The Divine Sarah - The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Nadar

On this day in 1844, the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt was born, as far as we know.  The records of her birth were destroyed during the Paris Commune, so we only have her word for it. When I was a budding young thespian, I discovered a film version of her life called The Incredible Sarah starring Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt. I was fascinated by this woman who slept in a costume, had a mad passionate affair with John Castle, and kept strange animals. I read biographies of her like I was scarfing down M & M's.  During my acting career, I had the opportunity to play one of one of her earliest roles, the beautiful but dim Gabrielle de Belle-Isle in The Great Lover by Alexandre Dumas pere. At The Players Club in New York, where I used to be a member, I had the privilege of riding in the Sarah Bernhardt elevator which was installed for her visit.  Sarah had lost her leg in 1915 when gangrene set in, the result of an earlier stage accident.  Hating the idea of wearing a wooden leg, instead she had a white satin sedan chair made, and she was carried around in it like the Queen she was. She was even able to joke about it.  There is a famous story that P.T. Barnum offered her money to exhibit the leg, but like most stories, it is a myth since Barnum had been dead for years.

I found in Sarah a role model of the type of actress I wanted to be, dramatic, intense, equally at ease in comedy and tragedy. Sarah wasn't content to spend her life as part of the ensemble at the Comedie Francaise, at the height of her career after a spectacular season in London, she left the company and spend the next forty-four years of her career on her own terms, leasing a theater, performing plays from some of the best Parisian playwrights including Sardou and Edmond Rostand.  She toured America 9 times, criss-crossing the country in a private railroad car with her menagerie of animals including at one point a lion cub. Australia, South America and Europe all witnessed her brilliance on stage. One of her greatest roles was as Marguerite in Dumas fils La Dames Aux Camellias which she played over 3,000 times.  Oscar Wilde wrote the play Salome for her in French although she never performed it.  In her fifties, she added Hamlet to her repertoire, in her seventies with just one leg, she continued to perform scenes from her plays in vaudeville theatres as well as legitimate ones.  Towards the end of her career, she played a 30 year old drug addict on stage. She even made several films, entranced with the new medium, although she realized that she would never conquer it the way that she had conquered the stage.  Her motto was 'Quand Meme' which can mean many things including 'Whatever.'

By the time of her death at the age of 79 in 1923, she had become what she had set out to be, the world's most famous actress. Almost a million people lined the streets of Paris as her coffin made its from the church of St. Francois de Sales to Pere Lachaise cemetery.  As Robert Gottlieb writes in his new biography of the actress, "whatever the reaction was to her acting and her morals, whereever she went she was first and foremost an Event, excitement about her arrival whipped up by an avalanche of publicity."

She was born illegitmate to Julie Bernardt, the daughter of a Jewish spectacle merchant, and an unknown father.  Her mother, who went by the name of Youle, was a courtesan who counted the Duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III, amongst her lovers.  Sarah's given name at birth was Sara Marie Henriette Rosine Bernard, she added the h to her first and last names later.  After the fire at the Hotel de Ville which destroyed the records of her birth, Sarah created false birth records which claimed that she was the daughter of Judith van Hard and Edouard Bernardt from Le Havre.  She later claimed that her father was either a law student, an accountant or a naval officer.

Sarah's life was marked by the fact that her mother didn't particularly care for her.  It was a wound that never healed.  When Sarah later gave birth to her only child Maurice at the age of 20, she became a famously indulgent mother, paying of his gambling debts, making sure that he was well-educated and well-dressed. The only time the two of them were estranged was briefly when they were on opposite sides in The Dreyfus Affair, Maurice believed that he was guilty and Sarah believed that he was innocent.

A baby was inconvenient for Sarah's mother, so she was shuttled off to relatives, and later sent to a convent school where she thrived, at one point she considered taking vows after converting to Catholicism. Fortunately fate had other ideas.  From childhood, Sarah was intense and dramatic, throwing temper tantrums or falling ill when she was unhappy or thwarted.  When a family panel was convened to decide what to do with Sarah whens he was 15, the Duc de Morny suggested that she enroll at the Conservatoire to become an actress, an idea that hadn't occured to her before.  Sarah later claimed that she had never even seen a play before!

At the conservatoire, she threw herself into her studies, although she later rejected most of what she was taught there, considering the training to be old-fashioned.  They had too many rules and Sarah hated rules.  One of the biggest was that no actor should turn his back on the audience.  Well Sarah made that one of the features of her acting during her long career. Thanks once again to the Duc de Morny, Sarah was automatically accepted into the Comedie Francaise upon graduation. However, she was not a success. Despite making her debut in 3 roles during her first year, she was hardly noticed by the critics or the audience. She also suffered from intense stage fright that would plague her during her entire career. After she slapped a senior actress for insulting her younger sister Regine backstage, Sarah was fired.

It would be 6 long years before she made her mark on the Paris stage.  During those years in the wilderness, Sarah gave birth to her son and took up her mother's profession. She came up with a unique way to keep a roof over her head, gathering a coterie of admirers who were content to pay joint homage for her favors, sort of like a time share, but they weren't getting a condo in Boca with an ocean view for their money.  They even chipped in to buy her gifts, including the elaborate coffin from her wish list.  It was this coffin that she was once photographed in that contributed to her legend.  Sarah claimed that she slept in it to prepare her for her tragic roles.

In 1866, she signed a contract with the rival to the Comedie, the Odeon.  It was here that, Sarah really decided to become an actress, instead of coasting. Although her voice was considered beautiful and lyrical, Hugo called it her 'golden voice', it was thin, something she worked on her entire career. She was also unusual looking, with reddish gold frizzy hair, standing only about five feet tall. She was also thin, when the fashion was for more voluptuous women, giving her a gamin look. Her first big success was in a revival of Alexandre Dumas' play Kean about the English actor.  When the Empire fell after the Franco-Prussian war, and Victor Hugo was welcomed back to France, she added roles in his Ruy-Blas to her repetoire.

It wasn't just her acting that contributed to her fame.  Sarah was a fashion plate, although she wore what she liked, not what was considered fashionable.  In fact, designers tailored their clothes to her, not the other way around.  Since she was so thin, she wore body hugging clothes, and a great deal of jewelry.  However, it was her love affairs that kept tongues wagging. Sarah was a gossip columnists dream, having affairs with all her co-stars including Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen.  In fact it was rumored that she would seduce them in her dressing room after a performance as a sort of night-cap. France's greatest writer Victor Hugo also succumbed to her charms, as well as the artists Gustave Dore and Georges Clairin. She wasn't indifferent to royalty, adding the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII to her amorous resume. She shocked the world when she married in her forties.  Her husband was a Greek aristocrat named Aristides Damala, ten years her junior. They had to marry in London because he was Orthodox and she was Jewish/Catholic.  She tried to turn him into an actor but he prefered to spend her money and cheat on her.  The marriage collapsed and Damala eventually became dependent on morphine which killed him.

Sarah was not just a talented actress, but triple threat, writing and sculpting were amongst her other talents. She was a dedicated artist keeping a studio in Montmartre where she held court dressed in a white satin pants suit while she worked. Her work was good enough to exhibit, and she would often sell out her work.  During the Franco-Prussian war, she helped turn the Odeon into a hospital, where she added the role of nurse and fundraiser to her list of roles.  Not everyone was a fan, playwright George Bernard Shaw  and novelist Henry James were not that keen on her.  She had a long standing rivalry with the Italian actress Eleanora Duse, and another former friend Marie Colombier wrote a scathing novel about her called The Life and Memoirs of Sarah Barnum. Despite her conversion to Catholicism, Bernhardt was frequently the subject of anti-semitic attacks, caricatured in cartoons as a big-nosed Jewess. No one would ever let her forget her origins, not that Sarah ever denied it. Like Disraeli, she was proud of having been born Jewish which she considered a matter of race, not belief.

By the time she died, attitudes towards acting had changed, but Sarah kept on working.  She had become a national treasure. She is the second most famous woman in France after Joan of Arc. But as Rober Gottlieb points out, her  most enduring legacy is the number of young girls who have been scolded by their mothers, mine included, when they are being overly dramatic that "You're a regular Bernhardt."


Oh, hail hail to Queen Sarah! She truly was a revolutionary in her work, and in her life. Thanks for sharing such fascinating details about her spirit and her art, I hope she gets the chance to live again in your books!!
I would to write more about the divine one! She's truly an inspiration for any artist.
Hope Tarr said…
Fascinating post. I love stories of self-made women, women who like Sarah were maybe not the most beautiful (by the standards of their day), or the most blessed by birth, but who took Life by the wheel and have that indefinable "It" quality that makes them so irresistible to men and women alike.

Believe it or not, I was one of those little girls whose parents said, "You're a regular Bernhardt." I made the little landing on our living room stairs my stage and would give recitals to my family and friends. Over the years, I must have channeled such dramatics into my books--a good thing as I really am *no* Sarah Bernhardt!
Awww, Hope, I wish I could have seen your performances. When I was a kid, I too used to perform for family and friends. My fantasy was to one day have my own variety show like Carol Burnett! Sarah certainly inspired me to have my own theater company. It only existed for two years but it was an incredible amount of work. I don't know how she did it for 44!
Just finished reading Jules Renard's journal. He & Sarah were friends for awhile, and he makes many allusions to her in the Journal. Would"ve been around the time she was appearing in Rostand's plays. Quite a commanding presence.
Srah's palm print was extraordinary with sun line line having a star in the middle with parallel sun and fate line a beautiful head line indicated a brilliant career.
IKnowItAll said…
She didn't have gangrene; the knee was causing her pain and she directed surgeons to remove it or she would shoot herself in the leg so they *had* to amputate.

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