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
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
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 gravity.
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
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 be 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,
"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 me."
"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
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 delay.
"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
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
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 requited.
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
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.
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