February 21, 1821, is the birthday of Elisa-Rachel Felix, who gained international fame as the actress “Mademoiselle Rachel.” As a performer who revived classical French tragedy in an era that favored Romanticism; as a Jew who remained proud of her origins; and as an independent woman who had lovers from high society – and children with some of them – but was never interested in marrying, Rachel was a legend in her own time. She defied society’s expectations but won the love and respect of that very same society.
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Rachel was the second daughter of Jacques and Therese-Esther-Chaya Felix, itinerant French Jewish peddlers who sold second-hand clothes from a wagon. Appropriately, she was born while they were on the road, near the town of Mumpf, in Switzerland. She and her five siblings were raised to be performers, and often earned money for the family by singing and acting in public.
From an early age, Rachel was determined to be a famous actress, and after the family settled in Paris, in the Marais district, she began to study music and acting with the musician Etienne Choron, and followed that by entering the Conservatoire in 1836. Two years later, she signed a contract with the Comedie Francaise, the French national theater, where she debuted in the role of Camille in Pierre Corneille’s “Horace,” in June 1838.
Throughout the 1840s, Rachel played in a wide range of classical roles, and only began to act in more contemporary dramas during the following decade. She was recognized for her natural yet precise presentation, a contrast to the exaggerated style then in vogue in French theater. Her best-known role in the early years was the title character in Racine’s tragedy “Phedre,” based on the classical tale of the adulterous liaison of the wife of Theseus.
By the 1850s, Rachel was able to negotiate a contract with the Comedie Francaise that committed her to only 48 performances annually. This left her free to tour professionally, which she did, not only with regular trips to the United Kingdom, and also with tours to Russia and the United States.
In her personal life, too, Rachel provided the public with substantial drama: Her lovers included Alexandre Joseph Count Colonna-Walewski, the son of Napoleon I, with whom she had a child, Alexandre Colonnna-Walewski, who became a diplomat; and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who later became Napoleon III; as well as the latter’s cousin Napoleon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, better known as Prince Napoleon. Rachel had another son, Gabriel-Victor Felix, with Paul Bertrand, a military man, although the latter never recognized him.
Rachel resisted many attempts to persuade her to convert to Christianity, but her two sons were baptized into the faith. She also resisted pressure to marry. When Walewski criticized her for not being faithful to him, she purportedly responded, “I am what I am. I prefer renters to owners.”
Rachel had long suffered from tuberculosis, but her final decline only began after she returned from a long tour in Russia. She died on January 2, 1858 – not yet 37 – at Le Cannet, France, and was buried in Paris, in a mausoleum in the Jewish section of Pere Lachaise cemetery. Rabbi Lazard Isidor, France’s chief rabbi, conducted the funeral, which drew mourners from every level of society, up to the emperor – and her former lover – Napoleon III.