I would rather go to the theater and feast my eyes on the scenery, in which I find my dearest dreams artistically expressed and tragically concentrated.

These things, because they are false, are infinitely closer to the truth.



December 4, 1880

American Debut, Performance No. 27

Booth Theater, New York City

SHE has paced the boards for nearly three hours. Twirling and jumping and falling. She hasn’t even noticed her dresses weighted down by Lepaul’s embroidered pearls and roses. She has been Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camelias for five acts, portraying a moment-by-moment life in tragic pursuit of Armand Duval.

Feet gliding effortlessly.

Wincing and smiling while changing partners.

Moving in delight along the freedom of the stage.

Absorbing the lines of the script.

Smelling the Parisian air.

Ingesting the calm of Bougival.

Clutching the bitter eyes of those who betray her.

Embracing the eyes of those who will love her.

Tasting the pain of regret and longing.

Higher than morphine, opium, and hashish all ingested together.

And now it is the final scene. A mid-afternoon light breaks through the window. In her bed. Her entire body convulses and she sits upward, then melts and slumps against the mattress. Cells ravaged by tuberculosis while her heart pounds with its first true honest emotion—fear. And the breath slips out of her chest, rising and falling in rapid rhythm. She tries to capture each exhalation. Hold on to it. Confine it into her memory as though her brain can be a repository, a subterfuge that cheats the lungs of their intended malfeasance. On her upper lip is a smudge of red theater paint to simulate the last exit of blood that has trailed through her nose. As she lies on the damp sheets, the weight of dying having shoved her from her body, she grips down for the floorboards, clawing at each plank with the secret hope that one will break from its nails and allow her to crawl away into a world where the murder of disease cannot find her. Her eyes are barely open. She swears she sees blood drop down the sheets and onto the floor. Her own blood, falling and betraying her. Then she grasps one more time at the floor, her last measure of strength to escape consumption’s embrace. And there in her bed she dies. Leaving her eyes partway open, because the dead really only close their eyes under the physician’s hand.

And a curtain drops.

The steady rattle of applause. The tentative clapping from the front, not wholly positive about the appropriateness of their timing, and not quite willing to concede the mood and return to the necessities of finding coat-check tickets, deciding which exit to take, and which social fraternities to avoid.

But soon it spreads. Is it a thunderstorm? The crashing of waves? A pounding white noise fills the theater until it is no longer a sound, but the norm of silence.

Behind the curtain she has difficulty lifting herself up. The vestiges of disease still debilitate her. She wipes the back of her hand against her nose. It is dry. No trace of blood. Just a thick oil paint. She should hold a hand for balance but is not quite ready for human contact. Her eyes are still partway closed. She is not fully of this world yet.

The curtain rises, and through the lighting of the footlights she sees the ghostly outline of the front-row patrons rolling back and multiplying into the balconies. They are all on their feet. Eyes focused on her. Every ounce of energy that wills them to life is directed to her, a thousand beams of force funneled and aimed. Love. Adoration. Thankfulness. It rocks the walls. Swings the chandeliers. Artificially pumps her heart.

Twenty-eight more times the curtain rises and falls. Each time the clapping and cheering sound as loud as they can get. Then she steps back onto the stage, and there is another surge, rising the volume to a new level. She bows. She tries to reach out a hand to every member of the audience, mouthing merci, her eyes glistening, genuinely touched, her body weakened from having battled dying and the subsequent reincarnation.

After the twenty-ninth curtain call she instructs the promoter, a man named Jarrett, to turn on the houselights. She collapses on the backstage couch. Her entire being racked by exhaustion. Max Klein, her manager, is there. Her sister is there also. The road through America has been one grand circus of an adventure. But tonight she is fatigued. The soul of Marguerite Gautier has stripped her bare. There will be no parties. No nightclubs. No drugs. No sex. She will just go back to the Albemarle Hotel and collapse into her bed. Let the dying take her into a slumber that leaves her void of the workings of the heart and mind for the next eight hours.

But then Jarrett tells her that there are at least five thousand people waiting at the theater door. Many have been there since she first entered. Trying to cut her hair from under her feathered hat. Pinning broaches on her. Handing off bouquets. Begging for signatures. In books. On cuffs. On forearms. And all those hands had tried to touch her. No real purpose, no assigned motive other than the possibility of wanting to connect, to feel adoration. And she was gracious. She might have stayed longer if the scissors had not aimed for her hair, whence the security guard grabbed her to be ushered into the safety of the Booth. Now the crowd has multiplied. She is no longer just the center of Paris, and then Europe. She is now the center of New York City. She is conquering America. The world. They all want her presence. As if her presence is somehow a sign of hope.

She is tired. Resigned. She says she will just wait. The crowd has to go away at some point. Right? They have to sleep. Even in New York City. Then Max Klein gets an idea. A sacrificial lamb of an idea. He drapes her boa around the sister’s neck, and then puts her coat around the sister’s shoulders. Drops a bouquet in the sister’s lap, and tells Jarrett that the two of them should get in Madame’s carriage now and begin the impersonation. Meanwhile she and Max will slip into the sister’s carriage and take the quiet but expeditious ride back to the hotel.

For a moment they all sit and stare at one another. Contemplating. They are all about to become part of her theatrical production. And like the actors in her company, they wait for her to make the first move. She tries to breathe in enough energy to proceed with Max’s plan. She thinks about the first night she had entered the Booth: a young girl, probably her age, wanted a signature, but the girl’s pen had run dry. She could have borrowed another. Instead, the girl scratched the nib across her skin’s surface and drew blood for ink. It was exhilarating and revolting. Something no one would ever want to see again. Finally Sarah lifts her tiny body. The drama is strength. She looks only at Max. She tells him that it is time to go.

Under the cover of darkness, and the willingness for belief, the crowds at the door fall for the deception. She and Max lag a few steps behind. They watch the promoter and the imposter bull their way through into the cab and proceed slowly through the crowd and into the night. At least two-thirds of the crowd follows the carriage, running and pumping a little faster as the coach gathers speed.

She and Max step unmolested into her sister’s ride. They watch the traces of hysteria. In the midst of this comedy, she thinks that there is no place like America. Where the convergence of celebrity and art fall together under one footstep. Where art leads to fanaticism.

It is beauty.

A true raison d’etre.

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