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Eliza Rachel Felix, a French actress known simply as “Mademoiselle Rachel,” who was famous for her stage performances as well as her affairs with men of the Bonaparte family, died of tuberculosis on this date in 1858. The daughter of Jewish peddlers, born on the roadside in Switzerland, Rachel was “renowned as much for her unconventional personal life as she was for her brilliance onstage,” writes Lisa Leff at the Jewish Women’s Archive. “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.”
“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.” —Lisa Leff