AUGUST 19, 2019
FOR THE BIGGEST superstars of their times, their origins were inauspicious. Richard Potter and Sarah Bernhardt saw little of their fathers; nor was illegitimacy the only social disadvantage of their births. Slave-takers on the Guinea coast captured Potter’s mother as a young girl. Slave-traders sold her on a Boston wharf. Eventually freed from slavery, “Black Dinah,” whose face was scarified in the African manner, entered into a life of domestic service and concubinage. She bore six or seven children by various white men, one of whom was Richard’s father. Bernhardt’s mother was a Dutch Jewish courtesan. “Henriette-Rosine” (Sarah’s baptismal name) was her mother’s least favorite child, and she soon fostered her to nurses, cottagers, boarding school, convent school, and finally the Conservatoire. But neither the future “Emperor of All Conjurors” nor “divine Sarah” let hard luck trump proud ambition. Light-skinned enough to pass for white in a pinch, Potter did not disavow his blackness, except to describe himself occasionally for promotional purposes as “West Indian” or “Hindu.” Raised Catholic, Bernhardt defiantly suffered antisemitic taunts, hearing her mother scorned as “La Juive” (the Jewess) and seeing cruel caricatures of herself topped off by the Star of David. Yet, as John A. Hodgson and Sharon Marcus show in their excellent new books, Potter and Bernhardt, respectively, built spectacular careers as the most popular performers in their different lines of work. In so doing, the African-American ventriloquist-magician and the French actress redrew the boundaries of modern celebrity.
America in the Federal Period and Europe in the Belle Époque seem distant from one another, but they are more connected than they appear. Potter died in 1835 at age 52, nine years before Bernhardt was born. Taken together, their lives span the revolutionary changes of what historians call the “long” 19th century (c. 1780–1920). Potter was born in 1783, the year that the American Revolutionary War ended and the great tragedienne Sarah Siddons sat for Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Bernhardt died at age 78 in 1923, one year after the births of the Soviet Union and the BBC. But during that time, the incremental changes that most pertained to the growing culture of celebrity included wider circulation of newspapers, faster and more reliable travel, and improved reproduction of graphic imagery. That Bernhardt’s reputation exceeded Potter’s attests to the expanding range of publicity by mass mediation but not to a fundamental difference in the concept of publicity itself. What joins the two stars together, apart from their shared triumph over natal abjection, is the purposive self-fashioning of their personal renown. He was the first native-born ventriloquist and the most famous magician in America. She was the first movie star and the most famous actress in the world. As entrepreneurial innovators in popular entertainment, they stand in comparison as geniuses of branding.
That, in any case, is the common conclusion suggested by these two very different books. Both Hodgson’s Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity and Marcus’s The Drama of Celebrity offer new material based on rigorous archival research, but each is the product of a distinctive method. As the author of the first full-length biography of his subject, Hodgson recovers the details of Potter’s life, many of which he has unearthed from local and state historical archives and newly available newspaper databases, and narrates them in chronological order. In addition to gathering promotional broadsides, legal records, and quotations from previously neglected newspaper advertisements and reviews, he reconstructs a detailed performance chronology, citing the locations and dates of many of Potter’s appearances. The record begins somewhere around 1809, when the fledgling magician, who first trained as a juggler-acrobat under Signior Manfredi, began to perform under his own name. By the time Potter’s health failed in 1835, his act had expanded to embrace a whole repertoire of magic tricks, sleight-of-hand misdirections, ventriloquism, songs, short comic scenes, and the ever popular pseudo-academic “Dissertation on Noses.” Hodgson’s project is thus recuperative: widely celebrated in New England and on tour throughout the growing United States, Potter had a reputation as the leading all-around entertainer of his time that fell into eclipse after his death. The original research featured in Richard Potter has brought his fame to life again. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. emphasizes in his foreword, Potter’s extraordinary career is “essential to the longer African American journey, yet his story has too easily been obscured — and misconstrued.”
Marcus, an equally disciplined researcher, necessarily takes a different tack. As the author of yet another book that features the oft-narrated life of Bernhardt, Marcus has made her project interpretive: exploiting the paper-thin line between celebrity and notoriety in the age of mass publicity, Bernhardt so deeply inscribed her reputation in collective memory that it remains popularly recoverable, such as when parents still reprove a self-dramatizing child, as mine did me, for acting like “Sarah Heartburn.” Marcus surveys the larger culture of celebrity flourishing in Bernhardt’s lifetime and after it, and a number of other notables, past and present, come under her scrutiny. Their number includes, but is not limited to, Maude Adams, Paul Anka, Edwin Booth, Marlon Brando, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Bette Davis, Eleonora Duse, Rachel Felix, LeBron James, Helena Modjeska, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Tommaso Salvini, Frank Sinatra, and Donald Trump. However disparate in other ways, hypervisible personalities such as these can ally themselves with their fans in oddball cadres working on behalf of opposed agendas. Queen Victoria, Shirley Temple, and Pat Boone appear to “reinforce dominant values”; Oscar Wilde, Muhammad Ali, and Lady Gaga not so much. But as individuals they are beside the point. What interests Marcus is her analysis of them as performers in ensemble, coordinated as interlocking parts of a single phenomenon: “the drama of celebrity.” That drama stages celebrities collectively on one side of a three-sided relationship with media producers on the one hand and “publics” (fans) on the other. “Each of the three groups,” she writes, “requires the others in order to play; each can resist and undermine the others or collaborate with and cater to them; and each can, at least temporarily, influence, succumb to, or dominate the other two groups.” Marcus organizes her book topically, illuminating dynamic interactions among the triad of celebrities, media, and publics with chapter headings titled “Defiance,” “Sensation,” “Savagery,” “Intimacy,” “Multiplication,” “Imitation,” “Judgment,” and — not to be forgotten — “Merit.”
“Defiance” stands out as a category that pertains appositely to Bernhardt and more subtly to Potter. The actress boldly flouted conventional mores and generated free publicity by doing so. After she attained full managerial control over her roles, she preferred to play adulteresses, murderesses, and “women in love with brigands and nihilists.” Her attention-getting performances in what passed for her private life shocked the bourgeoisie even more than her stage roles. Not only did she reportedly drink from a skull, keep a tiger as a pet, and proudly acknowledge her illegitimate son, but she also wore pants — offstage as well as on — which scandalized the gender moralists. Marcus reveals yet another of Bernhardt’s transgressive traits, one that might come as a surprise to aspiring starlets today: the actress was much too thin to suit the tastes of her male critics, and they reviled her for it. Upon viewing the gorgeous portrait by Georges Clairin, which shows the actress lounging on a sofa in a form-fitting gown with a slender greyhound at her feet, one reporter quipped, “Look, a dog and its bone.” Rather than hide her body, however, Bernhardt defied the critics and dressed to flaunt her skinniness. Nor would she dye her unfashionably red hair anything but its natural color. As her own producer, director, and publicist, she had full artistic control over her looks and much more besides.
As a black man in America, Richard Potter could not similarly defy social convention and expect to make a living, or even to stay alive. He necessarily mastered circumspection as well as misdirection. “[I]t behooved him professionally,” Hodgson comments dryly, “to be ingratiating, apolitical, and uncontroversial.” Nevertheless, Potter joined the African Lodge of Boston, the first black Masonic lodge in America, which included among its members advocates for black education, emancipation, and the abolition of slavery. Of these urgent causes, Potter’s act, which he advertised with the title “An Evening’s Brush to Sweep Away Care,” bore no trace, unless audiences could read into the Masonic symbols he wore on his flowing magician’s gown an unspoken appeal to universal brotherhood. He performed extensively all over New England throughout his career, but his boldest venture was a grand tour, 1819–1823, which began with a journey up to Quebec and, Hodgson documents, proceeded overland and by river to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chillicothe, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans, and Mobile. There his planned itinerary of visits to Charleston and Savannah changed, diverted by the panic over Denmark Vesey’s plot to lead a slave revolt. Like Vesey, Potter was a literate, free black professional who could draw crowds, and he prudently headed back up North by way of Raleigh, Richmond, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, Boston, and finally home to Andover, New Hampshire, where his substantial earnings allowed him to build a beautiful house on his 175-acre property. Impeccably dressed and eloquent of address, Potter styled himself a perfect gentleman and had acquired the wherewithal — intellectual and financial — to bring it off. In his country at that time, that itself constituted defiance.
Another one of Marcus’s categories that applies to Potter’s as well as Bernhardt’s celebrity is “Sensation.” Potter’s almost exact contemporary, the great Romantic actor Edmund Kean, has a cameo role in The Drama of Celebrity to represent “overpowering acting.” This virtuosic style is based on personal magnetism and physical energy embodied so intensely as to suggest the presence of occult powers. Potter, like Kean, trained as an acrobat and ventriloquist. Early on in his career he billed himself as the “Little Devil,” following a tradition of French and English tumblers who did not discourage the idea that their astonishing feats of physical agility required some sort of supernatural intervention. For Potter, these included playing the violin and simultaneously balancing a sword and a wine glass on his nose while walking the tightrope. Accounts of his ventriloquism, in which he threw his voice into inanimate objects or people in several parts of the room and made it seem that they were speaking with one another, similarly suggest how he titillated audiences with a frisson of the uncanny.
“Sensation” illustrates the convergence of Marcus’s three protagonists — the artists, the media, and the fans — in the drama of celebrity. Potter’s promotional imagery on broadsides and newspaper advertisements featured an iconic woodcut showing him holding aloft the severed head of a chicken, dripping blood, while his assistant holds the lifeless body apart. As but one of his “100 curious but mysterious experiments,” the decapitated bird, placed in a magic box and put under a powerful spell by the Emperor of All Conjurors, would spring back to life again with its head restored. With equal virtuosity, Bernhardt caused her publicity machine to issue engravings and photographs of her most sensational poses in character, her body turned contrapposto to the point of almost metaphysical hyperextension. Her publicity photos show that, at night, she slept in a satin-lined coffin; but, of course, she reliably resurrected herself the next day to play the matinee. Thus branding their images in the public mind, the two show-people practiced the kind of secular magic that mystifies the actual origins of their fame in exceptional talent and hard work, not to speak of the advantages of more newspapers, larger audiences, and better pictures, including, ultimately, moving ones.
“Merit” is the rational measure of the artists’ genius. Hodgson and Marcus have performed a great service by illuminating the extraordinary gift possessed by each of their subjects. Analyzable in its constituent skillsets — Potter’s celerity of hand and mind, for instance, or Bernhardt’s unerring precision of affect — this gift consists of the power to conjure nothing more and nothing less than our dreams.