Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) has been reffered to as “the most famous actress the world has ever known”. Her 1874 debut in the tragedy Iphigénie cemented her importance as a stage actress and launched what would become a career lasting six decades. But the “The Divine Sarah” was not only known as the greatest French actress, she was also painted a true eccentric, something which contributed to her fame as much as her acting talent did. And it is true that her off-stage life was often just as harrowing as that of the characters she portrayed, with frequent bouts of physical ailments, financial difficulties, and numerous love affairs.
Although, much has been written about her life and work, there is still much uncertainty because of her tendency to exaggerate and distort.
She was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard and was the illegitimate daughter of Julie Bernard, a Dutch courtesan who had established herself in Paris (the identity of her father is uncertain). Her mother had little time or inclination to raise a young child in the social whirl of the Paris salon set. After a tumultuous childhood, Bernhardt was ready to commit herself to a religious life when a place was secured for her to study acting in the Paris Conservatoire (1859 to 1862).
Bernhardt’s stage career started in 1862 while she was a student. One of her mother’s lovers, a half brother of Napoleon III, arranged for Bernhardt to gain entry into the French national theater company.
However, she was expelled and resumed the life of courtesan to which her mother had introduced her at a young age, and made considerable money during that period (1862-65). During this time she acquired her famous coffin, in which she often slept in lieu of a bed – claiming that doing so helped her understand her many tragic roles. A widely circulated photo showed a peaceful Bernhardt lying in the coffin, with her eyes closed and draped with flowers. This no doubt fuelled the publics´ curiosity.
In Belgium she became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne, and gave birth to their son, Maurice, in 1864. After Maurice’s birth, the Prince proposed marriage, but his family forbade it and persuaded Bernhardt to refuse and end their relationship.
Later in life she married Greek-born actor Aristides Damala in London in 1882, but the marriage, which legally endured until Damala’s death in 1889 at age of 34, quickly collapsed, largely due to Damala’s dependence on morphine. During the later years of this marriage, Bernhardt was said to have been involved in an affair with the future King King Edward VII while he was still the Prince of Wales.
Her lifestyle was always flamboyant. Bernhardt not only sometimes slept in a coffin, but even liked to accessorise with a dead, stuffed bat. Whether she was at home or traveling Bernhardt always kept a large coterie of friends and admirers about her, as well as servants and a menagerie of exotic animals including a cheetah, a wolf, and a boa-constrictor. An alligator named Ali-Gaga died sadly after being fed too much milk and champagne.
At her death in 1923 almost a half-million people lined the streets of Paris to bid their good-bye. Newspaper reports stated she died “peacefully, without suffering, in the arms of her son.” She is believed to have been 78 years old. Through her lifetime Bernhardt had played some seventy roles in one hundred and twenty five productions in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia and the Middle East. She had also managed several theaters in Paris.
Sarah Bernhardt 1860 via
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Postcard from the turn of the century via
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Sarah Bernhard “La nuit de mai”, 1909 via
At the Théâtre de la Renaissance: Sarah Bernhardt in Phèdre
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1883 via
Sarah Bernhardt – Excerpts from ‘La Samaritaine’ (1903)
Bernhardt developed her own emotional romantic acting style
based on her lyrical voice (known as the “golden voice”),
calculated nervous action and the subversion of her viewers’ expectations
concerning her characters, disclosing strength in weakness and weakness in strength