Newly cataloged from the Harvard Theatre Collection, a bronze statuette linking Harry Houdini to The Divine Sarah
The episode began with a fumbled gesture to honor the 72-year-old French actress during her final American tour. The gift, a bronze cast of Bernhardt as the Queen of Spain in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, was presented at a matinée performance in New York on 8 December 1916 on behalf of the “actors of America.” The actors of America had, however, neglected to pay for it, and when, unable to recoup its fee elsewhere, the Gorham Company forwarded the bill to Bernhardt’s manager and then on to Madame Bernhardt herself, she immediately returned both.
The ensuing tangle played out over weeks in the press, and ended with Houdini–expert in extrication–rescuing those involved from further embarrassment. He paid the $350 owed finally to the sculptor’s widow, Mrs. Samuel James Kitson. Kitson had been an American artist of some note and modeled the clay original (from which the bronze was cast) in Paris in 1879, likely after a photograph by Achille Melandri.
Houdini’s goodwill paid rich dividends in publicity. His clipping service culled over 3,500 reports of the affair. To the cast he added the inscription, “Á Sarah Bernhardt avec mes hommages,” confirming his very public offer to present the gift anew. An opportunity came a few weeks later when the two met in Boston, but for whatever reason Bernhardt never claimed the trophy. It passed instead to Houdini’s friend, Quincy Kilby, along with the canceled check and Houdini’s telegram to Bernhardt. Elated, Kilby declared in a letter, “It shall be preserved in the archives.”
Indeed it shall. It is probable that Kilby willed the piece to Harvard in September 1931 along with a scrapbook containing years of correspondence with Houdini.
Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant for the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post.
2 thoughts on “Houdini’s bronze of Bernhardt”
It was such a mystery — where that statuette ended. My great-grand Aunt Anne Meredith Kitson (for whom I am named) most certainly would have needed those funds for living expenses and to also pay the foundry. I most certainly will put Harvard Theatre collection on my list whenever I should be in the Boston area. Thank you for the article. I will pass it onto my siblings.
Thank you so much for this. I knew this story, but never knew what happened to the bronze. How wonderful to see it. Thanks again.
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