WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, SARAH BERNHARDT? Who Sarah Bernhardt thought she was, or wanted the world to think she was, did not always align with the facts. Myth was her currency, and it certainly paid off. At the close of the 19th century, she was known as the most publicized and richest actress. She captivated the world with her larger than life personality and scandalous escapades. Her intuitive understanding of “brand management” plus her extraordinary success as an actor and entrepreneur established the blueprint for the stars of today.

SARAH THE ACTRESS Bernhardt’s life did not start out auspiciously. While the official records of her birth were destroyed in a fire, it is confirmed that she was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard in 1844, the fatherless daughter of a Dutch-Jewish courtesan.

Despite her Jewish lineage, she spent much of her childhood at convent school, even declaring that she wanted to become a nun. One of her mother’s lovers, Charles Duc de Morny, the illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, suggested that 16-year-old Sarah’s temperament was better suited for the theatre. He pulled some strings and paid for her to attend the Paris Conservatory. When she failed to impress her teachers, Morny again used his influence to secure Bernhardt a spot in the Comédie-Française, France’s prestigious national theatre company.

Bernhardt made her debut on August 31, 1862 in the title role of Racine’s Iphigénie. She was decidedly not a hit. After the curtain call, when she asked her teacher for forgiveness, he remarked, “I can forgive you, and you’ll eventually forgive yourself, but Racine in his grave never will.” Her poor performance, coupled with her constant stage fright and histrionics, led to an altercation in which she slapped a senior actress in the company. Thus, Bernhardt’s reputation as a diva was born.

Over the next few years she worked on her craft and in 1868 had a breakout hit with the revival of Alexandre Dumas’s play Kean. Her skill—and box office draw—was so great that Comédie-Française welcomed her back into the troupe in 1872.

Bernhardt played at least 70 roles in 125 plays over the course of her career, both female and male. Most popular were her dramatic death scenes. She played 19-year-old


This photograph of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet was used on postcards. It depicts Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull in the famous graveyard scene.

Joan of Arc when she was 46. At 55, she signed a 25- year lease on a theatre in Paris, renaming it Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. She continued to tour the world late in life, even giving a recital at San Quentin Prison. After her right leg was amputated, she continued to perform on stage as well as for the troops on the battlefront of World War I. She did not use a prosthetic limb. Instead, she relied upon strategically placed set pieces as she moved across the stage, or was carried about on a satin sedan chair in the style of Louis XV.

Always on the cutting edge, she starred in several silent films. Though she died in 1923 before talking movies were made, many consider her the most famous actress the world has ever known. A million people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu as her coffin made its way to Père Lachaise cemetery.

Click HERE to watch Bernhardt as Hamlet fencing with Laertes.

To learn more about the Comédie-Française, one of the world’s oldest still-operating theatres, click HERE.

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