Episode 185: Sarah Bernhardt

Posted 1 October 2021 by

One of the famous Felix Nadar portraits taken shortly after she joined the Conservatoire. Circa 1864

Sarah Bernhardt was an actress, sculptress, writer, mother, celebrity…legendary global phenomenon. She was also a courtesan, a master self-promoter, and an all-around unique individual who lived her life on her terms and in her own way.

Henriette Rosine Bernard… or was it Sarah Marie Henriette Bernard? Oh yes, it’s going to be one of those stories- was born on October 22 or 23 probably in 1844, definitely in Paris, France. Ah yes, one of THOSE stories! She was the first surviving child of Judith (Youle) Van Hard Bernard…and a mystery man.

A young Sarah and her mother

Sarah spent the earliest years of her life being raised by a nurse/governess in coastal France. Why? Mama Youle was very much a working single mother…and her chosen career as a courtesan didn’t leave a lot of time or room to raise a baby. When Sarah reached school age she was sent away to local boarding schools…until she was 15. At that point the decision was made for her to enter the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation in Paris…and Sarah found her life’s work on the stage.

Sarah when she debuted at Comédie Française, about 17

She made her debut in 1862 and was only okay per the critics. She did take a little life-side tour adventure that resulted in her having a son, Maurice who she did not send off to be raised away from her. When her acting career really took off at the Odeon Theater it shot her to fame, not just in Paris, but soon in the world.

Sarah Bernhardt was a global superstar. Simple as that, but not simple at all. She was a complicated, unique, talented, dynamic, woman whose career really was shot to unprecedented popularity once she untethered herself from someone else’s theater company, and put herself center stage in her own. She wasn’t all hype and no substance–she could make audiences weep who didn’t even speak a word of French. The life she led was as big and epic as her personality.

Sarah had a version of Hamlet as part of her repertoire, and she was the first woman to play a man on film.

Sarah was also a renowned sculptress, an author, an adventurer, and a film actress. She was playmates with the biggest names of her time and even married for a brief and tumultuous time.

After the Storm, by Sarah

Sarah played male roles, too! Hamlet was part of her repertoire (a perkier Hamlet than the OG) and she was the first woman to play a male role on film in 1900.

Here’s another peek at her acting.

 

She is about 66 years old in this photo. Circa 1910 by Henri Walter

Time Travel With The History Chicks

Books!

 

By Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale- long and deep

 

By Robert Gottlieb, short and high points.

 

By Catherine Reef, middle grade but it’s impossible to make Sarah’s life G rated.

Ditto. By Elizabeth Silverthorne

 

Her larger-than-you-probably-think film career. By Victoria Duckett

 

By Sarah herself…it’s worthy of a read but tell your brain that it’s historical fiction.

 

Sarah can teach you how to be a stage performer! Strongly recommend this audio version if only for the very Sarah diction of the narrator (this is a compliment, we swear!)

 

Fiction by, Sarah. “Based on” her life…ish.

 

Compilation book of actors, by Edward Wagenknecht

 

By Deborah G. Felder and Diana Rosen. Great compilation!

By Sarah, translated by John Joline Ross, illustrations by Sarah’s co-balloonist George Clarin. Not yet published, if you can find it–congratulations!

Web!

Jewish Women Archives is excellent and has quite an extensive source of biographies, including Sarah’s.

After the Storm, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Damala’s head

The story of Sarah’s amputated leg (spoiler, it’s not that) in The Lancet

More women with disabilities from history that you should know, from Laura Elliot.

Museums!

Sarah Bernhardt Museum on Belle-Île! In the house!

*****Recommendation list under construction, please come back for more!******