Sarah Bernhart

Biography of Sarah Bernhardt who was without a doubt the most famous French actress of all time. Throughout her life she premiered 150 works with total success.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation

She was the one who best interpreted Shakespeare’s plays. In the nineteenth century she founded her own theater company.

She was considered the golden voice of French theater. In addition to being beautiful, she had a gift of people that immediately conquered those who saw her.

Everyone inspired, everyone fell in love. Sigmund Freud, the great father of psychoanalysis, had placed a huge photo of Sarah Bernhardt at the entrance of his office to encourage patients who came to see him.

Sarah Bernhardt’s childhood and studies

Sarah Bernhardt was born on October 23, 1844 at number 5 rue de l’École-de-Médecine, in Paris. Her official name was Rosine Bernardt.

Her mother, Judith-Julie Bernardt, was Jewish of Dutch origin.

When Sarah was born, Judith was 23 years old and one of the beautiful young courtesans in Paris.

Judith had a sister named Rosine, who also spent her life at the imperial court.

In 1843, Judith Bernardt had two twin girls, who died within two weeks. After Sarah, she had Jeanne and Régine. They were all daughters of different and unknown parents.

Sarah’s father was unknown, although it is likely that he was the Duke of Morny, a half-brother of the Emperor Napoleon III.

Sarah spent the first four years of her life in the Brittany region, in the care of a nurse.

The first language Sarah learned was Breton; for this reason, at the beginning of her theatrical career, she adopted the Breton form of her surname, “Bernhardt”, instead of her mother’s surname “Bernardt”.

While in Brittany, she fell from a window, and broke her right knee. Although she healed without other problems, her knee was forever delicate.

Very concerned about this accident, her mother took her to live with her in Paris, until Sarah was 7 years old.

In Paris, Sarah was enrolled in the “Fressard Institution“, a boarding school for young ladies, next to Auteuil. She stayed there for two years.

In 1853, at the age of 9, she was admitted to the “Colegio Grandchamp“, of religious; and close to Versailles. In this school she performed her first theatrical performance, was baptized and made her first communion. The mystical atmosphere of the school made her consider becoming a nun.

Sarah Bernhardt 20
Portrait of Sarah Bernhart in 1964. Credit: The Getty Center

Studies and work from 1859 to 1864

After leaving Grandchamp at the age of 15, her mother tried to introduce her to the gallant world so that she could earn a living as a courtesan.

But Sarah, influenced by her convent upbringing, flatly refused.

Her mother, Julie Bernard, had a lounge in her Parisian flat, where her clients met. Among them was Napoleon III’s half-brother, the Duke of Morny.

The duke advised Sarah to enroll in the “Conservatory of Music and Declamation.”

Thanks to the duke’s contacts, Sarah entered this institution without difficulty.

In 1861 she won a second prize in tragedy and an honorable mention in comedy.

After completing her studies at the Conservatory, again thanks to the efforts of the Duke of Morny, she was admitted to the prestigious Comédie-Française.

On August 11, 1862, Sarah Bernhart made her debut, acting in the play “Iphigénie” by Jean Racine.

Despite her innate qualities as an actress, the problems she had with her peers forced her to leave the Comédie-Française in 1863.

Comédie Francaise
La Comédie-Française founded in 1686 is the oldest theatrical institution in the world. Credit: web franceinter.fr

Just three weeks later, she was hired by the Gymnase Theater, where she played seven small roles in different plays.

She performed for the last time on April 7, 1864.

This was due to the fact that, in that year, she met Charles-Joseph Lamoral, Prince de Ligne, one of the great loves of her life.

She began a passionate relationship with him, became pregnant, and the prince abandoned her.

On December 22, 1864 Sarah gave birth to her only son, Maurice Bernhardt.

Without a trade, having momentarily failed in the world of the theater, and with a newborn son, Sarah had no choice but to follow in her mother’s footsteps: she became a courtesan of the imperial court.

Napoleon III
Around the Empress Eugenia de Montijo and Napoleon III, courtiers and beautiful ladies proliferated, many of them wise, cultured and intelligent. Credit: web mujeresenlahistoria.com Sandra Ferrer Valero.

Sarah Bernhart did not abandon her life as a courtesan until she managed to consolidate her theatrical career and was able to support herself with the financial means provided by her work as an actress.

Sarah Bernhardt’s professional life from 1867

Sarah Bernhardt’s immense dramatic talent soon won the admiration of theatergoers.

Three years later, in 1867 she made her debut at the Odéon Theater with Molière’sThe Wise Women” (Les femmes savantes). There she began her true professional career.

Her acting style was based on naturalness, a prodigious voice, perfect declamation and multiple registers as an actress.

She did not adopt at all the gestures and exaggerated declamations of the artists of that time.

Her voice, perfectly modulated, was projected a great distance. At the end of her performances she was acclaimed and applauded amidst cheers, for many minutes.

Sarah Bernhardt had great ability to alternate her participation in many theatrical productions, with gallant life at the imperial court.

It did not take long for her to achieve the fame that allowed her to dedicate herself fully to her true vocation.

In 1869, she performed in “Le Passant“, a one-act verse play by the author of François Coppée. It was a memorable performance and thunderously applauded.

From then on, she was acclaimed with growing enthusiasm, each time she performed the verse works of Jean Racine, such as Ifigenia, Phaedra or Andrómaco.

Racine
Racine (1639-1699), together with Molière and Corneille is one of the three great French playwrights of the seventeenth century. Credit: web kids.britannica.com

Sarah Bernhardt’s theatrical performances captivated the audience, especially since she always fled from over-acting and affectation.

The wonderful combination of her theatrical talent with experience at the imperial court, contemplating the empress and the magnificent ladies of the court, made possible her acclaimed representations of queens or great heroines of tragedy.

Eugenia de Montijo
Eugenia de Montijo, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III, experienced the glory and glamor of the Second French Empire. Credit: nationalgeographic.com.es

As soon as she resumed her activity as an actress, she was preferred by directors, to work in important theatrical works.

She stood out especially in “The Lady of the Camellias” (by Dumas Jr.), “Macbeth” (by (Shakespeare), “Joan of Arc” (by Jules Barbier).

Sarah Bernhardt’s professional career since 1870

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out.

After the French defeat and the fall of Napoleon III, many exiled intellectuals were able to return to France, including Victor Hugo, the great French writer.

The return of Victor Hugo was momentous in Bernhardt’s life, as the writer chose her to star in the re-release of his work “Ruy Blas”.

Many consider this drama to be Victor Hugo‘s best theatrical work.

Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhart in the role of Queen. Credit: web en.wikipedia.org

Her magnificent performance as Queen in the drama “Ruy Blas” elevated Sarah Bernhart to unimaginable heights of success.

She returned to the Comédie-Française as a great star and there she consolidated her repertoire and her multiple registers as an actress.

She broke with everything established, delving into the psychology of the characters.

She studied every gesture and every intonation of the text that she had to say, looking for natural perfection without noticing any kind of artifice.

In those years her death scenes became famous in which, instead of offering death throes and agonizing groans, she delved into the act of dying from the psychological and sentimental point of view.

It was always said that “no one knew how to die better than Bernhardt.”

Sarah Bernhardt had a special affection for her little sister Régine.

To remove her from court life, as soon as she could, she took her to live with her. But Régine died at eighteen, in 1873, of tuberculosis.

Apart from her profession as an actress, Sarah became interested in sculpture and painting. She exhibited her works several times at the Paris Salon between 1874 and 1896.

She also wrote three books

  • Her autobiography entitled “Ma double vie” (My double life).
  • Petite Idole” and
  • L´art du Théâtre: la voix, la geste, la pronontiation” (The art of theater: the voice, the gesture, the pronunciation.

Sarah Bernhardt’s international hits

So resounding were Sarah Bernhardt’s successes in France during the 1870s that she was showered with offers of performances from England and the United States.

In 1879 she made her first exit from France and chose to go first to England.

Her fame was already so great that the reception in London was truly spectacular.

She spent six weeks in England, working at a rate of two performances a day, with packed halls and enthusiastic applause before the great lady of the theater.

One of her admirers was the young writer Oscar Wilde. Years later, in 1893, Sarah agreed to perform her play “Salomé.”

Sarah’s fame in England immediately spread to France.

The French government was quick to recognize the great merits of its actress.

In that same year, the Comédie-Française elevated her to the highest hierarchy of the institution, naming her “Full Member”.

The following year, in October 1880, after her spectacular success in England, Sarah decided to go on her first American tour.

She left for the United States on October 15, 1880.

On the voyage aboard L’Amérique she met Mary Tood, the widow of President Abraham Lincoln.

Ship
Engraving of the French transatlantic ship l’Amérique. Credit: web todocoleccion.net

The success was total in the United States. They enabled a train with seven luxury cars called “Sarah Bernhardt Special“, which was for the exclusive use of the actress.

She used it with great pleasure in the repeated farewell tours that she made in that country that acclaimed her as the great actress that she was.

The Americans were so splendid with her that they even managed to get her to bring their art to Hawaii.

Sarah Bernhardt was quite a show. She made an incredible buzz wherever she went, on stage and off.

Journalists chased her, she was the most famous actress of her time. Every time she traveled, she carried huge trunks, sparing no expense on changing rooms or personal and company jewelry.

In addition, she always carried several boxes of the best French champagne.

Sarah Bernhardt had confrontations and a very tense relationship with the director of the Comédie-Française.

Sarah was already a famous leading lady and did not indulge Monsieur Perrin in any wrong.

On March 18, 1880, she broke her contract and resigned as Socia de la Comédie.

The Comédie won the legal trial and Sarah Bernhardt had to renounce the 43,000 francs that she would have had in pension and was sentenced to 100,000 francs of fine which she never paid.

Sarah Bernhardt set up her own theater

On her splendid first American tour, Sarah Bernhardt had made a great fortune.

This prompted her to become the world’s leading business actress: in 1883, she leased the Porte-Saint-Martin theater.

Sarah admirably specialized in the works of William Shakespeare.

Nobody did it better than her, both in female and male characters. Most of the protagonists in Shakespeare’s plays were men.

Among the great female characters, Sarah Bernhardt’s interpretation of Margarita Gautier in “The Lady of the Camellias“, the great work of Alexander Dumas Jr., was unforgettable.

Sarah Bernhardt performed in her own theater until the end of the century.

The best works by Racine, Molière, Georges SandVictor Hugo, Voltaire, Dumas Jr., Sardou, Alfred de Musset were performed there.

Theater
The Porte-Saint-Martin theater was a theater located at 16 boulevard Saint Martin. Credit: web es.wikipedia.org

Sarah Bernhardt did not hesitate to support avant-garde theater.

The Porte-Saint-Martin premiered works by new authors that broke with traditional theater.

During her tours, the theater remained open and works that had various commercial successes were continuously premiered.

Love life of Sarah Bernhardt

Naturally, the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt attracted numerous admirers who, in turn, were relevant characters.

With some of them, she had unstable romantic relationships. Among the best known: Gustave Doré, Victor Hugo, Philippe Garnier, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Eduardo Prince of Wales.

She was married only once, and it was to a Greek officer named Jacques Aristidis Damala.

Damala was the son of a wealthy shipowner. Sarah Bernhardt married him on April 4, 1882.

Damala
Jacques Damala died at age 42, in 1889, from the effects of continued abuse of morphine. Credit: web en.wikipedia.org

Sarah taught him acting classes and gave him the role of Armand Duval, the second lead in the play “The Lady of the Camellias.”

The actors in Sarah Bernhardt’s company constantly mocked Jacques Damala.

In addition, he had very bad relationships with Maurice, Sarah’s son. All this led him to enlist in the Foreign Legion, and he was posted to Algeria.

Months later he returned with Sarah. He never knew how to take advantage of the benefits of living with Sarah Bernhardt and, when in 1887 she decided to go on a tour of the American continent, he did not accompany her.

When Damala died in 1889, Sarah Bernhardt buried him in Athens and adorned the tomb with a bust carved by herself.

Performing tours around the world

At the end of the 19th century, Sarah Bernhardt’s name was associated with that of “wonderful actress.”

This, added to her great sympathy and willpower, made it possible for her to meet the invitations she received from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Peru.

She traveled by train and by boat. It even crossed Cape Horn, when it passed between Argentina and Chile.

In her journey, she performed in the largest theaters; but she also brought her art to the public in theaters of the lowest category.

Her name and her figure were remembered for many years in these countries.

Sarah Bernhart also went out of her way with joy and enthusiasm performing in Egypt, Turkey, Moscow, Berlin, Bucharest, Rome and Athens.

Jeanne Barnardt, Sarah’s other sister, was also a courtesan for a time.

To separate her from that life, Sarah took her with her company on several of her tours of the United States and Europe.

She was a mediocre actress, but she played small roles and lived a luxurious life with her sister.

Because of her addiction to morphine, she was admitted to the La Pitié-Salpetrière hospital in Paris, under the care of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot.

Sarah’s son Maurice was very close to her mother. He always lived in its shadow, wasting real fortunes in gambling, traveling and in a gift life.

Sarah Bernhardt also rented for a time the Théatre de la Renaissance, where she performed many successful plays.

In 1899 he rented the enormous Theater des Nations for 25 years.

This was the only theater in France where it was possible to see the “divine Sarah” perform during the last twenty-four years of her life, until 1923.

The last 23 years of Sarah Bernhardt’s life

Sarah Bernhardt in addition to being an exceptional actress, had a great business sense.

She dared to found her own company and rented theaters for her plays; She also accepted to appear in the advertisements of the time: tobacco, makeup, mineral water, dresses and everything that was offered to her.

She made a lot of money and spent it generously on herself, her family, and the theater.

The 20th century began for Sarah with the premiere of “The Harrier” at her “Sarah Bernhardt Theater” on March 15, 1900.

The Harrier” is a drama that Edmond Rostand wrote in 1900.

It consists of six acts and refers to the son of Napoleon Bonaparte and Maria Luisa of Austria. Sarah Barnhardt played the role of Napoleon II, the Eaglet.

In 1905, while performing “Tosca”, and at the culminating moment of the play, she stumbled and seriously injured her right leg, the same one that had been injured in Brittany as a child.

Doctors considered the need to amputate her leg. She refused and for 10 years went on stage suffering terrible pain.

Sarah Bernhardt was one of the first actresses to understand that Cinema would be the future.

They say that she cried emotionally when she first saw her image in a movie.

She tried her luck with the newborn cinema, playing Hamlet in the movie “Hamlet’s Duel“, filmed in 1900.

She starred in “Elisabeth, Queen of England“, directed by Louis Mercanton, in 1912.

In 1913, she played Jeanne Doré in the film “Jeanne Doré”, directed by Tristan Bernard.

This film is considered Sarah Bernhardt’s best as a movie actress.

She was 69 years old and at the height of her performing art. The film is kept at the Cinematheque in Paris.

In 1914, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor as a reward for a lifetime of spreading French culture.

In 1915, Sarah could no longer deal with the terrible pain in her leg and there was no choice but to have it amputated.

Once recovered from the operation, she decided to tour the French trenches, to encourage the troops fighting in that terrible First World War.

After the war, she organized several tours with her company and toured all of France.

And she kept acting. She recited monologues and poems; or performed famous acts from her repertoire of works in which she did not have to stand.

In 1922 she sold her mansion in Belle-Krzyle-en-Mer, where she had shot in 1915 the documentary film about her life, “Ceux de chez nous”.

Belle Ile en Mer
Belle-Île-en-Mer is a French island located on the Atlantic coast of the Brittany region. Credit: web airfrance.fr

On March 15, 1923, Sarah was at her home in Paris, working on the filming of the movie “La Voyante.”

At one point she fainted and never recovered.

Eleven days later, on March 23, 1923, she died in the arms of her son Maurice Bernhardt. She was 78 years old.

Her funeral was massive. Some 150,000 French people took to the streets to accompany Sarah Bernhardt’s coffin on the way to the Père-Lachaise cemetery and see her off.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation

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