Monday, October 27, 2008


Sarah Bernhardt, aka "the divine Sarah," queen of the silent movie screen, is widely accepted to have been the most famous actress in the history of the world. What escapes the cognizance of most of her fans however, is the singular fact, that she was married to one of the most remarkable and versatile Greek anti-heroes, ever to have trodden the thespian boards, military officer-turned-actor, Jacques (Aristides) Damalas. The tortuous twists and turns of their tempestuous relationship would relegate the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan in the kindergarten of Hollywood passion. Damalas' characterization by modern researchers is far from positive. His handsomeness was as notable as his insolence and Don Juan quality. Writer Fredy Germanos describes him as an opportunistic and hedonistic person, whose marriage to the great diva would inevitably intensify and maximize his vices, namely, his vanity and obsession with women, alcohol, and drugs. In short, he was a cad and probably, the first Hollywood-style toy-boy..
Like most bon viveurs of the fin de siecle, Damalas was born to an aristocratic family, in Piraeus in 1855 . His father, Ambrosios Damalas was a wealthy shipping magnate and later mayor of Ermoupoli and Piraeus and his maternal grandfather, Dimitrios Rallis, had also once served as mayor of Piraeus and was a member of the Executive Committee which attempted the liberation of Chios in 1827, during the Revolution. The family later moved to Marseille, and eventually, back to Piraeus.
After finishing school in Piraeus, Damalas spent four years abroad, mainly in England and France, where he pursued diplomatic studies. During his time abroad, he became acquainted with high society, as well as the theatre world, as he had acting aspirations. By the early 1880s, he had earned a post as a military attaché to the Greek Diplomatic Corps. He quickly acquired a reputation of being "the handsomest man in Europe", as well as the nickname "Diplomat Apollo" by his friends and the assumption of being the most dangerous man in Paris, among the several husbands who feared their wives would fall victim to his charms and be seduced by the young diplomat. Damalas rapidly earned the reputation of being a merciless heartbreaker and womanizer within high society. His affair with the wife of a Parisian banker, Paul Meisonnier, caused her to leave France. One of his documented affairs was with the young daughter of a Vaucluse magistrate who had left her parents and home to follow Damalas to Paris, where he deserted her when their illegitimate child was born. The grief-stricken young girl then committed suicide Following these scandals, Damalas was reassigned to Russia.
Prior to his transfer however in 1881, he was introduced to the great Sarah Bernhardt by her half-sister, Jeanne, who, along with Damalas, belonged to a circle of well-known morphine-takers who were associated with the stage world. By this time, Damalas was playing small parts as an amateur actor with the stage name of "Daria." Jeanne spoke to Bernhardt of Damalas, and Bernhardt felt simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the perspective of meeting the most notorious man in Paris. Madame Pierre Berton, who wrote a biography for Sarah Bernhardt, remarks the following:
"It was inevitable that Bernhardt, the famous actress, and Damala, the equally notorious bon-viveur, should eventually meet. Each knew the reputation of the other and their reputation was only the more whetted thereby (...) Bernhardt prided on her ability to conquer men, to reduce them to the level of slaves; Damala vaunted his ability as a hunter and a spoiler of women (...) Their two natures were inevitably attracted towards each other (...) Damala boasted to his friends that, as soon as he looked at her, the great Sarah Bernhardt would be counted in his long list of victims; and Bernhardt was no less certain that she had only to command for Damala to succumb."
Even though Bernhardt was appalled by Damala's insolence towards her during their first meeting, she was nevertheless strongly attracted to him and soon fell madly in love. As she was about to begin her world tour and knowing that Damalas had been transferred to St Petersburg, she decided to arrange a six month stay in Russia.. Residing in Saint Petersburg for a few months, as an official guest of Emperor Alexander III, her romance with Damalas flourished. The openness of their affair scandalized the social circles of the city and proved a common topic of discussion.
Despite its passionate nature, Damalas' and Bernhardt's relationship was far from blissful, with Damalas openly criticizing and mocking Bernhardt in front of her friends and Bernhardt calling him a "Gypsy Greek." Nonetheless, Bernhardt was so overwhelmed by her infatuation for him that she tolerated his insults and often begged him for forgiveness. After Bernhardt left Russia to extend her tour to other European countries, Damalas resigned from the Diplomatic Corps and followed Sarah's theatre circle. While in London, completing the final part of her tour, Bernhardt had yet another fight with Damalas which led to her, paradoxically enough, marrying him. Bernhardt was supposed to have played Victorien Sardou's Theodora during the tour. Instead, she sent Sardou the telegram: "I am going to die and my greatest regret is not having been in your play. Audieu." A few hours later, Sardou received a second message by Bernhardt which simply stated: "I am not dead, I am married." When asked later by Sardou why she had wed, she responded that it was the only thing she had never done. Her impulsive decision to marry was probably at her own initiative, as Damala sarcastically admitted to friends that it was she who had proposed to him. The wedding took place on 4 April 1882, to the immense consternation of Bernhardt's son, Maurice,
Even though Bernhardt presented Damalas to reporters with the phrase "This ancient Greek god is the man of my dreams" , the marriage became the object of criticism and even satire for press. Caricatures of Bernhardt and Damalas virtually flooded newspapers for months. A review of Les Mères Ennemies featured Bernhardt holding Damalas like a puppet, manipulating his limbs
Damalas' marriage to Bernhardt made him even more unfaithful. Three weeks after the wedding, upon insisting that Bernhardt change her stage name to "Sarah Damala," he eloped with a young Norwegian girl. A few weeks later, he fled to Brussels with a Belgian woman. Despite the humiliations she endured, giving him money so as to pay his mistresses and debts to prostitutes, Bernhardt constantly forgave him, even bying a theatre, the Théâtre del'Ambigu, and Damalas as the leading man in order for him to indulge his acting fantasies.
Bernhardt's contemporaries were puzzled by her decision to discard professional actors so as to perform next to a rank amateur. Damalas has been described as exceptionally untalented, lacking of any acting qualifications, technique, or timing, and possessing an unintelligible Greek accent. Nonetheless, Bernhardt was oblivious of all these shortcomings, and casted him as Armand Duval in La Dame aux Camélias remarking to a (rather shocked) Alexandre Dumas about Damalas: "Won't he make an excellent Armand? Only by looking at him, you understand why Marguerite Gautier dies in the way she does!" Sarah's performance in La Dame aux Camélias was exalted by the press whereas Damalas was lampooned. He was furious and blamed Bernhardt. .
Damalas' frustration over his career developed in Bernhardt's shadow, his eventual removal by her as leading man and his morphine addiction created even greater problems in their marriage. On one occasion, while on stage with Bernhardt, a drug-induced Damalas tore down her dress and exposed her bare buttocks to the audience. Finally, on 12 December 1882, Damalas enlisted in the North Africa corps, leaving Bernhardt to settle his gambling and call-girl debts. Damalas would return to Bernhardt time and time again. She would then turf out her lovers to accommodate him and pay for his de-tox treatment at various fashionable sanatoria. As a Catholic, Bernhardt would not countenance a divorce and entered into an arrangement whereby, in return for certain sums she sent to him on a monthly basis, Damalas would never re-enter her life. They thus remained legally married until his death.
Following his separation from Bernhardt, Damalas attempted an unsuccessful return to the diplomatic world. In 1883, he performed the most memorable role of his career as Philippe Berlay opposite Jane Hading in the stage adaptation of Georges Ohnet's novel, Maître de Forges. The play was a great success and ran through the entire year in the Théâtre du Gymnase , in Marseille. He also successfully played the leading man (as Jean Gaussin) in the comedy Sapho in 1885 and in La Comtesse Sarah, in 1887.
Despite this success, Damalas was largely ignored by the Parisian society, following his separation from the great diva. In March 1889, Bernhardt returned to Paris after a year-long European tour and receive a message from Damalas who informed her that he was dying in Marseille and begged her to forgive him and take him back. She abandoned her performances in Paris, rushed to him and nursed him in her own home. After he recuperated, she cast him as her leading man in La Dame aux Camélias. Damalas promised to stop taking morphine and embarked on a European tour with Bernhardt. However, his addiction became progressively worse. On one occasion, he almost got arrested for exhibiting himself naked in the Hotel de Ville in Milan, while high. Damala After a six-week run as leading man, Damalas collapsed and was carried in the hospital. Shortly before his death, he was offered another role by Bernhardt, in the play Lena, at the Théâtre des Variêtés. Just after the second performance, he was considered incapable of playing the part, due to his now permanent lack of clarity and continuous influence from alcohol and drugs. Damalas died in Paris on 18 June 1889, heavily diseased after his longtime addiction. The news of his death were concealed from Bernhardt until she had finished a performance. Upon founding out, she is cited as saying : "Well, so much the better..."
My fascination with Damalas centres not around his being Kevin Federline, to Bernhardt's Britney, but rather upon his unlikely legacy upon Greek literature. In early 1889, Damalas fathered a child with one of his mistresses, a theatre extra, who used to inject him with heroin, during intermissions. After his mistress gave birth to a baby girl, she placed the baby, in a basket, on Bernhardt's doorstep, together with a note. Bernhardt was furious to discover that Damalas' illegitimate daughter was placed in her care and contemplated having the infant drowned on the river Seine. Fortuitously, the child's life was saved by a friend of both Bernhardt and Damalas, gun dealer and future tycoon Sir Basil Zaharoff, who proposed to take the child so that he could find a surrogate family for her. Eventually, the girl was baptised Teresa and was raised in Adrianoupouli.
The adventures of Damalas' daughter (who had brief affairs with Ernest Hemingway and Gabrielle D' Annunzio, posed as a model for Picasso in the early 1920s, caused Mussolini a pre-mature ejaculation and was reputedly gang-raped at the direction of Kemal Atatürk) were documented by Fredy Germanos (father of Natalia) in his brilliant historical novel «Tερέζα.» The book also makes reference to Damalas' Parisian life, claiming that Bernhardt remained in love with him until the end of her life. Fascinatingly, Bernhardt and Teresa Damala also met each other, years later. Germanos vowed to keep the identity of his muse a secret and truly her life is just as fascinating as her father's. Diatribe this week is therefore proud of rescuing the inordinately absorbing and simultaneously utterly repellant Damalas from the Tartarus of obscurity. We leave you now with this sage advice from Alexis Bledel, of Gilmore Girl's fame, which best sums up Bernhardt's predicament: "For some reason, bad boys always draw you in, despite the fact that they are jerks."


First published in NKEE on 27 October 2008