Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sarah Bernhardt steamer trunk

Several years ago I received a phone call at my place of business from an elderly lady who wanted me to stop by her home to look at an antique china hutch which she (Catherine) wanted me to restore. The east lake style ash wood cabinet was dirty and had several layers of lead based paint and was lined with old torn wall paper. There was so much paint on it that that you could not see the buried spoon carvings on the doors under the surface. I was eager to take on the task of restoration because I had recently been laid off from my job with IBM after “Y 2-K” and decided to start a business of my own in Furniture Restoration and Preservation which was a life time passion of mine.
Catherine and I soon agreed on a price, and while I was at her home I was given a tour of her home of which I felt was extremely fascinating because she was a woman who loved life and traveled the world and to top it off she was a collector of everything. As an example in one bedroom she had wall to wall of unusual necklaces that she had collected from all over the world, another room was filled with musical instruments from China, India, South America and every place you could name. She had collected ivory tusks and whale vertebrae’s from Alaska that she found lying along the shore line area. She had Antiques galore in every room and in her dining room there were antique hats of all sizes and shapes. She had a street paving brick collection with names of the manufactures molded into the clay and a large steel man-hole cover that she had acquired just because she liked it.
When you walked up to her front door she had on display a collection of street signs (Stop, Yield, Curve-ahead!! etc.) secured on the front porch walls with screws which you could see from the street. When you opened the front door there was a mild aroma of sandalwood incense and in front of you was a clothing store mannequin woman in a bikini wearing a large bright beach hat and a towel drooped over her shoulder. The mannequin had a name which I can’t recall and it was standing next to an antique Packard pump organ in her living room ( she gave the organ to me just because I mentioned that it was unique). She told me she would change the mannequins outfit with each season and since it was summer she dressed her in the beach attire. For Christmas instead of getting a tree she would change her over to a winter coat with boots, hat and scarf and gloves.
As my son and I began the task of removing the tall cabinet from the basement I spotted this unusual steamer trunk sitting over in a corner. It instantly reminded me of something you would expect to see in an antique magazine or in its day on a pirate’s ship from the 1800’s with all of its old embossed leather. The trunk had an unusually large hump to the lid and had original hardware and leather straps and locking latches. The trunk had all sorts of internal storage compartments for its owner. You could just tell this was an unusual piece because of its size and historical attraction which in its day it had to have belonged to a wealthy person.
Here I was falling in love with an object and I wanted it so bad that I told Catherine that if she ever wanted to sell it, I would be interested. I really didn’t care about the price and figured that somehow someday I would come up with the money. She told me that the trunk more than likely would someday go to her daughter and her husband in their new home but if they decided against it she would certainly call me first. This was good news to me because it gave me hope but it was still a hard pill to swallow and was good while it lasted. As time pasted we restored her china hutch and then returned it
to her and like before there in the corner sat the trunk and once again and I reminded her of my interest in acquiring it.
Then one day after two years had passed I got this phone call out of the blue from Catherine telling me that her son in law and daughter had decided the trunk was too old and that they really didn’t want it so if I still wanted it I would be able to get it. After agreeing to the price, I told her that I would be right over.
So with that I arrived at her home with my son Elijah and I couldn’t believe that on this day the trunk would soon be mine. As we loaded up the trunk I ask her if she knew what the history of the trunk was. She told me that she did and that it once belonged to a famous actress known as Sarah Bernhardt. I for one was never attracted to Hollywood history so therefore I was clueless as to who she was, it was just a new name to take home with the story of the trunk lady.
In our home we have an abundance of art work and antiques as well as artifacts from my travels around the world. When I arrived at home with the trunk, my wife reminded me that we really had enough “stuff” in the house and that we didn’t need one more item. I was somewhat disappointed that my trunk had just become a bone of contention until I told her that it once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt. She informed me that she not only knew who she was but she knew enough about her that the trunk was here to stay!!!
Henriette-Rosine Bernard was born in Paris in October 1844. She later changed her name and, as Sarah Bernhardt, became known by her adoring public as 'the divine Sarah'. Her first theatrical triumph was at 25, when she gave such a fine performance as a minstrel that she was asked to repeat it before Napoleon III, Emperor of France. Ten years later she was also triumphant on the London stage and, through touring, became an international star.
The power of her emotional acting, the extraordinary realism and of her death-scenes, the magnetism of her personality, and the beauty of her 'voix d'or' (golden voice), set off by lavish decors and exotic costumes, added up to an irresistible combination.
In 1905 she injured her right knee jumping off a parapet. Gangrene set in and in 1915 Bernhardt finally agreed to have the leg amputated. This did not stop her visiting soldiers at the front during World War 1, and she continued to play parts she could perform while seated until her death in 1923.
Inside the trunk we found several artifacts that made the find even more attractive to a collector. An unopened champagne bottle, a matinee ticket, postage stamp, various pieces of silk cloth, buckles, a picture post card of Sarah, and last but not least a sizable clump of her own hair, all of these items have since been dated to her.
Because of the strong interest in the public viewing of the trunk it was decided that the trunk should be photographed and then put into secure safe storage for security purposes. This is one of a kind piece of history never to be repeated. This rare item of French and American memorabilia will no doubt someday will find its way into its final resting place for the world to admire and reminisce a touch of the past.
As for Catherine, she has since died, she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and she knew her days were numbered even though she didn’t seem to be affected by it until the very end but he trunk was now mine because she knew I would appreciate it for what it was. In the days I knew her she came across as a brilliant woman who loved to share her stories of her world travels and seemed to have a giving spirit. She was a natural story teller and a good listener who would engage in the excitement of the event being discussed. I was invited to her home on several occasions and she seemed to enjoy the company because she wanted to share her home and museum type atmosphere with those who took an interest in her peculiar and artistic life style.

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