Bernhardt   (October 23, 1844 – March 26, 1923) was a French
She was born in
Paris as Henriette Rosine Bernard, the eldest surviving illegitimate
daughter of Judith van Hard, a Dutch-born Jewish courtesan known as
"Youle." Her father was reportedly Edouard Bernard, a French
lawyer, and she was educated in French Catholic convents.
To support herself,
she combined the career of an actress with that of a courtesan - at
the time, the two were considered scandalous to some degree, but courtesans
were widely accepted in many social circles, and looked on as equals
in cases where they were highly intellectual and when the art of being
a courtesan was merely a sideline for another more respectable career.
She was sponsored into the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation
by the Duc de Morny in 1859 for theatrical training.
Her stage career
started in 1862, largely in comic theatre and burlesque. She made her
fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand all
over Europe and in the United States in New York. She soon developed
a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the title, "The
Divine Sarah"; arguably, she may have been the most famous actress
of the 19th century. She coached many young women in the art of acting,
including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.
a stage actress, Bernhardt made several cylinders and discs of famous
dialogue 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. Multi-talented, she was involved with
the visual arts as well as acting, painting and sculpting herself, as
well as modelling for Antonio de La Gandara. She was also to publish
a series of books and plays throughout her life.
Her spirit is alive
today for anyone with an ear to hear it and a taste for grand opera.
Tosca, Fedora, and La Gioconda, to name only a few, were musical adaptations
of plays written for Bernhardt. The common denominator of the female
leads of these works is clear, once you look for it, and it's Sarah
Her social life
as a courtesan was as continuously active. She had an affair with a
Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph-Eugene-Henri, Prince de Ligne, with
whom she had her only child, the writer Maurice Bernhardt, in 1864 (he
married a Polish princess, Maria Jablonowska, 1863-1914). Later lovers
included several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges
Clarin, and actors Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen.
She later married
Greek-born actor Aristides Damala (aka 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 the young actor's
dependence on morphine. During the latter years of this marriage she
was involved in an affair with Edward VII of the United Kingdom. 
Bernhardt was also
one of the pioneer silent movie actresses, debuting as Hamlet in Le
Duel d'Hamlet in 1900. (Technically, this was not a silent film, as
it had accompanying cylinders with dubbed dialogue.) 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.
was made a member of France's Legion of Honor in 1914.
In 1915, ten years
after a serious injury, her right leg was amputated, confining her to
a wheelchair for several months. Nonetheless, she continued her career,
in spite of the need to use a wooden prosthetic limb. She died in the
arms of her son Maurice. She is buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery,
has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.
1844 - 1923
Divine Sarah" by the legendary playwright, Oscar Wilde, Bernhardt
was the undisputed queen of French romantic and classical tragedy. Bernhardt
almost singlehandedly revolutionized the place of women in the classical
theater with her startlingly intense and expressive performances. She
was very thin, with a pale face and frizzy red hair, but her beautiful
voice, the grace of her movements, and her fiery personality made Sarah
Bernhardt one of the most famous actresses of her day.
She became famous
for her superb portrayals in Phèdre (1874), in Victor Hugo's
Ruy Blas (1872), and in Adrienne Lecouvreur (1880). She also starred
in works by Sardou and Rostand, and wrote some of her own plays as well.
She made tours of Europe and the U.S., including several farewell tours
after her leg was amputated in 1915. She played Hamlet at her own Théâtre
Sarah Bernhardt in 1899.
She was born Rosine
Bernard in Paris on Oct. 23, 1844, an illegitimate child of mixed French-Dutch
parentage and of partly Jewish descent. At the age of 13 she entered
the drama school of the Paris Conservatoire. Her début at the
Théâtre Français (later the Comédie Française)
on Sept. 1, 1862, in Racine's Iphigénie en Aulide, was greeted
with only mild interest. She soon quarreled with the Comédie
and left it for an unsuccessful attempt at burlesque.
was properly established in 1869 by her appearance as Zanetto, the wandering
minstrel in François Coppée's Le Passant, and affirmed
in 1872 by her triumph as the Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas. Soon
after this she returned to the Comédie Française, where
she won further acclaim for her performances in Racine's Phèdre
and Hugo's Hernani. Bernhardt's position as the greatest actress and
one of the most magnetic personalities of her time was by now secure.
She was eulogized for her voix d'or (golden voice) and for the scope
and emotional power of her acting.
In 1880, after a
triumphant season in London, she broke her contract with the Comédie
Française and embarked upon an independent career with the first
of six tours of America, returning to Europe for triumphs in England
and Denmark. Her repertoire included La Dame aux Camélias by
the younger Alexandre Dumas and Frou-frou by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic
Halévy. She became manager of the Théâtre de la
Renaissance,which she opened with a performance of Jules Lemaître's
In 1891, the legendary
playwright, Oscar Wilde wrote his Salome first in French, specifically
with Sarah in mind for the lead role. Legend says that she was hesitant
about appearing in it, at the time, although it eventually had a long-running
success. It was Wilde who dubbed her "The Divine Sarah".
In 1898 she sold
her lease of the Théâtre de la Renaissance and bought the
Théâtre des Nations, which she renamed the Théâtre
Sarah-Bernhardt. The opening play, a revival of Victorien Sardou's La
Tosca, was followed by a production in French of Hamlet. Max Beerbohm,
in a review, captured the essential incongruity of Bernhardt in the
title role by labeling her "Hamlet, Princess of Denmark.''
Undaunted by her
critics, she promptly ventured on the title role in Edmond Rostand's
L'Aiglon. The hero of this play is Napoleon's son, who is kept in semi-captivity
after the fall of the empire. Despite the seeming audacity of a middle-aged
woman playing a boy's part, L'Aiglon was one of the greatest
financial successes ever achieved in Paris. In 1905, while performing
in Rio de Janeiro, she suffered an injury to her right leg. By 1911
she was unable to walk unsupported, and in 1915 the leg was amputated.
Despite the handicap of an artificial leg, she continued her acting
career, even performing at the front during World War I. In 1914 she
became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Her last stage appearance
was in La Gloire (1922) by Maurice Rostand. She died in Paris on March
Bernhardt was the
first great actress to appear in films, starring in La Reine Elizabeth
and La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) in 1911.
The latter was perhaps her most popular role, known in America simply
gifts included sculpture and writing; she published several plays and
her memoirs, Ma Double Vie (1907).
In 1914, when Sarah
Bernhardt was 70, one of her legs had to be amputated following an accident.
After that, she acted from a chair but still performed all over the
world. In World War I, she performed for the troops near the front line
of battle and was awarded the Legion of Honor.
Bernhardt died on
March 27, 1923, after a long battle with Kidney disease. She remains
one of the most celebrated and respected figures in the history of Western