French actress Sarah Bernhardt
(1844-1923) is remembered as the greatest tragedienne of her day, but she also occupies an unfortunate place in the car culture of Los Angeles.
Bernhardt was one of the first celebrities to be injured in an automobile accident in the City of Angels.
The mishap occurred on the evening of March 12, 1913, at the intersection of Washington and Crenshaw boulevards, while she was being driven in a taxi to the downtown Orpheum Theatre to appear in “La Tosca.”
The red-haired actress was en route from Venice Beach, where she had rented an entire floor of the King George Hotel. She liked to stay in Venice, The Times said, because she wanted “the benefit of the open sea and the fresh breezes,” and because she could fish.
She was running late the night of the accident.
Roger Harvys, her taxi driver, said years later that she “had taken longer than usual to get ready because she wanted to watch the sunset over the ocean. When she got into the cab, her maid told me to drive rapidly.”
Harvys obeyed, winding it up to 18 mph.
Crossing Crenshaw, he recalled, “I saw a chance to make time, and dodged around a streetcar, and there was this moving van without taillights. And before I could twist out of the way, we struck.”
The Times carried an un-bylined, somewhat irreverent account of the rear-end collision. The article said Bernhardt’s “pretty ankles” had been injured but “not seriously.”
The actress was quoted as exclaiming, upon leaving the car, “The theater! The theater! I must be at the theater in 10 minutes.”
The driver of the van could not understand her pronunciation of the word theater, the article said.
Finally, the driver asked, “Oh, be you an actress then?”
She yelled back that she was, reportedly calling the driver an “idiot.”
Meanwhile, another motorist stopped and offered Bernhardt a ride. She accepted, but his car was so crowded that she rode on his lap, the article said.
True to the-show-must-go-on tradition, Bernhardt performed that night, with the curtain rising just 10 minutes late.
Years later, in his book “Los Angeles: City of Dreams,” former Times columnist Harry Carr identified himself as the writer of the anonymous article.
He said Bernhardt was so incensed by his account that “she hired billboards all over town to denounce me and my iniquities…the press agent following with a second detachment of billboard stickers to paste over the denunciation.”
Not only was the press coverage a pain, but her injury was not so routine either.
The impact had thrown the 68-year-old actress against a rear door.
Harvys later said that when Bernhardt emerged from the car “she was groaning” and “had her hand on her right knee and she limped.”
A few years earlier, she had badly hurt the same knee when jumping off a parapet during a performance in Rio de Janeiro (the stage crew had forgotten to place a mattress on the floor to break her fall).
Her reinjured leg was never the same.
The day after the accident in Los Angeles, she was forced to cancel an engagement. She resolutely finished the tour a few weeks later and returned to France. But In 1915, gangrene set in, and her leg was amputated.
The indefatigable actress did not retire, however. Instead, she performed on stage all over the world while on a chair or a bed, and made several movies as well.
“I accept being maimed,” she explained, “but I refuse to remain powerless. Work is my life.”
The Divine Sarah could be wry about her condition.
Author H. Jack Lang wrote that at one point an American promoter cabled her, “We offer you 100,000 dollars to exhibit your leg.” She is said to have cabled back: “Which one?”
Bernhardt even returned to perform in the United States.
Times reader Ormon K. Flood wrote columnist Jack Smith six decades later that he could still remember seeing her at the Orpheum, playing “the title role in ‘Camille’ entirely in bed. Afterward she took her curtain calls standing behind a chair. The applause was great.”
She worked almost to the moment of her death from kidney disease in 1923 at the age of 78. A stand-in was used in some scenes of her last film, “La Voyante” (“The Fortune Teller”).
Harvys, her taxi driver the night of the mishap, always felt guilty.
“It was the only accident I ever had with a passenger,” he told The Times. He also recalled that moments after the collision, “she told me not to worry and laughed about the thing. So I didn’t think it was so serious.”
Harvys didn’t know it at the time, but there, at the intersection of Washington and Crenshaw, Bernhardt had just demonstrated what a great actress she was.