Have you ever heard of the actress Sarah Bernhardt? Maybe not — she isn’t exactly a household name these days. But once upon a time, she was “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture,” according to the French poet Edmond Rostand. Victor Hugo, among France’s greatest writers, said she had a “golden voice.” And Mark Twain once stated that there are “bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses — and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” She was, in short, an icon of her time. She may even have been the very first ‘celebrity.’ But why do so few of us know her story today? It might have something to do with the fact that her life was impossibly complicated — and often extremely controversial.
Bernhardt’s rise to fame was meteoric. In a career spanning many decades, she played some of the strangest and most wonderful parts available.
Her acting skills attracted the keen attention of some of the most influential people around, while she personally developed a reputation as something of an eccentric. In short, she was a true celebrity — perhaps the very first one.
In 2010 a biography of Bernhardt was published in which its writer, Robert Gottlieb, considered her life and legacy. He mentioned the “special allure” with which she enraptured audiences, a quality he attributed to her thin frame, striking face, and charming, delicate voice.
He also noted her fearlessness in revealing her feelings, which at times could imbue her performances with a captivating sense of urgency.
Not everyone was convinced by Bernhardt, of course. Some of her most distinguished critics included the famed Russian writer Anton Chekhov and the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. But their aversion to the woman did nothing, ultimately, to tarnish her general popularity.
From the beginning of her career to the time of her death and beyond, Bernhardt was an idol — the likes of which the world had never seen before.
But despite the intense level of fame that Bernhardt achieved, her story is a difficult one to pin down. It certainly doesn’t help that she was known to fabricate stories about herself.
Historians and biographers such as Gottlieb have had to do their best to sift through the murky details of her life to try and tell her tale as best they can. And what’s certain from all that work is that Bernhardt lived quite the life.
Even Bernhardt’s birthday is unclear. She was born in the early 1840s, but the specific date and even the year is unknown. That’s because her birth documentation was lost in a fire during the course of an uprising in 1871.
Still, we do know a few things: her real name wasn’t Sarah Bernhardt, for instance, but rather Henriette Rosine Bernard. And she was most certainly a Parisian.
In his book Sarah, Gottlieb reflected that the loss of Bernhardt’s birth certificate was a bigger deal in her case than in most others. He wrote, “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?”
According to Gottlieb, we have no idea who Bernhardt’s dad was — but we do know her mom. Well, we’re not sure of her name, but we know the basics.
She was a Dutch woman named Julie, Dudith, or Youle, depending on which source you believe, and she was an attractive, popular lady with lots of charm.
Bernhardt’s mom attracted some prosperous lovers in her time, which was a lifestyle she struggled to let go of when her child was born.
She actually sent the young Bernhardt away to be raised in institutions, and her daughter ended up at a convent, which led to her early aspirations to become a nun. She’d grow out of that idea, though, when she first encountered a man who was seeing her mom.
Her mom’s partner was a prominent figure: a duke, of all things. Charles, duc de Morny was the half-sibling of Napoleon III, himself the nephew of the original Napoleon.
This nobleman used his power and influence to help the young Bernhardt launch an acting career. He got her into the Paris Conservatoire, where her talent initially flew under the radar.
For her part, Bernhardt wasn’t exactly enamored by the Paris Conservatoire, either: she dropped out in 1862. The duke then managed to get her into a theater company called the Comédie-Française. Here, again, things didn’t go very well.
Her initial performances failed to attract much attention, but she did make a name for herself when she struck an older actress across the face. She’d been defending her sister from insult at the time, but all the same she was kicked out.
Bernhardt went on to pick up some roles elsewhere, but it wasn’t a great time: she even started to doubt whether she should actually be an actress.
It was around this time that she picked up a prominent lover of her own in the form of Henri, Prince de Ligne. As the title might suggest, Henri was an aristocrat from Belgium. Their affair resulted in a child named Maurice in 1864.
The liaison with Henri was far from the last of Bernhardt’s relationships. She went on to tie the knot with Jacques Damala, a retired Greek soldier. The ex-military man also tried his hand at acting, but died young shortly after getting hitched to Bernhardt.
Other rumored lovers included the British monarch Edward VII — albeit before he was King — writer Hugo, and fellow thespian Lou Tellegen.
Before all that, though, Bernhardt was to kick-start her acting career. In 1866 she started acting at the Odéon theater, which is where things finally started going right. Within a couple of years of gradually building a name for herself, she began to acquire genuine renown.
Her biggest success at the Odéon came in 1869 when she performed in a play called Le Passant. Napoleon III once saw her in this role.
The following year brought changes to the Odéon. The Franco-German War was going on at that time, so Bernhardt helped to organize a military hospital at the theater.
After the war had ceased and the theater was up and running again, she appeared in Hugo’s play Ruy Blas. This performance brought positive attention to the musical, “silvery” quality of her voice.
By 1872 Bernhardt was on the move. She finished up at the Odéon and actually went back to the Comédie-Française, where she appeared in a few minor roles at first.
She was eventually cast as the lead in the Voltaire play Zaïre, which was a big hit for her. Her parts got bigger from that point on and she became increasingly famous.
Bernhardt wasn’t exactly shy of flaunting her newfound fame. Her lifestyle became quite eccentric, illustrated most clearly, perhaps, by the presence of a coffin inside her bedroom. She’d acquired it to help her prepare for certain roles, apparently — but she was also known to sleep in it.
Reportedly this happened on at least one occasion after she’d offered her ill sister her own bed one night. She seems to have liked the idea of people thinking she regularly bunked in the coffin and was happy to pose in it for photos.
The year 1876 was a tough one for Bernhardt. Her mom passed away, plus she became embroiled in a scandal.
Journalists had started to report on her personal life, which ultimately culminated in two reporters being challenged to duels by men seeking to stand up for Bernhardt: a dramatic episode.
Bernhardt had become the talk of the town, and her inner circle was a Who’s Who of distinguished figures.
She was pals with a bunch of famous writers and painters, some of whom decorated the walls of her house in elaborate murals. This place was a fitting site to stage many a get-together.
Following an appearance in Othello, Bernhardt traveled with the Comédie-Française to London in 1879. She performed in the play Phèdre, which brought her great acclaim.
Thanks to her beauty and, of course, her remarkable acting talents, she was now considered to be one of the greatest stars of her generation. Global fame now awaited.
Bernhardt put together a company of her own in 1880 and they set off on tour. England was a regular stop, but the group also traveled to different parts of Europe.
They also performed in Canada and the United States, with her first show in New York coming in November that year. This was the big time.
Bernhardt became a favorite of European royals during this tour, with several monarchs even lavishing her with gifts.
Spain’s Alfonso XII gave her a diamond brooch, Italy’s King Umberto gifted her a fancy fan, and Austria’s Franz Joseph made a present of an incredible necklace. Russia’s Tsar Alexander III was also a known admirer.
In the summer of 1882 Bernhardt headed back to France, deciding to buy a theater and hand over its management to her son.
This was a bad move: while her acting career during this period continued to flourish, the theater was a disaster, and she lost a lot of money on it. Her son didn’t even stick around, leaving his position as director.
While the purchase of this theater might have been unwise, Bernhardt’s acting career never faltered.
She played a lot of unorthodox roles during her time, including a variety of male characters, and even a 21-year-old woman at the age of 45. For all this and more, the plaudits continued to flood in.
Another moneyspinning global tour was arranged for 1891. Then, the following year Bernhardt was back in London, preparing to star in the Oscar Wilde play Salomé. Wilde had written this play with Bernhardt specifically in mind, but the production was complicated by the English government not allowing it to be staged.
Still, despite the setback, Bernhardt soon returned to France as an immensely wealthy individual — and probably the most spoken-about actress in the world.
In 1905 Bernhardt was performing in South Africa when something terrible happened. During one scene of the drama La Tosca, Bernhardt was required to jump from a height. She landed awkwardly and badly injured a knee. From that point on, the injury slowly got worse and worse.
It eventually became gangrenous, which meant only one thing. It took an entire decade following the incident, but it had come to this: her right leg had to be removed.
Such a traumatic incident might have slowed a lesser person down, but Bernhardt carried on as before. Not long after the amputation, in 1916 she went to see French combatants fighting in World War I. She also appeared in a propaganda movie in support of the French effort. That very same year, she took off for America again.
She was there for a year-and-a-half, and though she obviously couldn’t move around a stage like before, her voice had grown no less captivating. She spoke in public often, hoping to persuade Americans to join the war.
Bernhardt was a writer, too, and in 1920 she released a novel entitled Petite Idole. She’d previously written a memoir, of sorts, though it’s very difficult to tell which parts of it were factual.
She was, as we’ve already mentioned, fond of telling a few tall tales about herself and her exploits.
Even after the amputation, Bernhardt maintained her acting career. She was, in fact, in the middle of rehearsals for a play in 1922 when her health truly began to fail her.
She lost consciousness, and though she woke up again, she spent several months away from the spotlight. She did seem to get better; she took some more acting jobs, including a motion picture called La Voyante.
This would mark the end. Bernhardt’s health was very poor during the production, which meant her scenes were shot in her own house. And before the movie wrapped, she lost consciousness once more. There would be no recovery this time.: days later, on March 21, 1923, she died.
She left behind a remarkable legacy as one of the greatest acting talents there’s ever been. Her name may not be quite as well-known today, but during her own time there had been no one more famous.