French Icon: Actress Sarah Bernhardt
International star of stage and screen, Sarah Bernhardt captured the world’s attention as the original acting diva
“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses – and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” So exalted Mark Twain of the ‘Divine Sarah’, whose star power saw her dubbed the first modern celebrity – and perhaps the ultimate diva.
Sarah Bernhardt’s early life
Born in Paris in 1844 as the illegitimate daughter of a high-class prostitute, Bernhardt’s childhood was surprisingly privileged. Although her father’s identity was unknown, his family funded a boarding school education where she had her first taste of the stage. Later, one of her mother’s influential clients, statesman Charles de Morny, helped her gain a place at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1860 and, two years later, the prestigious Comédie-Française, to pursue her acting career. Despite earning a handful of roles, this break was short lived, for her fiery temper landed her in hot water – slapping a more senior actress for pushing her sister, then refusing to apologise, led to her dismissal.
Actress and mother
After a short stint at another Paris theatre, Bernhardt decided to leave the acting world to go travelling. At a masked ball in Belgium, she was enchanted by the young aristocrat Prince Henri de Ligne and their affair led to a son, Maurice. Aged just 20 and with a child to support, Bernhardt resumed her acting career back in the French capital. Her breakout role comes in 1868, performing in family friend Alexndre Dumas fils’ play Kean at the Odéon.
When the Franco-Prussian War arrived in 1870, she commandeered the transformation of the theatre to a military hospital, also becoming a nurse. In 1870, she finally returned to the Comédie-Française, this time as a leading actress. By now she was truly a star – and with the luxurious lifestyle to accompany it.
Life of luxury
Her expenses were enormous: she would go on tour with 75 crates of personal clothing and 250 pairs of shoes. As well as a growing wardrobe, there was the famous menagerie: from big cats to boa constrictors, her pets were anything but ordinary. When in debt, she would take her show on the road, performing as far afield as New Zealand, Cuba and Uruguay. Her flamboyance on and off stage endeared her to audiences wherever she performed.
A celebrated tragedienne, Bernhardt became the first woman to play Hamlet when cast in 1899. She also portrayed the first Hamlet on film – the first man or woman to do so. But her private life was becoming just as dramatic as the roles she took on. Among her lovers were Victor Hugo and the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. She married Greek aristocrat Aristides Damala – the inspiration for Dracula – in 1882 but their tempestuous nuptials were short-lived.
In 1915, she injured her leg in a performance of Tosca and eventually the limb was amputated – but only after she threatened to shoot herself there to ensure its removal! She died of uremia aged 78 in 1923, leading to worldwide mourning and a funeral procession to rival that of a queen through Paris. Today, she lies, unmobbed by fans, in Pere-Lachaise cemetery, her dwindling fame epitomising the transient nature of celebrity. Still, her legend lives on as France’s most iconic actress.
Did you know…?
– There’s a famous image of Bernhardt asleep in a satin-lined coffin – she would often sleep or lie in it.
– She was a devoted grandmother but hated the term grand-mere; instead, her grandchildren simply called her ‘grand’, or ‘great’, which she loved.
– As a teenager she took lessons in fencing; a skill that would aid her in her future theatre performances, particularly those where she plays a man.
– Her menagerie included an aligator called Ali-Baba who unfortunately died after enjoying a diet of milk and champagne!
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