Islands and Other Places: Sarah Bernhardt on Belle-Île-en-Mer

Claude Monet, Port Croton

Note: This is article adapted from a piece I published in the International Herald Tribune in February 1991 and the Washington Post in August 1991. I expect it to be part of a book I am currently working on, entitled "Islands and Other Places: The Journeys of an American in Exile."

Coup de foudre. Love at first sight. It struck Sarah Bernhardt in August 1893, when she made her first visit to Belle-Ile, the largest island off the coast of Brittany. By that time the flamboyant actress was an international idol, a 19th-century superstar. Audiences in Europe and the United States swooned when she stepped onstage to play the doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier in "La Dame aux Camelias." She was, wrote Edmond Rostand, the author of "Cyrano de Bergerac," the "Queen of attitude and Princess of gestures."

She was given to making grand and impulsive gestures off the stage, too. At the end of a day of touring the island with a group of friends, she announced that she was going to buy an abandoned fort she had seen for sale on its windswept Pointe des Poulains. Over the next 30 years Bernhardt spent nearly every summer on Belle-Ile, first at the fort -- which she converted into a vacation home -- and then in a nearby chateau she purchased later.

Sarah Bernhardt/Wikimedia Commons

The island that captivated the actress that summer day is a 32-square-mile schist plateau, left stranded when the Ice Age ended and the sea rose over the outer reaches of the Breton peninsula. During the past 2 million years wind and water have chiseled away at its edge, carving steep cliffs and leaving tall pinnacles of rock standing among the waves. But while the surf still crashes against the rocky headlands of the island's Cote Sauvage (Wild Coast), its quiet inland valleys are forested with oaks and laurels, and its green fields are dotted with grazing sheep and cattle. It's no wonder that Sarah Bernhardt went to Belle-Ile to find, as she once put it, "new artistic forces" under its "bracing and restful sky."

I went to Belle-Ile, also known as Belle-Ile-en-Mer, to find Sarah Bernhardt. Not in person, of course, as she died at her home in Paris in 1923 and is buried in the city's Pere Lachaise cemetery. What I sought on the island were the traces she had left behind, the bits and pieces of her life that had not yet disappeared.

The ferry from mainland Brittany chugged into the port of Le Palais, Belle-Ile's largest town. Through the morning fog, the angular stone walls of the Citadelle de Vauban loomed over the tiny harbor. I drove past the long facade of the citadel and headed toward the fishing village of Sauzon, at the north end of the island.

The road curved gently through the gorse-covered hills. Soon the quiet harbor of Sauzon was in view, lined with pink and white houses and dominated by the steeple of a 19th-century church. At the foot of the breakwater stood the Hotel du Phare (Lighthouse Hotel), named after the flashing beacon at the end of the jetty.

The island's harbor/Wikimedia Commons

It was on this quay, in front of the hotel, that Bernhardt and her entourage of friends and servants would disembark from the steamboat that brought them from the mainland. Her landings were always major events for the people of Sauzon. Large crowds would gather to catch a glimpse of their celebrated neighbor, whom some called "Notre-Dame-de-Belle-Ile" and others simply "Madame Sarah."

The lighthouse on the Pointe des Poulains might be mistaken for any whitewashed Breton home were it not for the squared, red-capped tower that rises against the blue sky like a flower box tipped on its end. From there I could see the jagged inlets and towering pinnacles of the Cote Sauvage. The sea was beginning to rise, and I made my way back across the narrow isthmus that connects the lighthouse to the island's northernmost tip.

On the cliff above stood the abandoned fort that was Bernhardt's first home on Belle-Ile. It had once been decorated gaily, but now only small patches of white paint remained on its cold gray facade.

This structure is pretty much all that is left of her former property. The ornate chateau was destroyed by the Germans when they occupied the island during World War II, and the farm she owned nearby is now a golf course.

That is an anomaly for Belle-Ile, which aside from a discreet array of pleasant hotels and restaurants offers little to the visitor in the way of organized recreation.

The Citadelle de Vauban, the massive fortress overlooking the harbor of Le Palais, was once the site of a Benedictine monastery. In the 17th century, after a long war with Holland, the French sent Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban -- one of the greatest military engineers of all times -- to build one of his celebrated structures here.

Citadel de Vauban/Wikimedia Commons

In the citadel's historical museum I found a room filled with Sarah Bernhardt memorabilia: a wooden bench from the tennis court where she played with her friends (who always let her win), a wood-handled pink parasol she had used on the island, a poster from the benefit she staged to aid the fishermen of Sauzon when a series of storms threatened their livelihood.

Later I paid a visit to Laure Verron-Archimbaud, who lives across the road from the golf club that was once Bernhardt's farm. Her father, Charles Archimbaud, had handled Bernhardt's business affairs on the island.

"He was the only notary on Belle-Ile at that time," said Verron-Archimbaud. "I was born in Le Palais in 1916. I remember very well when Sarah disembarked at Sauzon, she came on a special boat. I was 7 years old. It was the last time she ever came to Belle-Ile."

She showed me a copy of the contract her father had drawn up when Bernhardt bought the chateau on the Pointe des Poulains. She had once ridiculed the fanciful structure, but when its previous owner died she decided to make it her new home on the island.

"Sarah bought everything," Verron-Archimbaud said, "but she didn't always pay immediately. Once my father received a telegram from her, saying that she was sending 2,000 francs to settle some bills. But when the money came, it was only 1,000 francs. When he pointed this out, she wrote, 'My dear Archimbaud, I have sent a thousand francs, and a thousand kisses for you.' "

She insisted that I stay for some whiskey and Breton cheese. The sun was setting when I finally left.

I walked out onto the point. On the horizon, sea and sky met in a blaze of reds and yellows. The old fort, which Bernhardt had spotted her first day on Belle-Ile, stood gray and desolate. Just offshore lay the huge, flat-topped rock where the actress had once said she wanted to be buried when she died.

As I turned to leave, it occurred to me that I had not really found Sarah Bernhardt, only a few memories, some fragments, all we ever turn up when we go searching for the past. But I had found Belle-Ile, and that was enough.

Note: Laure Verron-Archimbaud died some years ago. Somewhere, lost in my files, is an obituary in a French newspaper. If I ever find it, I will post it here.

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