademoiselle, to present it to you in my turn so as to
save you the embarrassment of asking for it."
Mr. Vandam relates among other anecdotes about her that one
evening she dined at the house of Comte Duchatel. The table was
loaded with the most magnificent flowers; but Rachel's keen eyes
presently spied out the great silver centerpiece. Immediately she
began to admire the latter; and the count, fascinated by her
manners, said that he would be glad to present it to her. She
accepted it at once, but was rather fearful lest he should change
his mind. She had come to dinner in a cab, and mentioned the fact.
The count offered to send her home in his carriage.
"Yes, that will do admirably," said she. "There will be no danger
of my being robbed of your present, which I had better take with
"With pleasure, mademoiselle," replied the count. "But you will
send me back my carriage, won't you?"
Rachel had a curious way of asking every one she met for presents
and knickknacks, whether they were valuable or not. She knew how
to make them valuable.
Once in a studio she noticed a guitar hanging on the wall. She
begged for it very earnestly. As it was an old and almost
worthless instrument, it was given her. A little later it was
reported that the dilapidated guitar had been purchased by a well-
known gentleman for a thousand francs. The explanation soon
followed. Rachel had declared that it was the very guitar with
which she used to earn her living as a child in the streets of
Paris. As a memento its value sprang from twenty francs to a
It has always been a mystery what Rachel did with the great sums
of money which she made in various ways. She never was well
dressed; and as for her costumes on the stage, they were furnished
by the theater. When her effects were sold at public auction after
her death her furniture was worse than commonplace, and her
pictures and ornaments were worthless, except such as had been
given her. She must have made millions of francs, and yet she had
very little to leave behind her.
Some say that her brother Raphael, who acted as her personal
manager, was a spendthrift; but if so, there are many reasons for
thinking that it was not his sister's money that he spent. Others
say that Rachel gambled in stocks, but there is no evidence of it.
The only thing that is certain is the fact that she was almost
always in want of money. Her mother, in all probability, managed
to get hold of most of her earnings.
Much may have been lost through her caprices. One instance may be
cited. She had received an offer of three hundred thousand francs
to act at St. Petersburg, and was on her way there when she passed
through Potsdam, near Berlin. The King of Prussia was entertaining
the Russian Czar. An invitation was sent to her in the shape of a
royal command to appear before these monarchs and their guests.
For some reason or other Rachel absolutely refused. She would
listen to no arguments. She would go on to St. Petersburg without
"But," it was said to her, "if you refuse to appear before the
Czar at Potsdam all the theaters in St. Petersburg will be closed
against you, because you will have insulted the emperor. In this
way you will be out the expenses of your journey and also the
three hundred thousand francs."
Rachel remained stubborn as before; but in about half an hour she
suddenly declared that she would recite before the two monarchs,
which she subsequently did, to the satisfaction of everybody. Some
one said to her not long after:
"I knew that you would do it. You weren't going to give up the
three hundred thousand francs and all your travelling expenses."
"You are quite wrong," returned Rachel, "though of course you will
not believe me. I did not care at all about the money and was
going back to France. It was something that I heard which made me
change my mind. Do you want to know what it was? Well, after all
the arguments were over some one informed me that the Czar
Nicholas was the handsomest man in Europe; and so I made up my
mind that I would stay in Potsdam long enough to see him."
This brings us to one phase of Rachel's nature which is rather
sinister. She was absolutely hard. She seemed to have no emotions
except those which she exhibited on the stage or the impish
perversity which irritated so many of those about her. She was in
reality a product of the gutter, able to assume a demure and
modest air, but within coarse, vulgar, and careless of decency.
Yet the words of Jules Janin, which have been quoted above,
explain how she could be personally very fascinating.
In all Rachel's career one can detect just a single strand of real
romance. It is one that makes us sorry for her, because it tells
us that her love was given where it never could be openly
During the reign of Louis Philippe the Comte Alexandre Walewski
held many posts in the government. He was a son of the great
Napoleon. His mother was that Polish countess who had accepted
Napoleon's love because she hoped that he might set Poland free at
her desire. But Napoleon was never swerved from his well-
calculated plans by the wish of any woman, and after a time the
Countess Walewska came to love him for himself. It was she to whom
he confided secrets which he would not reveal to his own brothers.
It was she who followed him to Elba in disguise. It was her son
who was Napoleon's son, and who afterward, under the Second
Empire, was made minister of fine arts, minister of foreign
affairs, and, finally, an imperial duke. Unlike the third
Napoleon's natural half-brother, the Duc de Moray, Walewski was a
gentleman of honor and fine feeling. He never used his
relationship to secure advantages for himself. He tried to live in
a manner worthy of the great warrior who was his father.
As minister of fine arts he had much to do with the subsidized
theaters; and in time he came to know Rachel. He was the son of
one of the greatest men who ever lived. She was the child of
roving peddlers whose early training had been in the slums of
cities and amid the smoke of bar-rooms and cafes. She was tainted
in a thousand ways, while he was a man of breeding and right
principle. She was a wandering actress; he was a great minister of
state. What could there be between these two?
George Sand gave the explanation in an epigram which, like most
epigrams, is only partly true. She said:
"The count's company must prove very restful to Rachel."
What she meant was, of course, that Walewski's breeding, his
dignity and uprightness, might be regarded only as a temporary
repose for the impish, harsh-voiced, infinitely clever actress. Of
course, it was all this, but we should not take it in a mocking
sense. Rachel looked up out of her depths and gave her heart to
this high-minded nobleman. He looked down and lifted her, as it
were, so that she could forget for the time all the baseness and
the brutality that she had known, that she might put aside her
forced vivacity and the self that was not in reality her own.
It is pitiful to think of these two, separated by a great abyss
which could not be passed except at times and hours when each was
free. But theirs was, none the less, a meeting of two souls,
strangely different in many ways, and yet appealing to each other
with a sincerity and truth which neither could show elsewhere.
The end of poor Rachel was one of disappointment. Tempted by the
fact that Jenny Lind had made nearly two million francs by her
visit to the United States, Rachel followed her, but with slight
success, as was to be expected. Music is enjoyed by human beings
everywhere, while French classical plays, even though acted by a
genius like Rachel, could be rightly understood only by a French-
speaking people. Thus it came about that her visit to America was
only moderately successful.
She returned to France, where the rising fame of Adelaide Ristori
was very bitter to Rachel, who had passed the zenith of her power.
She went to Egypt, but received no benefit, and in 1858 she died
near Cannes. The man who loved her, and whom she had loved in
turn, heard of her death with great emotion. He himself lived ten
years longer, and died a little while before the fall of the