France: Divine intervention


Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous actress of her day. She dominated the stage of the Comédie Française from the 1870s, became a heroine of the early silent films and is honoured with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her adoring fans nicknamed her ‘The Divine Sarah’.

But her life also had a darker side. It is said that she sometimes slept a coffin in order to fully understand the tragic nature of her stage roles, and a daring stage leap in 1905 severely damaged her right leg, which led to gangrene and finally amputation.

She rejected the use of an artificial limb, and her later stage appearances were in rather static roles!

In 1944, when the centenary of Bernhardt’s birth was celebrated with a grand gala in newly-liberated France, an application was made for a stamp to commemorate the event, with a 1f charity surcharge added to benefit retired actors. A competition was duly launched to design the stamp, but it would leave the organisers with very red faces.

The engraver who was announced as the winner was Pierre Gandon, who based his entry on a Bastien Lepage painting of Bernhardt. But he had no business entering the competition at all, as he was serving a philatelic ban.

Gandon had worked for the Vichy Government, designing the 1942 Légion Tricolore band honouring troops who had fought alongside the occupying Germans. Immediately after liberation, the embargo was imposed by the Comité d’Épuration, the body charged with identifying and punishing French citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis.

By the time this came to light, Gandon’s design had already been selected. What could be done to save face? In a typical French fudge, it was retained as the chosen image, but his name was not be allowed to appear at the foot of the stamp. The name of his fellow-engraver Charles Mazelin was substituted instead.

Who received the fee remains clouded in mystery, but in any case Gandon had the last laugh. Having served his ban, he was allowed to engrave the wonderfully symbolic 1945 Liberation stamp, and the mighty Marianne post-war definitives!