Rachel (Eliza Rachel Felix)
1821 – 1858
One of the most famous Jews in nineteenth-century France, the actress Rachel was celebrated for her unparalleled talent and is often credited with reviving the classical French tragedies of Racine and Corneille in the era of Romanticism. Rachel was born on a roadside near the Swiss town of Mumpf on February 28, 1821. By the time she was twenty she achieved fame and fortune, becoming a sociétaire of the prestigious Comédie Française in Paris. Renowned as much for her unconventional personal life as she was for her brilliance onstage, Rachel was an unusual candidate for the kind of fame she achieved in a nation still staunchly Catholic, patriarchal and class-conscious. Throughout her life she remained faithful to her family and to Judaism, had numerous well-publicized love affairs, and gave birth to two children out of wedlock. In addition, Rachel was unusually adept at managing her career, successfully negotiating contracts that not only provided an impressively high salary but also gave her time off to conduct the foreign tours that made her an international star.
Rachel’s parents, Jacques and Thérèse-Esther-Chaya Félix, were itinerant Jewish peddlers who sold second-hand clothes from a wagon they used as both home and warehouse. Their first child, Sophie-Sarah, was born in 1819; Elisa-Rachel was born two years later when the family wagon was in Switzerland, then known as somewhat risky territory for Jewish peddlers who were legally barred from residing or establishing businesses in the country. Four other siblings were born later: Raphaël in 1826, Rébecca in 1828; Adelaïde-Lia in 1830; and Mélanie-Dinah in 1836. From an early age the siblings displayed unusual talent as street performers. At ages ten and eight Sarah sang and Rachel accompanied her on a battered guitar (which she later, as an adult star, kept proudly on display) on the streets of Lyons, where they were “discovered” by the Parisian musician and educator Etienne Choron (1772–1834). In 1831 the family settled in the Jewish neighborhood in Paris’s Marais district, where the two girls attended Choron’s school and were trained in acting and music. In 1836 Rachel went to work at the Théâtre Molière, where she received additional training, and in the fall of the same year she was admitted to the prestigious Conservatoire. She soon left the Conservatoire for higher-paying work at the Théâtre de la Gymnase, and in 1837 she began private study with Joseph-Isidore Samson (1793–1871). Samson was to become as crucial a force in her professional life as her father Jacques was—the two men were often portrayed by contemporary observers as rival tyrants, competing for control over Rachel’s illustrious career. In 1838 she signed a contract as a pensionnaire at the most prestigious institution of the French stage, the Comédie Française, the official state theater where Samson himself was an actor.
Rachel’s debut at the Comédie Française in June 1838 was in the role of Camille in Horace by Pierre Corneille (1606–1684). This performance, like most of those that followed, met with critical acclaim and public admiration. She brilliantly reproduced the traditional inflections, rhymes and gestures of the classical repertoire and was described as elevating her roles to a new level of art. Faithful to the constraints imposed by the classical style, she spoke and moved in her roles in a remarkably natural fashion, exuding a passion that no critic failed to mention in reviewing her performances. Known for her slight build and burning eyes, Rachel’s passion and technique made her seem larger than life and her riveting authority on stage (as well as off-stage) was often described as “masculine.” In addition to Camille, Rachel’s roles in the 1840s included Hermione in Jean Racine’s (1639–1699?) Andromaque, Amédaïde in Voltaire’s Tancrède, Eriphile in Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide, the title role in Racine’s Esther, Roxane in Racine’s Bajazet, and Pauline— a Jew who converts to Christianity—in Corneille’s Polyeucte. She first played what was perhaps her most famous role, Phèdre, in Racine’s play of the same name, in 1843. She also performed key roles in historical plays in the 1840s, including Joan of Arc and Mary Stuart. Only in the 1850s did she begin to perform in contemporary dramas on a regular basis, including roles in plays written for her by her friend Madame de Girardin (1804–1855, née Delphine Gay). Her most successful role of this sort was in Adrienne Lecouvreur by Eugène Scribe (1791–1861). Although her audiences never overlooked her Jewishness, remarkably, Rachel was also seen as a symbol of the French nation. Her choice of roles made this identification possible; in addition to playing Joan of Arc in the mid-1840s, she also performed the Marseillaise to great acclaim in 1848. Dressed in a simple, all-white costume, carrying the flag, her eyes blazing with passion, she seemed to many admirers to embody the very will of the people in that short-lived era of republican optimism.
Yet like her erstwhile lover and longtime friend Louis Napoleon (1808–1873, who became Emperor Napoleon III in 1852), she had no regrets when the Second Republic gave way to the Second Empire. When Prince-President Louis Napoleon brought the French state theater under much stricter control in 1849, Rachel benefited greatly. She had a strong voice in selecting the new theater director, Arsène Houssaye (1815–1896), and negotiated a new contract with him in which she was required to perform only forty-eight times a year. This reduction in her duties made it possible for her to embark on long, profitable tours abroad. She had been performing abroad for years already—from 1843 she made annual trips to Great Britain—but in the 1850s these lucrative tours became much longer and the destinations more distant. In 1853 she performed in Moscow and in 1855 she embarked on a tour of America, arranged by her brother Raphaël, who was then working as her manager.
Like many stars, Rachel was famous for her private life as well as for her professional achievements. She always remained close to her family, and involved them in her career—her brother and her father each worked as her manager at different times, and she supported the acting careers of her sisters. She was also faithful to her origins. She resisted the many attempts to convert her to Christianity and spoke proudly of her family’s humble background. Never married, she had love affairs with some of the most important men in mid-nineteenth-century France. They included the Prince de Joinville (1818–1900, son of King Louis-Philippe), Count Alexandre-Colonne Walewski (1810–?, illegitimate son of Napoleon I by the Polish countess Marie Walewska), future emperor Louis Napoleon, his cousin Prince Napoleon (1822–1891), the poet Alfred de Musset (1810–1857), and the journalist Emile de Girardin (1802–1881). She bore two illegitimate children and, though faithful to Judaism herself, had them both baptized. Her son Alexandre-Antoine-Colonne Walewski (1844–1898) was recognized by the father whose name he carried and had a brilliant career as a diplomat. Gabriel-Victor Félix (1848–1889), Rachel’s son by the general Arthur Bertrand (1811–1878), served in the navy and died in Brazzaville, Congo, where he was serving as French consul.
Rachel died on January 4, 1858 of tuberculosis, of which she had shown symptoms as early as 1841. Her funeral, like her life, was a public spectacle that attracted the widest spectrum imaginable of Parisian society, including poor Jews from the Marais district, famous journalists, actors, military leaders and the Emperor himself. Appropriately, the Chief Rabbi of France, Lazard Isidor (1813–1888), recited the funeral prayers.
Rachel Brownstein. Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française. New York: 1993.
Sylvie Bostarron Chevalley. Rachel: J’ai porté mon nom aussi loin que j’ai pu… Paris: 1989.