""THE THREE WOMEN I HAVE MOST ADMIRED IN MY LIFE ARE SARAH BERNHARDT, LILLIE LANGTRY,
AND QUEEN VICTORIA. I WOULD HAVE MARRIED ANY ONE OF THEM WITH PLEASURE.” - OSCAR WILDE
A MYTHIC LIFE Coffin bed. Taxidermied bat hat. Amputated leg. Lovers aplenty. Sarah Bernhardt was known for many things besides her onstage talents.
At the age of 20, her son Maurice was born, as was
Sarah Bernhardt wearing her taxidermied bat hat around 1880.
her reputation as a scandalous woman. It wasn’t until she was quite famous that
Henri Prince de Ligne offered to formally recognize Maurice as his son. Maurice politely declined, explaining that he was content to be the son of Sarah Bernhardt.
In 1882, Bernhardt proposed to and married Aristides Damalas, a Greek military man, 11 years her junior. She hired him to perform with her, but he preferred spending her money, having affairs, and taking morphine. Though they separated, the pair stayed married until he died of a drug overdose in 1899.
Bernhardt wanted everything associated with the good life, including her exotic pet collection, which was said to
include a boa constrictor,
a lion, a parrot, a puma, two horses, a monkey named Darwin and an alligator named Ali Gaga whom she served milk and champagne, ultimately sending him to an early grave. Bernhardt also spent outrageous sums of money paying off the many gambling debts of her son, Maurice.
Over the course of her life, Sarah turned many more co-stars into lovers. She was also muse to many, including Oscar Wilde, Edmond Rostand, and Marcel Proust. She evolved from muse to maker, developing her talents in writing, painting, and sculpture. Louise Abbéma, an expressionist painter with whom Sarah had her most notable same-sex affair, was a fan of her work. Bernhardt still has many fans today—in 2017, a white marble relief of Ophelia made and signed by Bernhardt sold at auction for $385,444.
THE WORLD’S FIRST CELEBRITY Sarah Bernhardt seemed to understand that ubiquity enhanced celebrity. She posed for many artists, ensuring that her image would be seen all around the world in paintings, sculptures, photographs, and graphic designs, like Alphonse Mucha’s famous Art Nouveau posters. Victor Hugo, with whom she had an affair when he was 70 and she just 27, nicknamed her “The Golden Voice.” So, in 1910, she visited Thomas Edison in West Orange, New Jersey to record her most famous and moving tragic role, a scene from Jean Racine's 1677 tragedy Phèdre. She also loaned her name and image to real estate ventures in the Bronx and endorsed products from face powder to aperitifs.
Sarah Bernhardt developed one of the Western world’s first cults of personality. In 1906 the French breeder Monsieur Lemoine cultivated the Sarah Bernhardt Peony, the most showy variety. In 1960, Sarah was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2001, Martha Stewart shared a recipe for Sarah Bernhardt cookies, claiming they are as “multilayered as their namesake.” Love her or hate her, everyone knew her name. Over 100 years later, people still do. •
Listen to Thomas Edison’s recording of Sarah Bernhardt HERE. Get Martha Stewart’s recipe for Sarah Bernhardt’s cookies HERE.
The front page of sheet music to the "Sarah Bernhardt Polka," published in Boston in 1880, highlights her global fame.
BERNHARDT/HAMLET UPSTAGE GUIDE 7
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