Sarah Bernhardt: photographer Felix Nadar (1820-1910)Credit: photographer Felix Nadar (1820-1910)

Sarah Bernhardt was a French stage and film actress who is often referred to as the most famous actress the world has ever known.  During her acting career she was nicknamed “The Divine Sarah.”  There is much uncertainty about Bernhardt’s life; her birth records were lost in a fire and she was known to tell tall tales and exaggerate facts.  

Bernhardt had her acting debut on stage in 1862 while studying at the Comédie-Française. She left France and was soon in Belgium where she became the mistress of Henri Prince de Ligne and with him had a son they named Maurice.  Though a marriage proposal followed the birth of the child, Bernhardt was persuaded to end the relationship by the Prince’s family.  

Her return to France did not bring instant success and by 1865 Bernhardt was a courtesan.  It was during this time she bought a coffin in which she often slept in lieu of a bed.  According to Bernhardt, the practice helped her understand her tragic roles.  In 1866 she signed a contract with the Théâtre de L’Odéon.  Her greatest role there is considered to be Zanetto in François Coppée’s 1869 one-act play Le Passant ("The Passerby"); a role she played again in a command performance for Napoleon III.   When the Franco-Prussian war broke out, Bernhardt turned the theater into a makeshift hospital and took care of wounded soldiers.  

After the war, in the late 1870s Bernhardt resumed her acting and reached the peak of her career.  She was loved as much for her quirky behavior off stage as she was for her on stage performances.  In 1880, already extremely popular in Europe, Bernhardt took her own traveling company on a tour which included the parts of Europe she hadn’t already visited, Australia, Canada and the United States.  She became an international star.  

 From 1893 to 1899 she leased the Théâtre de la Renaissance which she ran as both producer and director. In 1899 Berhardt took over the former Théâtre des Nations on the Place du Châtelet, renaming it the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt. Upon her death, her son Maurice took over the theater until his death in 1928.  The theater kept its name until the Nazi occupation in WW II at which time they renamed the theater Théâtre de la Cité because of Bernhardt's Jewish ancestry. 

Bernhardt was considered one of the pioneers of the silent movie, though technically, her debut film, le Duel d’Hamlet in 1900 was considered one of the first films using a sound and moving image synching system.  She starred in eight motion and two biographical films in her career.  Not even the loss of  her right leg stopped Bernhardt from acting.

In Sarah Bernhardt from Silent Movie Era:  photographer Felix Nadar (1820-1910)Credit: photographer Felix Nadar (1820-1910)1905 while performing on stage, she injured her right knee which never healed properly.  By 1915 gangrene set in and the leg was amputated.  She was in a wheelchair for several months and then fitted with a wooden prosthetic limb which she claimed she didn’t like.  She often carried out her acting career without the prosthetic leg, choosing roles where she could sit. 

 Bernhardt also wrote her memoirs, My Double Life, in 1907 as well as the book The art of the Theater published in 1923.  In 1920 she published a novel called Petite Idole. Bernhardt died in 1923 from uremia following kidney failure while the movie La Voyante ("The Clairvoyant") was being filmed in her Paris home.  She was a sculptor and painter with many of her works known to still exist in museums and private collections.  

Sarah Bernhardt endorsed numerous products from face creams to cars and embraced the idea of being a celebrity.  She was never one to shy away from a photo op and her quirkiness included not only the coffin but a human skull inscribed by Victor Hugo and a bear rug made from the hide of a bear she claimed she killed in the Andes.  Bernhardt was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street for her film work.





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Sarah Bernhardt clip from Queen Elizabeth (1912)