Sarah Bernhardt - History

Sarah Bernhardt - History

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Sarah Bernhardt


French Actress

Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris France on October 22 1844. She was considered the greatest actress of French theater. She began her acting career in 1862. By the 1870’s she was known worldwide. In 1880, she formed her own troupe and toured extensively in Europe, the US and Britain. Bernhardt continued to act after amputation of her right leg in 1915. She was famed for her extraordinary voice, her acting range, and her unconventional life.

Sarah Bernhardt's Leg

The 'Divine Sarah' had her right leg amputated on February 22nd, 1915.

The great French actress was 70 and her right knee was causing her agonising pain. She had injured her leg when performing Victorien Sardou’s play Tosca (on which Puccini’s opera was based), in which she was the heroine who finally hurls herself off a castle wall to kill herself in despair. In 1914 she tried wearing a cast and in January 1915 she rented a villa at Andernos, near Bordeaux, hoping that a period of complete immobilisation would help, but it did not.

The ‘Divine Sarah’ was nothing if not strong minded and she decided she would be better off without the leg altogether. She wrote to one of her lovers, the surgeon Samuel Pozzi, telling him to cut it off above the knee. ‘Why condemn me to constant suffering?’, she asked. If he did not help her, she threatened to shoot herself in the leg and then it would have to be cut off. ‘I want to live what life remains to me,’ she wrote, ‘or die at once.’ Pozzi authorised a young surgeon called Maurice Denucé to carry out the operation in Bordeaux. He used ether as an anaesthetic and telegraphed Pozzi that day to say that there had been no problems, the minimum ether had been needed and all was well.

The unstoppable Sarah tried several wooden legs, but irritably threw them away and bought a sedan chair to be carried about in. Before the year was out she was on stage in Paris again. She entertained French soldiers at the front, made numerous theatre appearances and a final tour of the US before she died in Paris aged 78 in 1923 and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Her amputated leg was supposedly rediscovered late in 2008, preserved in formalin at Bordeaux’s Faculty of Medicine and found in a storeroom with other grisly curiosities. Experts, however, said it was a left leg that had been amputated below the knee, so not in any sense the right one.

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt
French Actress
1845 – 1923 A.D.

Sarah Bernhardt, a noted French actress born in Paris of French and Dutch parentage. She was of Jewish descent, but at the age of twelve, in accordance with her father’s wish, was baptized into the Christian faith and entered a convent to be educated.

In 1858 she joined the company at the Odéon and made her first notable success as Cordelia in a French version of King Lear, and as the Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. In 1872 she was called to the Comédie Française, later was elected “societaire [sic],” and by a series of remarkable performances, chief among which was the rôle of Dona Sol in Hugo’s Hermani (1877), she steadily increased her reputation till she became the best-known actress of her time.

Leaving the Comédie in 1879 she appeared in London, and later made tours of Denmark, Russia and America. In 1882 she returned to London and married Jaques Damala, a Greek actor, from whom she separated the following year.

On her return to Paris she achieved another signal triumph in the Fedora of Sardou, and thus began her long connection with this popular author., who wrote for her Theodora, La Tosca and Cléopâtre. During this decade she made visits to the United States, and made a tour of the world, including North and South America, Australia, and the chief European countries.

In 1896, during an elaborate public fête held in honor at Paris, she received congratulations from almost every country in the civilized world.

Three years later she opened the Théâtre Sara-Bernhardt with a revival of La Tosca, and later appeared as the weak-willed son of Napoleon I in Rostand’s L’Aiglon. Her success in this led her to attempt a French production of Hamlet, in which she played the title rôle.

In the spring of 1913 she visited America again and played a short engagement in single acts selected from her repertoire. Owing to a permanent injury to her knee, she was unable to walk without assistance, but her matchless voice was unimpaired and she received an ovation at every performance. In 1914 she was made a member of the Legion of Honor, and in the same year won one of her greatest triumphs in Bernard’s Jeanne Doré.

Six years later, in April, 1920, she appeared in her own theatre in Paris in her famous rôle of Athalie in Racine’s play. At her first performance the emotion of her admirers who crowded the theatre, was the most singular of all the tributes ever paid to this extraordinary woman. When she was carried on the stage in the golden litter of Athalie, surrounded by attendants, the audience cheered and wept in a kind of frenzy, which even she, in all her fifty years of triumphs, had never known equaled.

In spite of her seventy-five years, in spite of her infirmities, including partial blindness, her power seemed as great as ever, and she showed herself still to be beyond question the foremost actress of France.

She was at work, rehearsing for a new production, only a week before her death in Paris, on March 26, 1923, aged seventy-eight having been sixty-one years on the stage.

While Sara Bernhardt’s position as the first actress of her day was undisputed, she was never able, as Modjeska was, to portray the highest inspirations of poetry, and she lacked Duse’s serenity and sincerity an her ability to suggest unutterable emotions but she was mistress of every item of stage-craft, and when inspiration failed her she triumphed by sheer technical efficiency. Before age destroyed her panther-like grace, her every pose and movement were so artfully contrived that they appeared inseparable from the character she was portraying. Her amazing power of emotional acting, the extraordinary realism and pathos of her death-scenes, the magnetism of her personality, and the beauty of her “golden voice,” made the public tolerant of her occasional caprices.

Reference: Famous Women An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.

Additional Sources

Bernhardt, Sarah, My double life: the memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, London: Owen, 1977.

Brandon, Ruth, Being divine: a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, London: Mandarin, 1992.

Gold, Arthur, The Divine Sarah: a life of Sarah Bernhardt, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1991 New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Hathorn, Ramon, Our lady of the snows: Sarah Bernhardt in Canada, New York: P. Lang, 1996.

Richardson, Joanna, Sarah Bernhardt and her world, New York: Putnam, 1977 Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Skinner, Cornelia Otis, Madame Sarah, New York: Paragon House, 1988, 1966.

Stokes, John, Bernhardt, Terry, Duse: the actress in her time, Cambridge England New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. □


Early life Edit

Henriette-Rosine Bernard [1] was born at 5 rue de L'École-de-Médicine in the Latin Quarter of Paris on 22 or 23 October 1844. [note 2] [2] She was the illegitimate daughter of Judith Bernard (also known as Julie and in France as Youle), a Dutch Jewish courtesan with a wealthy or upper-class clientele. [3] [4] [5] [6] The name of her father is not recorded. According to some sources, he was probably the son of a wealthy merchant from Le Havre. [7] Bernhardt later wrote that her father's family paid for her education, insisted she be baptised as a Catholic, and left a large sum to be paid when she came of age. [7] Her mother travelled frequently, and saw little of her daughter. She placed Bernhardt with a nurse in Brittany, then in a cottage in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. [8]

When Bernhardt was seven, her mother sent her to a boarding school for young ladies in the Paris suburb of Auteuil, paid with funds from her father's family. There, she acted in her first theatrical performance in the play Clothilde, where she held the role of the Queen of the Fairies, and performed her first of many dramatic death scenes. [8] While she was in the boarding school, her mother rose to the top ranks of Parisian courtesans, consorting with politicians, bankers, generals, and writers. Her patrons and friends included Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny, the half-brother of Emperor Napoleon III and President of the French legislature. [9] At the age of 10, with the sponsorship of Morny, Bernhardt was admitted to Grandchamp, an exclusive Augustine convent school near Versailles. [10] At the convent, she performed the part of the Archangel Raphael in the story of Tobias and the Angel. [11] She declared her intention to become a nun, but did not always follow convent rules she was accused of sacrilege when she arranged a Christian burial, with a procession and ceremony, for her pet lizard. [12] She received her first communion as a Roman Catholic in 1856, and thereafter she was fervently religious. However, she never forgot her Jewish heritage. When asked years later by a reporter if she were a Christian, she replied: "No, I'm a Roman Catholic, and a member of the great Jewish race. I'm waiting until Christians become better." [13] That contrasted her answer, "No, never. I'm an atheist" to an earlier question by composer and compatriot Charles Gounod if she ever prayed. [14] Regardless, she accepted the last rites shortly before her death. [15]

In 1859, Bernhardt learned that her father had died overseas. [16] Her mother summoned a family council, including Morny, to decide what to do with her. Morny proposed that Bernhardt should become an actress, an idea that horrified Bernhardt, as she had never been inside a theatre. [17] Morny arranged for her to attend her first theatre performance at the Comédie Française in a party which included her mother, Morny, and his friend Alexandre Dumas père. The play they attended was Britannicus, by Jean Racine, followed by the classical comedy Amphitryon by Plautus. Bernhardt was so moved by the emotion of the play, she began to sob loudly, disturbing the rest of the audience. [17] Morny and others in their party were angry at her and left, but Dumas comforted her, and later told Morny that he believed that she was destined for the stage. After the performance, Dumas called her "my little star". [18]

Morny used his influence with the composer Daniel Auber, the head of the Paris Conservatory, to arrange for Bernhardt to audition. She began preparing, as she described it in her memoirs, "with that vivid exaggeration with which I embrace any new enterprise." [19] Dumas coached her. The jury was composed of Auber and five leading actors and actresses from the Comédie Française. She was supposed to recite verses from Racine, but no one had told her that she needed someone to give her cues as she recited. Bernhardt told the jury she would instead recite the fable of the Two Pigeons by La Fontaine. The jurors were skeptical, but the fervor and pathos of her recitation won them over, and she was invited to become a student. [20]

Debut and departure from the Comédie-Française (1862–1864) Edit

Debut of Bernhardt in Les Femmes Savantes at the Comédie Française, 1862

Sarah Bernhardt in 1864 age 20, by photographer Félix Nadar

Bernhardt photographed by Nadar, 1865

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar, 1887

Bernhardt studied acting at the Conservatory from January 1860 until 1862 under two prominent actors of the Comédie Française, Joseph-Isidore Samson and Jean-Baptiste Provost. She wrote in her memoirs that Provost taught her diction and grand gestures, while Samson taught her the power of simplicity. [21] For the stage, she changed her name from "Bernard" to "Bernhardt". While studying, she also received her first marriage proposal, from a wealthy businessman who offered her 500,000 francs. He wept when she refused. Bernhardt wrote that she was "confused, sorry, and delighted—because he loved me the way people love in plays at the theater." [22]

Before the first examination for her tragedy class, she tried to straighten her abundance of frizzy hair, which made it even more uncontrollable, and came down with a bad cold, which made her voice so nasal that she hardly recognised it. Furthermore, the parts assigned for her performance were classical and required carefully stylised emotions, while she preferred romanticism and fully and naturally expressing her emotions. The teachers ranked her 14th in tragedy and second in comedy. [23] Once again, Morny came to her rescue. He put in a good word for her with the National Minister of the Arts, Camille Doucet. Doucet recommended her to Edouard Thierry, the chief administrator of the Théâtre Français, [23] who offered Bernhardt a place as a pensionnaire at the theater, at a minimum salary. [24]

Bernhardt made her debut with the company on 31 August 1862 in the title role of Racine's Iphigénie. [25] [note 3] Her premiere was not a success. She experienced stage fright and rushed her lines. Some audience members made fun of her thin figure. When the performance ended, Provost was waiting in the wings, and she asked his forgiveness. He told her, "I can forgive you, and you'll eventually forgive yourself, but Racine in his grave never will." [26] Francisque Sarcey, the influential theater critic of L'Opinion Nationale and Le Temps, wrote: "she carries herself well and pronounces with perfect precision. That is all that can be said about her at the moment." [26]

Bernhardt did not remain long with the Comédie-Française. She played Henrietta in Molière's Les Femmes Savantes and Hippolyte in L'Étourdi, and the title role in Scribe's Valérie, but did not impress the critics, or the other members of the company, who had resented her rapid rise. The weeks passed, but she was given no further roles. [27] Her hot temper also got her into trouble when a theater doorkeeper addressed her as "Little Bernhardt", she broke her umbrella over his head. She apologised profusely, and when the doorkeeper retired 20 years later, she bought a cottage for him in Normandy. [28] At a ceremony honoring the birthday of Molière on 15 January 1863, Bernhardt invited her younger sister, Regina, to accompany her. Regina accidentally stood on the train of the gown of a leading actress of the company, Zaire-Nathalie Martel (1816–1885), known as Madame Nathalie. [29] Madame Nathalie pushed Regina off the gown, causing her to strike a stone column and gash her forehead. Regina and Madame Nathalie began shouting at one another, and Bernhardt stepped forward and slapped Madame Nathalie on the cheek. The older actress fell onto another actor. Thierry asked that Bernhardt apologise to Madame Nathalie. Bernhardt refused to do so until Madame Nathalie apologised to Regina. Bernhardt had already been scheduled for a new role with the theater, and had begun rehearsals. Madame Nathalie demanded that Bernhardt be dropped from the role unless she apologised. Since neither would yield, and Madame Nathalie was a senior member of the company, Thierry was forced to ask Bernhardt to leave. [30]

The Gymnase and Brussels (1864–1866) Edit

Her family could not understand her departure from the theater it was inconceivable to them that anyone would walk away from the most prestigious theatre in Paris at age 18. [31] Instead, she went to a popular theatre, the Gymnase, where she became an understudy to two of the leading actresses. She almost immediately caused another offstage scandal, when she was invited to recite poetry at a reception at the Tuileries Palace hosted by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, along with other actors of the Gymnase. She chose to recite two romantic poems by Victor Hugo, unaware that Hugo was a bitter critic of the emperor. Following the first poem, the Emperor and Empress rose and walked out, followed by the court and the other guests. [32] Her next role at the Gymnase, as a foolish Russian princess, was entirely unsuited for her her mother told her that her performance was "ridiculous". [31] She decided abruptly to quit the theater to travel, and like her mother, to take on lovers. She went briefly to Spain, then, at the suggestion of Alexandre Dumas, to Belgium. [33]

She carried to Brussels letters of introduction from Dumas, and was admitted to the highest levels of society. According to some later accounts, she attended a masked ball in Brussels where she met the Belgian aristocrat Henri, Hereditary Prince de Ligne, and had an affair with him. [34] Other accounts say that they met in Paris, where the Prince came often to attend the theater. [35] The affair was cut short when she learned that her mother had suffered a heart attack. She returned to Paris, where she found that her mother was better, but that she herself was pregnant from her affair with the Prince. She did not notify the Prince. Her mother did not want the fatherless child born under her roof, so she moved to a small apartment on rue Duphot, and on 22 December 1864, the 20-year-old actress gave birth to her only child, Maurice Bernhardt. [36]

Some accounts say that Prince Henri had not forgotten her. According to these versions, he learned her address from the theatre, arrived in Paris, and moved into the apartment with Bernhardt. After a month, he returned to Brussels and told his family that he wanted to marry the actress. The family of the Prince sent his uncle, General de Ligne, to break up the romance, threatening to disinherit him if he married Bernhardt. [37] According to other accounts, the Prince denied any responsibility for the child. [35] She later called the affair "her abiding wound", but she never discussed Maurice's parentage with anyone. When asked who his father was, she sometimes answered, "I could never make up my mind whether his father was Gambetta, Victor Hugo, or General Boulanger." [38] Many years later, in January 1885, when Bernhardt was famous, the Prince came to Paris and offered to formally recognise Maurice as his son, but Maurice politely declined, explaining he was entirely satisfied to be the son of Sarah Bernhardt. [39]

The Odéon (1866–1872) Edit

To support herself after the birth of Maurice, Bernhardt played minor roles and understudies at the Port-Saint-Martin, a popular melodrama theatre. In early 1866, she obtained a reading with Felix Duquesnel, director of the Théâtre de L’Odéon (Odéon) on the Left Bank. Duquesnel described the reading years later, saying, "I had before me a creature who was marvelous gifted, intelligent to the point of genius, with enormous energy under an appearance frail and delicate, and a savage will." The co-director of the theatre for finance, Charles de Chilly, wanted to reject her as unreliable and too thin, but Duquesnel was enchanted he hired her for the theater at a modest salary of 150 francs a month, which he paid out of his own pocket. [40] The Odéon was second in prestige only to the Comédie Française, and unlike that very traditional theatre, specialised in more modern productions. The Odéon was popular with the students of the Left Bank. Her first performances with the theatre were not successful. She was cast in highly stylised and frivolous 18th-century comedies, whereas her strong point on stage was her complete sincerity. [41] Her thin figure also made her look ridiculous in the ornate costumes. Dumas, her strongest supporter, commented after one performance, "she has the head of a virgin and the body of a broomstick." [42] Soon, however, with different plays and more experience, her performances improved she was praised for her performance of Cordelia in King Lear. [ citation needed ] In June 1867, she played two roles in Athalie by Jean Racine the part of a young woman and a young boy, Zacharie, the first of many male parts she played in her career. The influential critic Sarcey wrote ". she charmed her audience like a little Orpheus." [42]

Her breakthrough performance was in the 1868 revival of Kean by Alexandre Dumas, in which she played the female lead part of Anna Danby. The play was interrupted in the beginning by disturbances in the audience by young spectators who called out, "Down with Dumas! Give us Hugo!". Bernhardt addressed the audience directly: "Friends, you wish to defend the cause of justice. Are you doing it by making Monsieur Dumas responsible for the banishment of Monsieur Hugo?". [43] With this the audience laughed and applauded and fell silent. At the final curtain, she received an enormous ovation, and Dumas hurried backstage to congratulate her. When she exited the theatre, a crowd had gathered at the stage door and tossed flowers at her. Her salary was immediately raised to 250 francs a month. [44]

Her next success was her performance in François Coppée's Le Passant, which premiered at the Odéon on 14 January 1868, [45] playing the part of the boy troubadour, Zanetto, in a romantic renaissance tale. [46] Critic Theophile Gautier described the "delicate and tender charm" of her performance. It played for 150 performances, plus a command performance at the Tuileries Palace for Napoleon III and his court. Afterwards, the Emperor sent her a brooch with his initials written in diamonds. [47]

In her memoirs, she wrote of her time at the Odéon: "It was the theatre that I loved the most, and that I only left with regret. We all loved each other. Everyone was gay. The theatre was a like a continuation of school. All the young came there. I remember my few months at the Comédie Française. That little world was stiff, gossipy, jealous. I remember my few months at the Gymnase. There they talked only about dresses and hats, and chattered about a hundred things that had nothing to do with art. At the Odéon, I was happy. We thought only of putting on plays. We rehearsed mornings, afternoons, all the time. I adored that." Bernhardt lived with her longtime friend and assistant Madame Guerard and her son in a small cottage in the suburb of Auteuil, and drove herself to the theatre in a small carriage. She developed a close friendship with the writer George Sand, and performed in two plays that she authored. [48] She received celebrities in her dressing room, including Gustave Flaubert and Leon Gambetta. In 1869, as she became more prosperous, she moved to a larger seven-room apartment at 16 rue Auber in the center of Paris. Her mother began to visit her for the first time in years, and her grandmother, a strict Orthodox Jew, moved into the apartment to take care of Maurice. Bernhardt added a maid and a cook to her household, as well as the beginning of a collection of animals she had one or two dogs with her at all times, and two turtles moved freely around the apartment. [49]

In 1868, a fire completely destroyed her apartment, along with all of her belongings. She had neglected to purchase insurance. The brooch presented to her by the Emperor and her pearls melted, as did the tiara presented by one of her lovers, Khalid Bey. She found the diamonds in the ashes, and the managers of the Odeon organised a benefit performance. The most famous soprano of the time, Adelina Patti, performed for free. In addition, the grandmother of her father donated 120,000 francs. Bernhardt was able to buy an even larger residence, with two salons and a large dining room, at 4 rue de Rome. [50]

Wartime service at the Odéon (1870–1871) Edit

The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War abruptly interrupted her theatrical career. The news of the defeat of the French Army, the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan, and the proclamation of the Third French Republic on 4 September 1870 was followed by a siege of the city by the Prussian Army. Paris was cut off from news and from its food supply, and the theatres were closed. Bernhardt took charge of converting the Odéon into a hospital for soldiers wounded in the battles outside the city. [51] She organised the placement of 32 beds in the lobby and the foyers, brought in her personal chef to prepare soup for the patients, and persuaded her wealthy friends and admirers to donate supplies for the hospital. Besides organising the hospital, she worked as a nurse, assisting the chief surgeon with amputations and operations. [52] When the coal supply of the city ran out, Bernhardt used old scenery, benches, and stage props for fuel to heat the theater. [53] In early January 1871, after 16 weeks of the siege, the Germans began to bombard the city with long-range cannons. The patients had to be moved to the cellar, and before long, the hospital was forced to close. Bernhardt arranged for serious cases to be transferred to another military hospital, and she rented an apartment on rue de Provence to house the remaining 20 patients. By the end of the siege, Bernhardt's hospital had cared for more than 150 wounded soldiers, including a young undergraduate from the École Polytechnique, Ferdinand Foch, who later commanded the Allied armies in the First World War. [54]

The French government signed an armistice on 19 January 1871, and Bernhardt learned that her son and family had been moved to Hamburg. She went to the new chief executive of the French Republic, Adolphe Thiers, and obtained a pass to go to Germany to return them. When she returned to Paris several weeks later, the city was under the rule of the Paris Commune. She moved again, taking her family to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She later returned to her apartment on the rue de Rome in May, after the Commune was defeated by the French Army.

Sarah Bernhardt - History

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Act III: Friends and Lovers

“She drives me mad when I am with her. She is all temperament and no heart but when she is gone, how I work! How I can work!” -- Alexandre Dumas fils

Throughout Sarah’s life she attracted the best and most creative of artists, the highest of royalty and the most indulgent of suitors. She hobnobbed with some of the most powerful and most creative of minds. She did not necessarily seek them out. They found her. To enumerate all the celebrated minds she came in contact with would be impossible. But she left a memorable impression on many of the movers and shakers of the latter 19th century and early 20th. She would have her detractors who found her talent and celebrity overdone, but most found her innovative and charming. She could exasperate and addle those who admired her, but many regarded that facet as part of her genius.

In 1880, on a ship bound for an American tour, she saved a woman from falling down a set of stairs when the ship lurched from the waves. The woman she grabbed before she was able to fall was Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of President Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln initially was very thankful for Sarah’s quick instincts in saving her from the fall, but when she was told of the identity of her savior, she became indignant and stormed off. Sarah described it as such:

I too recoiled, and a great sorrow overcame my entire being, for I had rendered this unhappy woman the one service she didn’t want….that of saving her from death. Her husband, President Lincoln, had been assassinated by an actor, and it was an actress who prevented her from rejoining him. I returned to my cabin and stayed there for two days, for I hadn’t the courage to encounter this touching soul to whom I would never dared have spoken. (Skinner, p. 151)

Even though her encounter with Mrs. Lincoln was somewhat lacking in admiration, Sarah had strong connections with many American notables. Thomas Alva Edison had the pleasure of showing her around his Menlo Park facility, but initially he was unimpressed by the French actress. She was determined she would endear herself to him and by her persistent questions and concerted interest in his work managed to win the inventor over. The American who seemed to impress her the most was Theodore Roosevelt. She had his letter that he wrote to her framed on her wall and was heard to say about him, “Ah! but that man and I, we could rule the world!” (Wagenknecht, p. 75)

Sarah was known for her friendships with the literati and artists of her time. Oscar Wilde is credited with coining the titles of “The Incomparable One” and “The Divine Sarah” to her. He wrote his play Salome with the lead expressly written for her. He was known to gush over her artistic sensibilities and was quoted as saying shortly before his death in 1900: “The three women I have most admired in my life are Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry and Queen Victoria. I would have married any one of them with pleasure.” (Skinner, p. 124) Wilde rhapsodized about few people. Sarah was one.

Sarah had friendly rivalries with some of the leading actresses of her day. Eleanora Duse, the Italian actress, was known for her competitive nature and this was obvious in her dealings with Sarah. Sarah could give back as well. Sarah had a brief and unemotional affair with Duse’s lover, Gabriele D’Annunzio, which was enough to sour the duo’s future relationship, with Sarah coming out on top. Her relationship with Lily Langtry was cordial, but Sarah resented that Langtry earned more for her performances with less experience and minor acclaim for her acting. She had a warm relationship with the British actress Ellen Terry, who was to England what Sarah was to France. Terry called her “Sally B.” and considered Sarah a good friend. As she would recall of Sarah:

How wonderful she looked in those days! She was as transparent as an azalea, only more so like a cloud, only not so thick. Smoke from a burning paper describes her more nearly! She was hollow-eyed, almost consumptive-looking. Her body was not the prisoner of her soul, but its shadow. She is always a miracle. (Gold, p. 190)

Sarah was credited with having numerous relationships with many artisans, writers, actors and royalty, whether male or female. It is hard today to establish which were real and what ones were made up. Suffice it to say that Sarah was a popular individual who courted power and company when it pleased her and when it could benefit her position in life. She wanted painters to paint her, writers to write for her, poets to write about her, playwrights to write plays for her and royalty to help her position in society. She was rumored to have had an affair with Prince Edward of Wales, but positive proof is lacking. But where there is doubt on a relationship, there is proof that many affairs did occur. But many of her lovers would find out that Sarah was fickle in love but loyal in her friendship with them.

On April 4, 1882 Sarah decided to try something she had never done before. She was married at St. Andrew’s in London to Ambroise Aristide Damala, a Greek-born actor twelve years her junior. She had proposed marriage to him and he had accepted. Many of her close friends, colleagues and family were upset over her marriage, worried that he would take her attention away from the stage. But even though she thought she could tame this young actor, she was sadly mistaken. They were unmatched in talent, with her star far outshining his, and both of their penchants for infidelity made marriage an impossible institution for both of them. Also, Damala had a strong addiction to drugs, which Sarah had little tolerance for. They separated after one year of marriage and he would remain a burden on her until his death in 1889. As Gold and Fizdale write:

Damala had lost his looks, his voice, and his strength, and at the age of forty-two he lost his life to morphine. Defeated and grief-stricken, Sarah sent his body back to Greece, along with a bust she had made for his tomb. She did not forget him. For some years she would sign her letters “the widow Damala.” And whenever she found herself in Athens, she called on his mother and visited his grave to cover it with flowers and weep over a marriage that had so quickly turned to ashes. (Gold, pp. 239-240)

Marriage was an undertaking that Sarah was never successful at. Marriage made the goddess mortal by weakening her power. She could rule the stage, maintain a family life with her son and grandchildren, and be France’s heroine of the heart, but she was unable to maintain one relationship for any length of time and was not cut out for the institution of marriage.

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She was born as Rosine Bernard, the daughter of Julie Bernard and an unknown father. Julie (1821-1876) was the daughter of a Dutch oculist and small-time crook named Moritz Baruch Bernardt, who after the death of Julie’s mother, Sara, remarried and soon after abandoned his second wife and the six children he had had with Sara. Julie took herself to Paris, where she survived as a courtesan. and where Sarah was born

Julie sent Sarah away, first to an Augustine convent near Versailles, and then, at age 13, to the drama school at the Paris Conservatoire. Sarah’s thought had been to become a nun, but it was her mother’s then-lover, Charles Duc de Morny, the illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, who decided that she should be trained as an actress. At the Conservatoire, she learned about the acting tradition of an earlier student, the great Jewish actress Rachel (Eliza Rachel Felix, 1821-1858). Bernhardt always kept in her dressing room a portrait of Rachel.

In 1862, de Morny arranged for Sarah to be accepted on probation to the Comedie Francaise, the national acting company. Her debut performances there made little impression, but her slapping the face of a senior actress of the company, when the latter shoved her sister, did: Sarah was promptly expelled from the Comedie.

A period of uncertainty led to Bernhardt’s travel to Belgium, where she became the lover of Henri, Prince of Ligne. He was the father of her one child, Maurice, born in 1864, and although Henri wanted to marry Bernhardt, his family was opposed, and convinced her to decline his offer.

Throughout her life, Bernhardt, who was notoriously creative about her own biography, was always very forthright about the fact that her son was illegitimate. Similarly, she never tried to conceal or deny her Jewish origins, but instead expressed pride in them. Although she had been baptized as a Catholic, and declared herself an atheist, she was the frequent object of anti-Semitic comments and even literary caricatures. When, after the Franco-Prussian War, she was accused of being German and Jewish in the press, she was reported to have responded, “Jewish most certainly, but German, no.” And a biographer of Bernhardt’s quoted a letter she wrote addressing these same accusations: “If I have a foreign accent - which I much regret - it is cosmopolitan, but not Teutonic. I am a daughter of the great Jewish race, and my somewhat uncultivated language is the outcome of our enforced wanderings.”

By 1866, Bernhardt had returned to Paris, where she began acting at the Odeon Theater. She stayed there for six years, and had a number of successes, the most notable of which was probably in 1869, as the wandering male minstrel Zanetto in the one-act verse play “The Passerby,” by Francois Coppee.

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the Odeon was shut for performances, and Bernhardt converted its building into a hospital, where she herself helped care for wounded soldiers.

Two years later, she had her return to the Comedie Francaise. She played in roles by Victor Hugo, who also became her lover, and in the title role in Jean Racine’s Phedre. Bringing the latter role to London in 1879 was the beginning of an international career for Bernhardt. After starting her own theater company, in 1880, she began touring, not only around Europe, but also to the United States (in 1906, she performed in a tent in Waco, Texas, before an audience of 5,000), and eventually to South America and Australia. She always traveled with the coffin that she slept in (she said that it helped her prepare for tragic roles), and at times with an alligator she called Ali-Gaga.

In 1905, after jumping from a balcony during the final scene of “La Tosca,” in a performance in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right leg. A decade later, when it became gangrenous, she was required to have it amputated. But this did not stop her from acting, appearing with an artificial limb. She even came to the front to perform during World War I. She played men – including Hamlet and also, in Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon, the 21-year-old son of Napoleon, when she herself was 55.

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[Sarah Bernhardt]

Nadar [Gaspard Félix Tournachon] (French, 1820 - 1910) Paul Nadar (French, 1856 - 1939) 21.1 × 16.2 cm (8 5/16 × 6 3/8 in.) 84.XM.436.494

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Object Details


Paris, France (Place Created)

negative about 1864 print about 1924 ?

Object Number:

21.1 × 16.2 cm (8 5/16 × 6 3/8 in.)


(Recto, mount) lower right, signed in ink: "Nadar"


(Verso, mount) wet stamp: "Portraits / Paul Nadar / 48 Rue Bassano, 48 / Teleph ELYSEES 7654"


(Recto, mount) lower left, handwritten in ink: "48 rue Bassano" (Verso, mount) handwritten in pencil: "Sarah Bernardt [sic]"

Object Type:
Object Description

The extraordinary actress Sarah Bernhardt was about twenty when she posed for Nadar and had barely begun her long and phenomenally successful career. Nadar's photograph was probably the first of innumerable images by painters, photographers, sculptors, and graphic artists. At a time when Nadar was preoccupied with ballooning and willing to leave most of the portrait work to studio assistants, Bernhardt drew him back into the studio to make touching images of her delicate face. Here he wrapped her with a great sweep of velvet that bared one shoulder but showed no more of her slender body, centering all attention on her head, which is seen nearly in profile.

The young woman with the supple shoulders and the golden voice became an incomparable and indomitable actress, famous first in France and then throughout the world for playing heroines-and heroes-in a wide variety of plays. Bernhardt's celebrity and the enormous attention she attracted everywhere she went anticipated the phenomenon of late twentieth-century media stars.


Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., American, 1921 - 1987, sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1984.

Nadar/Warhol: Paris/New York (July 20, 1999 to May 28, 2000)
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center (Los Angeles), July 20 to October 10, 1999
  • The Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), November 6, 1999 to January 30, 2000
  • The Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore), March 12 to May 28, 2000

Baldwin, Gordon, and Judith Keller. Nadar Warhol: Paris New York: Photography and Fame. Introduction by Richard Brilliant. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999), p. 117.

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Sarah Bernhardt - History

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Act II: A Star is Born

“When she was off the stage, she always seemed to be acting. She always seemed to be living when she was on it.” -- Gamaliel Bradford

Sarah would experience a slice of real life when she fell in love with a Belgian prince with the name Charles-Joseph-Eugene-Henri-Georges-Lamoral-Prince de Ligne, better known as Prince Henri de Ligne. She fell hard for the dashing young man and he seemed quite smitten with her until Sarah told him she was pregnant with his child. As he is reported to have replied to her: “My dear girl, you must realize that if you sit on a pile of thorns, you can never know which one has pricked you.” (p. 62-63) Sarah, in a situation many girls have experienced, returned to her mother’s care and gave birth on December 22, 1864 to a son named Maurice Bernhardt. Maurice would become, ultimately, the love of her life and the one person she could never refuse. Prince Henri only acknowledged Maurice as his son after Sarah became the celebrity she would become. Maurice chose to keep his mother’s name as he realized her importance in his life and her importance as a major star on the world stage. As the following story details, Maurice knew which parent had the credentials:

One afternoon Maurice saw his long-lost father off to Brussels. The Gare du Nord was packed, and Ligne, afraid he might miss his train, asked a station attendant to put him ahead of the crowd. By way of encouragement, he pressed a coin into his hand and muttered his princely name. As neither had any effect, Maurice stepped in. He was the son of Sarah Bernhardt, he announced. Couldn’t something be done? At the mention of the magic name, they were whisked through the throng and shown to the prince’s compartment. As father and son shook hands, Maurice could not resist a parting shot: “You see,” he said, “it’s not so bad to be a Bernhardt.” (p. 223)

Sarah, shortly after the birth of her son, began her stage career on a renewed footing, returning to the Comedie Francaise and starting a run of roles that would quickly gain her notice and eventual fame. Her most notable early roles included that of the wandering minstrel Zanetto in Francois Coppee’s Le Passant (1869), as the Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas (1872), as the title role in Racine’s Phedre (1874) and as Dona Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1877). Sarah seemed to have been gifted with a rare sense of presence as all eyes would turn on her when she stepped on stage. She was known for her speaking style, as she was described as having a “golden voice.” The gawky child of her youth was now gone, replaced by a woman who knew how to command her audience with her appearance and her speech. Even in her later years when her physical condition prevented her from standing, her voice never failed her. Recordings she made of her performances still exist today, giving us a faint rendering of what made her so special to her audiences. Her voice and her presence would shortly move beyond the confines of the French theater to the European and American stages as she began to take tours that would generate record-breaking audiences that rivaled those that Jennie Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” had generated some thirty years before.

After a triumphant theater run in London, she broke her contract with the Comedie Francaise to become an independent performer. She would make the first of six tours to America, recounting many of her experiences in her autobiography My Double Life. After this first tour, she would return to England and Denmark for more sell-out performances. She would top off her road to renown by going on her Grand World Tour that lasted from February 1891 to September 1893. The publicity she generated was not only confined to the theater goers who paid to see her but also by those who had the opportunity to just look at her. She knew how to work the crowds and to identify with the common person. Along the way she was making connections with those who participated in the arts and became her fans as well.

Bernhardt in Films

At the turn of the century, Sarah Bernhardt turned her attention to film. Yet another example of the superstar embracing all forms of her art, the first film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet sta r red Sarah, not as her famous stage role of Ophelia but as the eponymous hero himself:

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, USA.

This new art form was perfect for someone who knew how to emote on stage. Sarah was not afraid of embracing a new medium and threw herself into many film productions. This still from one of her films reveals how this new art form could bring her emotion to the masses.

Sarah Bernhardt cries during a performance. BBC/Getty Images. Detail.

One of her most famous roles was as the tragic courtesan in Camille and here we see her portraying her at the age of age of 65!

Sarah Bernhardt in the film Camille (La Dame aux camélias), with André Calmettes, 1911, dir.Louis Mercanton.

Despite being in her 60s, Sarah was still touring, making films, and appearing all over the world. Sadly, Bernhardt’s accident in 1906 resulted in gangrene and her leg was removed. But did this put a stop to the indefatigable siren? Carried on a white palanquin, Sarah traveled France, entertaining the troops and becoming the army’s sweetheart!

Sarah continued acting right up until her death in 1923. Of all the actresses from the period, no one epitomized the idea of a superstar more than she did, and no one appears as artistically versatile as ‘The Divine Sarah. ‘

Watch the video: Sarah Bernhardt: The Worlds First Celebrity


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