Sarah pulled up on her skirt, trying to preserve the flower trim that dragged mercilessly along the dirty pier, then let it fall again. She pushed back her shirtsleeves, feeling the silk caress her skin, and appreciated the sting of the ocean breeze. She sniffed the shirt cuff, hoping to take in some remnant of the Parisian air but instead only found the staleness of stowed-away trunks and luggage cars. Her foreignness felt astounding. The artifice that permeated this California coastline in some vision of natural bliss was tragically beautiful. At once there was a sense of history without the years, freedom without the bloodshed. And life without the living. She continued to walk forward into the slowly deepening night. Her feet trembling along the fragile pier. Air thick with salt. And the lump of orange sun falling into the horizon cast a light that turned everything an otherly pale shade of pink and blue.

She made her way toward the end of the dock, past the auditorium and its ornate details and cathedral windows. She looked back over her shoulder. The King George was gone from view, leaving her comfortably lost, as though Athena’s fog was set solely around her, safe in her disorientation. Now she could be as far away as possible from that hotel room and the deadly newspaper that had littered the room. Her seeing that front-page story had initially overtaken every frame of her body, as though she had been a pliable, empty form that was easily filled and imbibed by seething hatred. Her anger had spoken in a secret language of consonants and plosives that hammered against the nerves. Mostly furious. Slightly wounded. Helplessly vicious.

Coming across the newspaper was a fated accident. After checking in to the King George, she had been left standing for an interminable amount of time outside her room, leaning on a maid’s cart that sat temporarily abandoned. Even with the addition of forty years, the actress had still managed to climb the stairs faster than the Mexican bellhop, who despite the weight of her trunk, still should have maintained a steady clip past her, based on the pride his shoulder muscles showed beneath his undersize coat. She felt like she had waited forever outside her door, studying the blue Victorian patterns of the wallpaper and the fresh designs the vacuum had etched in the shorthaired carpet. How long could she wait for this failed matador to wrestle her valise up to her room and unlock her door? She paced the halls, making up rules that if the next person on the floor was not the bellhop then she would stomp down the stairs, grinding each one to dust, and demand that this Abbot Kinney himself come rectify the problem. It had been in that moment when she swiped the Los Angeles Herald from the cart. She had unfolded it just enough to see the headline “Future of Los Angeles Theaters in Doubt,” but closed it when she finally saw the struggling lackey, banging her case like it was a bum third leg. She restrained from scolding, figuring that French to English to English to Spanish was probably a fruitless effort. Instead she tucked the newspaper under her arm and stood hands on hips, with her foot tapping impatiently. Once inside the room she waved him off, only acquiescing to the gratuity by placing a quarter in his palm at the last second. His eyes had looked hungry.

She had lain down on her bed, tired and lonely. The road was exhausting. The strange places started to seem even stranger. These days she felt less and less like an actor, and more like a commodity. Maybe she had done too many farewell tours of America. Or maybe the public didn’t care about an old woman, instead only going to see her in order to expand their cocktail repertoire (who even really cares that the plays are performed in French, because it is the Divine Sarah). They wanted their Sarah with an energy that burst from her eyes, a mouth that would say anything, and a radiance that outshone the moonlight. This time around she could sense the disappointment when she took the stage. In Santa Fe she swore she heard a collective silence as loud as any ovation. They were studying her, trying to find the Sarah that they adored despite the unfamiliar falling jowls and wrinkled eyes of the woman before them. Most only started to find true satisfaction by the third act when the power and intensity of her performance as Marguerite Gautier outpaced anything that the younger Sarah had ever done, a maturity that her predecessor never knew. She was beginning to hate the younger Sarah, the pretty younger sister that everybody compared her to. But in truth it was guilt. The terrible sense of having lost her. Of not having given that younger Sarah anybody to look up to.

At first the Herald article gave a bit of background on the Los Angeles theater district, nothing that she hadn’t known (or really cared about). But her hands started to tighten and shake, her knuckles trying to break the skin, when she read her own name in the third paragraph: Due to the boycott’s apparent success, Sarah Bernhardt has been prevented from performing in Los Angeles.

She didn’t even remember all the words that were said about her, only that they were said by a Bishop Thomas Conaty of the local diocese, and one of his parishioners, some woman named Dorothy O’Brien, all under the guise of the League of Decency, a group that proclaimed its mission of preserving the values of the parish and community by preventing the surge of indecencies that would pollute the area. They spoke from downtown Los Angeles, at the Cathedral of our Lady of Angels on Second Street, but the words and quotes lashed out at her as though the bishop, this O’Brien woman, and the writer, Vince Baker, were sitting across from her, spewing their frozen words through warm, sour breaths:

She’s a pied piper. A slayer of decency. Cavorting from town to town with a troupe of sin- makers, whirling in and defaming the name of goodness and God with antics that would make the devil himself blush. Causing the vulnerable people of this town to somehow forget the fulfillment of belief, and think that their curiosity and needs can be filled by the dangerous frivolity that sends messages intended to dismantle the basic moral virtues of man.

She ingested each sentence like it was a purgative meant to annihilate the soul.

Sarah Bernhardt is at the heart of this sickness. Her spirit has clearly been taken, her virtue evaporated. I swear by the Father, that she has no sense of right and wrong, no place of decency. The woman wears men’s clothes, dresses up on the stage in pants, and glues beards to her face, and glorifies the basest of all human dignity. A sexual immoral. Taking partners out of wedlock. No doubt engaging in homosexuality.

As she flipped over to page eight, the story seemed to go on forever. A boycott had been waged over the past week, and despite the relatively small number of active protestors, the League of Decency had succeeded in having her Los Angeles shows canceled. “I am in the entertainment business, not the political statement business,” one unnamed theater owner was quoted. “The last thing I need is attention from church ladies with picket signs.”

The article did suggest that the bishop might have been furthering his agenda of relocating the cathedral to Ninth Street, where it could be a more dominant force “out of this slum.” But that seemed pro forma, the writer Baker’s perfunctory attempt at objectivity.

She finally lost all control when she noticed the picture of the flyer the league had used. It was crude. A brutal pen and ink sketch of a face that looked contorted and evil. It was strikingly male, with exaggerated features, accentuating the Semitic traits that flowed nearly forgotten through half her bloodstream. A nose bursting from the center. Big fat lips that appeared to have been pummeled or swollen from a bee’s sting. The hair was obviously female, as chaotic pen strokes frazzled it in a big mound to the upper border of the page, then let the locks flow far past the face in rough stilted scratches. And written across the bottom: Boycott Sarah Bernhardt and anybody who supports her. Keep Los Angeles moral. Don’t commit sin. The Greater Los Angeles League of Decency.

That was when she kicked the paper, cursing Los Angeles, the press, and the betrayal of the Catholic church, which had raised her in one of its convents. The hotel room became confining and hot, her lungs dry and flat, and her throat parched wickedly dry. And as the paper fluttered to the floor, that caricature stared right at her the whole way down, its horrid expression almost sneering. But that wasn’t her. Beneath the anger she knew all along that it was the other Sarah Bernhardt. That younger version that again took all the attention, and had picked all the fights, nearly enjoying the attention and celebrity more than her art. Before she slammed the door, Sarah turned to spit on the picture. She cursed the other Sarah for what she was doing to her life.

It was not as if she had never fought battle after battle on American soil, defending her right to art against the puritanical fanaticism of self-made morality. But when she was younger it had had a certain air of gamesmanship to it. She did not take it so personally. Like when that Episcopalian Bishop What’s-His-Name in Chicago had stood in his pulpit before God and the Chicago Tribune proclaiming, “Sarah Bernhardt is an imp of darkness, a female demon sent from the modern Babylon to corrupt the New World.” The Tribune reporter had stalked her in the newly built Congress Plaza Hotel, trailed her along the green-carpeted lobby, and across Michigan Avenue into Grant Park. “Madame,” he called out. “Do you have a comment on the bishop’s statement?”

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