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Sarah Bernhardt (October 22, 1844 – March 26, 1923) was a legendary French stage and early film actress, and has been referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known". Bernhardt made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand in Europe and the Americas. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the nickname "The Divine Sarah."

Early life

She was born in Parismarker on October 22, 1844 as Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernardt, the illegitimate daughter of Judith Van Hard, a notorious Dutch courtesan who had established herself in Paris, and Edouard Bernard, a law student. She added the letter "H" to both her first and last name, and used the name of Édouard Bernardt, her mother's brother, as the name of her father. This was probably done to hide the fact that her father was unknown. Her grandfather, Moritz Bernardt, was a Jewish merchant in Amsterdammarker. Most likely, her Jewish mother was also born in Amsterdam.

As the presence of a baby interfered with her mother’s life, Sarah was brought up in a pension, and later in a convent. A difficult, willful child of delicate health, she wanted to become a nun, but one of her mother’s lovers the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s half-brother, decided that she should be an actress. When she was 13, he arranged for her to enter the Conservatoire, the government sponsored school of acting. She was not considered a particularly promising student, and, although she revered some of her teachers, she regarded the Conservatoire‘s methods as antiquated and too deeply steeped in tradition.

Much of the uncertainty about Bernhardt's life arises because of her tendency to exaggerate and distort. Some claim she was born in Iowamarker and ran away to Paris, where she assumed a new identity as a French citizen to begin a stage career. Alexandre Dumas, fils, (the author of La Dame aux camélias, in which she performed almost 3000 times) described her as a notorious liar.

Stage career

Sarah Brenhardt left the Conservatoire in 1862, and, thanks to duc de Morny‘s influence, was accepted by the national theatre company, the Comédie-Françaisemarker, as a beginner on probation. During the obligatory three debuts required of probationers, the strength, beauty, and sheer virtuosity of her performance was scarcely noticed by critics. Her contract with Comédie-Française was cancelled in 1863 after she slapped the face of a senior actress who had been rude to her younger sister.For a time she found employment at the Théâtre du Gymnase-Dramtique. After playing the role of a foolish Russian princess, she entered a period of soul searching, questioning her talent for acting. During these critical months she became a mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne, and gave birth to his only child, Maurice.In 1866 she signed a contract with Odéon theatre and during six years of intensive work with a congenial company there, gradually established her reputation. Her first resounding success was as Anna Damby in the 1868 revival of Kean (by the novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas père). Brenhardt’s greatest triumph at the Odéon, however came 1869 when she portrayed the minstrel Zanetto in the young dramatist's François Coppée one-act verse play Le Passant (“The Passerby”) – a part of which she played again in a command performance before Napoleon III.

However, she was not entirely successful at the conservatory and left to become a courtesan by 1865. It was during this time that she acquired her famous coffin, in which she often slept in lieu of a bed, claiming it helped her understand her many tragic roles. She made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand all over Europe and in New Yorkmarker. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the title "The Divine Sarah;" arguably, she was the most famous actress of the 19th century.

During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, she organized a military hospital in the Odéon. After the war, the reopened Odéon paid tribute to the 19th century writer Victor Hugo with a production of his verse-play Ruy Blas. As Queen Maria, Brenhardt charmed her audiences with lyrical quality of her voice. It was then that Hugo coined the phrase “golden voice,” though her critics usually called her voice “silvery” -- as resembling the tone of a flute.

In 1872 she left the Odéon and returned to Comédie-Française. One of her remarkable success there was in the title role of Voltaire’s Zaïre (1874). She even traveled to Cubamarker and performed in the Sauto Theater, in Matanzasmarker, in 1887. She coached many young women in the art of acting, including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.

Visual arts and recordings

Although primarily a stage actress, Bernhardt made several cylinder and disc of famous dialogues from various productions. One of the earliest was a reading from Phèdre by Jean Racine, at Thomas Edison's home on a visit to New York City in the 1880s. She was involved with the visual arts, acting, painting and sculpting herself, and modeling for Antonio de La Gandara. She also published a series of books and plays.

During her time, Bernhardt had a strong influence on grand opera, an influence that continues to this day. Tosca, for example, contains one of opera's most sensational heroines, and it was based on a play written for Bernhardt.

In 1914, Bernhardt was made a member of France's Legion of Honour.

Personal life

Bernhardt had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri, Prince de Ligne, with whom she had her only child, Maurice Bernhardt, in 1864. He married a Polish princess, Maria Jablonowska (see Jablonowski). Later, close friends included several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges Clarin, and actors Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen, as well as the famous French author Victor Hugo. Alphonse Mucha based several of his iconic Art Nouveau works on her. Her friendship with Louise Abbéma (1853–1927), a French impressionist painter, 9 years her junior, was so close and passionate that the two women were rumored to be lovers. In 1990, a painting by Abbéma, depicting the two on a boat ride on the lake in the bois de Boulogne, was donated to the Comédie-Française. The accompanying letter stated that the painting was "Peint par Louise Abbéma, le jour anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse."

She later married Greek-born actor Aristides Damala (known in France by the stage name Jacques Damala) in London in 1882, but the marriage, which legally endured until Damala's death in 1889 at age 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 Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII.

Bernhardt was not known to be a religious person, and once stated, "Me pray? Never! I'm an atheist." However, she had been baptised a Roman Catholic, and accepted the Last Rites of the Church shortly before her death.

In 1897, Rene Lalique, the master goldsmith and glass designer, designed a corsage ornament for the actress. It was based on a dragonfly, but had griffin paws and a female torso as a body, and a portrait of the actress as a head. These feminine and animalisic ideas are characteristics from the Art Nouveau period. He made it from inexpensive materials of moonstones, enamel and chrysoprase stones.

Silent film career

Bernhardt was one of the pioneer silent movie actresses, debuting as Hamlet in the two minute long film Le Duel d'Hamlet in 1900. (Technically, this was not a silent film, as it had an accompanying Edison cylinder with sound effects.) She went on to star in eight motion pictures and two biographical films in all. The latter included Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (1912), a film about her daily life at home.

Later career

In 1905, while performing in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right knee when jumping off the parapet in the final scene. The leg never healed properly. By 1915, gangrene had set in and her entire right leg was amputated, confining her to a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt reportedly refused a $10,000 offer by a showman to display her amputated leg as a medical curiosity (while P.T. Barnum is usually cited as the one to have made the offer, he had been dead since 1891). Nonetheless, she continued her career, and contrary to belief, without the use of a wooden prosthetic limb (she tried using one, but didn't like it). She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to Francemarker she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Her later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Régine Armand (1922). Her physical condition confined her practically to immobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her triumphs.

Bernhardt has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 1751 Vine Street.


  • Dans les nuages, Impressions d'une chaise (1878)
  • L'Aveu, drame en un acte en prose (1888)
  • Adrienne Lecouvreur, drame en six actes (1907)
  • Ma Double Vie (1907), & as My Double Life: Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, (1907) William Heinemann
  • Un Coeur d'Homme, pièce en quatre actes (1911)
  • Petite Idole (1920; as The Idol of Paris, 1921)
  • L'Art du Théâtre: la voix, le geste, la prononciation, etc. (1923; as The Art of the Theatre, 1924)

Selected roles

Bernhardt, in a portrait, 1890s.


  • 1900: Le Duel d'Hamlet (Hamlet, as Hamlet) An excerpt from the play, featuring Bernhardt in a duel to the death with Laertes.
  • 1908: La Tosca (Tosca, as Tosca) A one-reel condensation of the play by the same name by Victorien Sardou.
  • 1911: La Dame aux Camélias (Lady of the Camelias - Camille, in the U.S. release, as Camille) A two-reel condensation of the play by the same name, and co-starring Lou Tellegen.
  • 1912: Adrienne Lecouvreur (An Actress's Romance; as Adrienne Lecouvreur) A two-reel condensation of the play by the same name. Co-starring Lou Tellegen.
  • 1912: Les Amours d'Elisabeth, Reine d'Angleterre (Queen Elizabeth; a major success) A four-reel condensation of the play of the same name. Co-starring Lou Tellegen.
  • 1912: Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (Sarah Bernhardt at Home, as herself) This documentary features Sarah at home with her family and friends, fishing for shrimp, and cuddling indoors with her pet dogs.
  • 1915: Mères Françaises (Mothers of France, as Madame Jeanne D'Urbex, a war widow in World War I. When she learns that her son has also been wounded, she searches the battlefields, crawls through trenches, and finally reaches him at a medical station only to have him die in her arms. After this tragedy, she dedicates her life to helping others survive the ravages of war.
  • 1915: Ceux de Chez Nous (Those at Home: biographical, home movies) Among other celebrated persons of the era, there is a brief scene featuring Sarah sitting on a park bench and reading from a book.
  • 1916: Jeanne Doré (as Jeanne Doré). Based on a play of the same name. Sarah appears as a widowed mother, who lavishes attention on her son, Jacques. When he is seduced by a temptress and accidentally murders a man, she visits him in his cell on the night before his execution, pretending to be his fiancée, so he can have one moment of final pleasure.
  • 1921: Daniel (5-minute death scene from the play of the same name.) Sarah appears as a morphine addict in the hour before death.
  • 1923: La Voyante (The Fortune Teller,) Sarah appears as a clairvoyant, who makes predictions that influence the outcome of national events. This film was Sarah's final performance, and was made while she was mortally ill. It was eventually completed with scenes made with a stand-in performing Bernhardt's character with her back turned to the camera.


300 px
  • Phèdre (1902)
  • Le Lac (The Lake) (1902)
  • La Fiancée du Timbalier (1902)
  • Lucie (1902)
  • Le Lac (1903)
  • La Samaritaine (1903)
  • Les Vieux (The Old Ones) (1903)
  • Un Évangile (A Gospel) (1903)
  • Phèdre (1903)
  • La Mort d'Izéil (The Death of Izéil) (1903)
  • La Rêverie de Théroigne de Méricourt (The Dream of Théroigne de Méricourt) (1903)
  • Un Peu de Musique (A Little Music) (1903)
  • L'Aiglon (The Eaglet) (1910)
  • Phèdre (1910)
  • Les Buffons (The Buffoons) (1908)
  • La Samaritaine (1910)
  • L'Étoile dans la Nuit (The Star in the Night) (1918)
  • Prière pour nos Ennemis (A Prayer for our Enemies) (1918)


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica -- Macropædia (Knowledge in Depth) Volume 2
  2. COLOMBIER Marie. Le voyage de Sarah Bernhardt en Amérique
  3. Sarah Bernhardt (1933), a concise biography based on personal memories
  4. MAY AGATE, Madame Sarah (1945)
  5. Encyclopedia Britannica -- Macropædia (Knowledge in Depth) Volume 2
  6. C.O. SKINNER, Madame Sarah (1967), and excellent book primarily biographical attempt at separating fact from fiction
  7. Guibert et. al., Portrait(s) de Sarah Bernhardt, 2000."
  8. .Sarah Bernhardt in the Theatre of Films and Sound Recordings, by David W. Menefee, McFarland & Company, Inc, 2003

Further reading

  • Brandon, Ruth. Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt. London: Mandarin, 1992.
  • Gold, Arthur and Robert Fitzdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
  • Lorcey, Jacques. Sarah Bernhardt, l'art et la vie, Paris : Éditions Séguier, 2005. 160 pages. Avec une préface d'Alain Feydeau. ISBN 2-84049-417-5.
  • Menefee, David W. Sarah Bernhardt in the Theater of Films and Sound Recordings. North Carolina: McFarland, 2003.
  • Menefee, David W. The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era. Connecticut: Praeger, 2004.
  • Ockmann, Carol and Kenneth E. Silver. Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama New York: Yale University Press, 2005
  • Skinner, Cornelia Otis. Madame Sarah. Paragon House, 1966.

External links

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