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Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt

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Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris in 1844. After a successful acting career in France she came to London in 1876 where she quickly established herself as the leading actress of the day. In 1892 she asked Oscar Wilde to write her a play. The result was Salome but while in rehearsal the Lord Chamberlain had the play banned. In 1899 she founded the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. Although she had a leg amputated in 1915, Sarah Bernhardt continued to appear on the stage until her death in 1923.

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.

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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.

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.


Théâtre Lyrique Edit

The theatre, which until the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 was officially known as the Théâtre Lyrique Impérial, was designed by the architect Gabriel Davioud for Baron Haussmann between 1860 and 1862 for the opera company more commonly known simply as the Théâtre Lyrique. That company's earlier theatre, the Théâtre Historique on the Boulevard du Temple, where it had performed since 1851, was slated for demolition as part of Haussmann's renovation of Paris. [8] During the company's initial period on the Place du Châtelet, it was under the direction of Léon Carvalho and gave the premieres of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles (1863), Berlioz's Les Troyens à Carthage (1863), Gounod's Mireille (1864), Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth (1867), and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1867). Carvalho also presented the first performance of Verdi's revised and expanded version of Macbeth (in French) in 1865. [3] Jules Pasdeloup took over as director in 1868 and gave the first Paris performances of Wagner's Rienzi in 1869. [9] The Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet was nearly completely destroyed by fire on 21 May 1871 during the recapturing of Paris by the forces of the Adolphe Thiers at the end of Paris Commune, and the Théâtre Lyrique opera company went bankrupt not long after. [10]

Théâtre Historique and Théâtre des Nations Edit

The theatre was rebuilt in 1874 on the same plans and was at first called the Théâtre Lyrique-Dramatique, [2] but was soon renamed to Théâtre Historique, which it retained until 1879, when it became Théâtre des Nations. [5] [7] Victor Maurel produced a season of Italian opera at the Théâtre des Nations in 1884. It included on 1 February 1884 the first Paris performance of Massenet's Hérodiade, in the Italian version entitled Erodiade. The cast included Fidès Devriès as Salomé, Guglielmina Tremelli as Hérodiade, Jean de Reszke as Jean, Maurel as Hérode, Édouard de Reszke as Phanuel, and Giuseppe Villani as Vitellius. In the tenth and final performance of Erodiade on 13 March three De Reszkes could be heard, as Josephine de Reszke sang Salomé. [11]

Opéra-Comique Edit

In 1887 the Opéra-Comique moved into the theatre after its previous home, the second Salle Favart, had been destroyed by fire. The name Théâtre Lyrique was restored, and the Opéra-Comique continued to perform in the theatre until 1898, when it returned to the newly built, third Salle Favart. During the company's sojourn on the Place du Châtelet, it presented several operas by Massenet, including the premieres of Esclarmonde (1889) and Sapho (1897), as well as the first Paris performances of Werther (6 January 1893) and La Navarraise (3 October 1895). [6] [12]

Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt Edit

In 1899 the theatre was renamed Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt after the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt, who produced there from 1899 for nearly two decades. She opened with a revival of one of her great roles, Victorien Sardou's La Tosca. Other productions included a revival of Edmond Rostand's La Samaritaine and the premiere of his L'Aiglon in which she played Napoleon's son (the Duke of Reichstadt). Another well known breeches part was the title role of Marcel Schwob's adaptation of Hamlet. After her death in 1923 the theatre continued under her son Maurice for several years. After his death in 1928 the theatre kept the name Sarah Bernhardt until the Occupation of France by the Germans in World War II, [13] when the name was changed to Théâtre de la Cité because of Bernhardt's Jewish ancestry. [7]

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes presented several premieres at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, including Stravinsky's Apollon musagète (12 June 1928) and the revised Renard (21 May 1929 with choreography by Serge Lifar), and two ballets by Prokoviev, Le pas d'acier (27 May 1927) and Le Fils prodigue (21 May 1929). [6] [14]

Théâtre de la Ville Edit

The theatre first acquired the name Théâtre de la Ville in 1968. [6] Since the late 1970s the institution, under the direction of Jean Mercure (1968–1985) then of Gérard Violette (1985–2008), has been internationally recognised for its contemporary dance productions and has showcased major choreographers such as Pina Bausch, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Sankai Juku, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Carlson.

--> Bernhardt, Sarah, 1844-1923

Actress, sculptor, and painter, Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris, France.

From the description of Letter, n.d. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 232007114

French born actress, artist, and writer.

From the description of Sarah Bernhardt Collection, ca. 1860-1977 (bulk 1880-1920). (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) University of Texas at Austin). WorldCat record id: 122492211

Bernhardt was a French actress, often called "The Divine Sarah."

From the description of [Letter, n.d., to] Monsieur Henri Bornier / Sarah. [between 1875 and 1900?] (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 166268403

From the description of Autograph letter signed : [n.p.], to her son Maurice, 1886 Oct. 11 and 12. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270133509

From the description of Autograph letters signed (2) : [Paris], to Jean Richepin, 1883 Sept. 3 and [n.d.]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270134386

French actress generally considered the most famous actress of the early 20th century.

From the description of Collection 1911-1923. (University of California, Davis). WorldCat record id: 32912953

From the description of Autograph letter signed, 1887. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270132809

From the description of Sarah Bernhardt note, 1897. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79450641

Sarah Bernhardt, French actress known as the divine Sarah.

Adelina Patti, Spanish-born soprano, was called the queen of the Italian stage.

From the guide to the Mme. Patti tour and Mme. Sarah Bernhardt season: scrapbook of clippings, 1886-1890, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

Excerpt: 'Sarah: The Life Of Sarah Bernhardt'

Sarah: The Life of Sarah BernhardtBy Robert GottliebHardcover, 256 pagesYale University PressList Price: $25

Sarah Bernhardt was born in July or September or October of 1844. Or was it 1843? Or even 1841?

She was born in Paris at 5, rue de l’Ecole de Medecine (that’s where the plaque is). Or was it 32 (or 265), rue St. Honore? Or 22, rue de la Michandiere?

We’ll never know, because the official records were destroyed when the Hotel de Ville, where they were stored, went up in flames during the Commune uprising of 1871. With someone else that would hardly matter, because we’d have no reason to doubt whatever he or she told us. But dull accuracy wasn’t Bernhardt’s strong point: She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything less than the best story? For the ultimate word on Sarah’s veracity we can turn to Alexandre Dumas fils,who, referring to her famous thinness, remarked affectionately, "You know, she’s such a liar, she may even be fat!"

We do know who her mother was, but her father remains an enigma. We think we know who the father of her son was, but can we be sure? Everything about her early years is elusive -- no letters, no reminiscences of family or friends, and what few documents that exist, highly obscure. Her singularly unreliable memoirs, My Double Life, carry her through her first thirty-five or so years, and they’re the only direct testimony we have of her life until she’s in her mid-teens. Yet despite her obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies, we can track her path, and (more important) begin to grasp her essential nature.

There are three basic components to her experience of childhood, two of them enough to derail an ordinary mortal: Her mother didn’t love her, and she had no father. What she did have was her extraordinary will: to survive, to achieve, and -- most of all -- to have her own way. She would like us to believe that it was at the age of nine that she adopted her lifelong motto, Quand meme. You can translate quand meme in a number of (unsatisfactory) ways: "Even so." "All the same." "Despite everything." "Nevertheless." "Against all odds." "No matter what." They all fit both the child she was and the woman she was to become.

The mother -- Judith, Julie, Youle Van Hard -- had her own reserves of strength and willpower, but unlike Sarah’s, they were hidden under layers of lazy charm and an almost phlegmatic disposition. She was a pretty blonde, she played and sang appealingly, she was a congenial hostess, and she welcomed the expensive attentions of a variety of men-about-town. As a result, she had managed to fashion for herself a comfortable niche in the higher reaches of the demimonde of the Paris of the 1840s. Never one of the great courtesans -- les grandes horizontales -- she nevertheless always had one or two well-to-do "protectors" to squire her around the elegant spas of Europe.

Youle conducted a relaxed salon to which a group of distinguished men gravitated, among them her lover Baron Larrey, who was the Emperor Louis-Napoleon’s doctor (his father had been chief medical officer of the first Napoleon’s armies) the composer Rossini the novelist and playwright Dumas pere and the duc de Morny, known as the most powerful man in France, who was Louis-Napoleon’s illegitimate half-brother. Morny was a highflying and successful financier as well as the president of the Corps Legislatif, exerting immense political influence without entering the field of politics himself. It was Rosine, Youle’s younger, prettier, livelier sister, who was Morny’s mistress -- except when Youle herself was in these circles, it hardly mattered. The important thing, since it would prove crucial to Sarah’s life, was that Morny was a regular fixture in the intimate life of the family.

Youle and Rosine had come a long way. Their mother, Julie (or Jeanette) Van Hard -- a Jewish girl either German or Dutch in origin -- had married Maurice Bernard, a Jewish oculist in Amsterdam. There were five or six daughters (Sarah doesn’t make it easy to keep track of her aunts) and at least one son, Edouard Bernard, who, like Sarah, eventually morphed into “Bernhardt.” When their mother died and their father remarried, Youle and Rosine struck out on their own, first to Basel, then on to London and Le Havre, where in 1843 Youle -- perhaps fifteen years old -- gave birth to illegitimate twin girls, both of whom died within days. Documents about their birth provide the first verifiable data we have about her. Although the twins’ father isn’t named, the supposition is that he was a young naval officer named Morel, from a prominent Havrais family.

Undeterred, the ambitious Youle quickly set out for Paris, her daytime occupation seamstress, her nighttime career a quick ascent into the demimonde. Soon, two of her sisters followed her to Paris: the younger Rosine, who would surpass her in the ranks of courtesans, and the older Henriette, who made a solid marriage to a well-off businessman, Felix Faure. (The Faures would be the only respectable bourgeoisie of Sarah’s youth.) Quickly -- or already? -- Youle was pregnant again, with Sarah, whose name appears in various documents as Rosine Benardt (her application for the Conservatoire) and Sarah Marie Henriette Bernard (her certificate of baptism).

The most likely candidate for the honor of having fathered Sarah is that same naval Morel. His (or someone’s) family lawyer in Havre later administered a sum of money that Sarah was to inherit on her marriage he also at times involved himself in the child’s future. Another suggested candidate was a brilliant young law student in Paris with whom Youle lived happily in poverty (a likely story!), until his family forced them apart. (It’s La Dame aux camelias, Sarah’s greatest success, before the fact.) Sarah never names her father in My Double Life, although on her certificate of baptism, filled out when she was thirteen, he’s called Edouard Bernhardt. But isn’t that the name of her mother’s brother? Looking for consistency in Sarah’s early history is a fruitless task.

What matters, finally, is that there was no father. In My Double Life, Sarah sketches a highly implausible tale. She rarely saw him -- his business, whatever it was, kept him away from Paris until he suddenly died in Italy. He did, however, come with Youle to enroll Sarah in the aristocratic convent school he insisted she attend -- apparently the only occasion on which the three of them did something together. As she tells it, on the night before she was to be installed in the school, her father said to her, "Listen to me, Sarah. If you are very good at the convent I will come in four years and fetch you away, and you shall travel with me and see some beautiful countries." "Oh, I will be good!" she exclaimed "I’ll be as good as Aunt Henriette." "This was my Aunt Faure," she writes. "Everybody smiled."

After dinner, she and her father had a serious talk. "He told me things that were sad which I had never heard before. Although I was so young I understood, and I was on his knee with my head resting on his shoulder. I listened to everything he said and cried silently, my childish mind distressed by his words. Poor Father! I was never, never to see him again." Nor are we to hear about him again except when Sarah remarks in passing that he was "handsome as a god" (what else could he have been? No parent of Sarah’s could be merely good-looking), and that she "loved him for his seductive voice and his slow, gentle gestures."

It’s clear that Sarah needed to believe that she was important to this shadowy father -- that he was lovingly concerned about her even when he was absent. That impression is strengthened by the father (and mother) she invented for a ridiculous novel she wrote in her old age. In Petite Idole (The Idol of Paris), Esperance -- the beautiful beloved daughter of a refined family -- is destined to become a great actress at a far younger age than Sarah did, and with far less difficulty. Esperance is worshiped by her all-loving, all-understanding, and highly distinguished parents, who are prepared to sacrifice anything and everything (including the philosopher-father’s induction into the Academie Francaise) to their daughter’s well-being. (She ends up marrying a duke.) The pathetic act of wish-fulfillment that this fiction represents only serves to underline the deep traumas of Sarah’s childhood. After more than half a century, the most illustrious woman of her time was still grappling with having been an unwanted and unloved child.

Excerpted from Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb. Copyright 2010 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.

The J. Paul Getty Museum

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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 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.

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.

Watch the video: Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman - Time To Say Goodbye HD (May 2022).