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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 n
med 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

her greatness:

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

Second Empire.