by Louise Abbema
Sarah Bernhardt (c. 22/23 October 1844 — 26 March 1923) was a 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 France 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".
1891, by Napoleon Sarony
Bernhardt was born in Paris as Rosine Bernardt, the daughter of Julie Bernardt (1821, Amsterdam – 1876, Paris) and an unknown father. Julie was one of six children of a widely traveling Jewish spectacle merchant, "vision specialist" and petty criminal, Moritz Baruch Bernardt, and Sara Hirsch (later known as Janetta Hartog; c. 1797–1829). Julie's father remarried Sara Kinsbergen (1809–1878) two weeks after his first wife's death, and abandoned his family in 1835. Julie left for Paris, where she made a living as a courtesan and was known by the name "Youle".
Sara would add the letter "H" to both her first and last names. Sarah's birth records were lost in a fire in 1871, but in order to prove French citizenship, necessary for Légion d'honneur eligibility, she created false birth records, on which she was the daughter of "Judith van Hard" and "Edouard Bernardt" from Le Havre, in later stories either a law student, accountant, naval cadet or naval officer. Much of the uncertainty about Bernhardt's life arises because of her tendency to exaggerate and distort. Alexandre Dumas, fils described her as a notorious liar.
1860, by Felix Nadar
Bernhardt's stage career started in 1862 while she was a student at the Comédie-Française, France's most prestigious theater. She decided to leave France, and soon ended up in Belgium, where she became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne (1837 - 1914), and gave birth to their son, Maurice, in 1864. After Maurice's birth, the Prince proposed marriage, but his family forbade it and convinced Bernhardt to refuse and end their relationship.
However, she was not entirely successful at the conservatory and left to become a courtesan by 1865. 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. She made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand all over Europe and in New York. In 1872 she left the Odéon and returned to Comédie-Française. One of her remarkable successes there was in the title role of Voltaire's Zaïre (1874). She even travelled to Cuba and performed in the Sauto Theater, in Matanzas, in 1887. She coached many young women in the art of acting, including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.
Sarah's close friends would include several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges Clairin, 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, some nine years her junior, was so close and passionate that the two women were rumored to be lovers.
1865, by Felix Nadar
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 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.
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; she was required to use a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt reportedly refused a $10,000 offer by a showman to display her amputated leg as a medical curiosity. She continued her career often without using a wooden prosthetic limb; she had tried to use one but didn't like it.
She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to France she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Her later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Régine Armand (1922). According to Arthur Croxton, the manager of London's Coliseum, the amputation was not apparent during her performances, which were done with the use of an artificial limb. Her physical condition may have limited her mobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her triumphs.
Bernhardt once stated, "Me pray? Never! I'm an atheist." However, she had been baptised a Roman Catholic, and accepted the last rites shortly before her death. Sarah Bernhardt died from uremia following kidney failure in 1923; she is believed to have been 78 years old.
Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet (1900)