Actress Saves Lincoln  

“Actress Saves Lincoln!” Can that be true? The Lincoln was Mary, widow of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. the most famous actress in the world, known for her onstage performances playing both male and female roles, from Hamlet to Cleopatra. 

    “Actress Saves Lincoln!” is Sarah’s account of the rescue on the ocean liner L’Amerique as it traveled from Paris to New York in October 1880. In “My Double Life, The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt”, she describes walking one morning on the ship’s cold and slippery deck:

 “ ... I met a lady dressed in black with a sad, resigned face. The sea looked gloomy and colorless and there were no waves. Suddenly a wild billow dashed so violently against our boat that we were both thrown down. I immediately clutched hold of the leg of one of the benches, but the unfortunate lady was flung forward. Springing to my feet with a bound I was just in time to seize hold of her dress, and with the help of my maid and a sailor, we managed to prevent the poor woman from falling head first down the staircase. Very much hurt though, she was, and a trifle confused; she thanked me in such a gentle, dreamy voice that my heart began to beat with emotion.

“You might have been killed, Madame...down that horrible staircase.”

“Yes,” she answered, with a sigh of regret, “but it was not God’s will.”

Sarah introduced herself.  Mary, who didn’t know of the actress, replied mournfully,

“I am the widow of President Lincoln.”

Sarah realized,

“...I had just done this unhappy woman the only service that I ought not have done... I, an actor prevented this unhappy woman from joining her beloved husband -- assassinated by Booth, the actor.”

When L’Amerique docked in New York, Sarah Bernhardt was swarmed by adoring fans and newspaper reporters. It was her first trip to America where she would earn an astounding six million dollars from her tour of sold-out performances. No one recognized the frail, white-haired former First Lady. She was met only by her grandnephew who accompanied her to to the home of her dear sister Elizabeth in Springfield .

    Despite her strong will, Mary Lincoln was unable to overcome the misery thrust at her from all corners. She suffered her first loss at the age of six, when her mother died. She and her husband grieved over the deaths of two young sons. Three brothers and a brother-in-law, in opposition to her staunch pro-Union ideology, were killed fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. She was plagued by migraines resulting from a fall from the Lincoln carriage, which had been sabotaged—one of the five known assassination attempts on the President before the fatal one. She and her husband were affectionately holding hands when John Wilkes Booth’s fatal bullet struck at Ford’s Theatre. He timed it for a laugh-line in the play, “Our American Cousin.” 

    After the assassination, Mary was overwhelmed by grief and her lowered standard of living. (There was neither a will nor a widow’s pension for her.) Unjustly reviled by the press and the public, she escaped to live in Europe with her son Tad. She declined her sister Elizabeth’s pleas to return to Springfield because it held painful memories. It was where the vivacious and politically astute young Mary Todd met and married Abraham Lincoln whom she encouraged to be President. Where their four sons were born. Where one of them, four-year-old Edward died. (Willie died in the White House when he was 11 years old.) From Springfield, the President’s inaugural train set out for Washington DC. Then, reversing that route, his funeral train took him to his final resting place, the Lincoln Tomb in Oakridge Cemetery. 

    Soon after Mary and Tad returned to Chicago from Europe, the 18-year-old became ill and died on July 15, 1871. Mary was inconsolable. Robert, alarmed by her erratic state of mind, used his political clout to commit her to a mental institution. Although she was lucid enough to secure a legal team who obtained her release and had her declared sane, history would not absolve her of the “crazy” label. Afraid that Robert would recommit her, she again fled to Europe where her health deteriorated. 

    By the time of her dramatic rescue on L’Amerique, Mary was crippled and nearly blind. After her years of pressuring Congress to create a widow’s pension, it finally came through. It was too late. On July 16, 1882, at the age of 63, Mary died in Elizabeth’s home in Springfield. It was a tragic ending for a truly great First Lady.

“Actress Saves Lincoln” Diorama Details

17 in. wide x 17 in. high x 10 in. deep

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Highlights events of the fateful rescue of Mary Lincoln by actress Sarah Bernhardt. The cardboard set is painted with acrylic.

Top, left to right

  • Sarah Bernhardt (painting)

  • Sarah rescues Mary (pencil)

  • Mary Lincoln (painting)

Middle, left to right 

  • Sarah in her famous role of Cleopatra (pencil)

  • The ship, L’Amerique and wave (painted cardboard) crowd (pencil)

  • Ford’s Theater: John Wilkes Booth, Mary with President Lincoln (pencil)

Sarah Bernhardt Saves Mary Lincoln

Susan Bercu, pencil, diorama detail

Lower shelf, left to right

  • Needle Safe, stitched by Mary from scraps including photo of Lincoln (painted cardboard/pencil portrait)

  • Photo case commemorates Willie Lincoln, who was 11 years old when he died in the White House. (painted cardboard)

  • Embroidered cloth with “M” monogram from Mary’s bedside table, Lincoln Springfield home. (painted cardboard)

Needle Safe, Susan Bercupainted cardboard/pencil portrait

Mary Lincoln’s Needle Safe Containing Photo of Abraham Lincoln

When I stumbled upon Mary’s hand sewn folded cloth case on a website, I couldn’t find it again even though I knew it was owned by Lincoln historian and collector, Louise Taper. Since more than 1,500 items from the Taper Collection were acquired by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, I hoped the library could help my search.

    I described the item in an email query to  the curator, Dr. James Cornelius.  He immediately responded that it was a needle safe. It was still owned by Taper but was included in the museum’s 2007 Mary Todd Lincoln exhibit. He suggested I purchase the catalog from the museum shop but when I learned it was out-of-print, he offered to send me a copy from his stash under his desk! In addition to this special attention, my payment warranted a thank-you note from the Foundation. 

    The beautifully illustrated catalog is an invaluable source for my museum.

“Mary Todd Lincoln: The First Lady of Controversy” Thomas F. Schwartz  Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation

Inauguration Route (Reverse for Funeral Train) Susan Bercu

from “Lincoln Slept Here”, handmade book, ink on tinted paper

The Ship L'Amérique, Susan Bercu, painted cardboard, pencil, diorama detail

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) In one brief and fateful encounter, the French-born, world famous actress saw into the soul of Mary Lincoln. Sarah Bernhardt, an illegitimate child who began life in foster care, capitalized on her craft as well as her flamboyant personality. She was also a recognized sculptor whose works evolved from the classical to an Art Nouveau style. In the early 1900s she appeared in films. An expert self-mythologizer, the rescue could be one of Sarah's many fabrications. 

Self-portrait as Sphinx, Sarah Bernhardt, 1880

bronze ink well, 32 cm high, ©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

©2019 Susan Bercu  All Rights Reserved

Videos, Photos of Dioramas  ©2019 Ken Smith All Rights Reserved

No use or reproduction of any content without permission of Susan Bercu

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