The Divine Sarah

Sarah Bernhardt as Pierrot in Jean Richepin’s Pierrot assassin, 1883; photograph by Paul Nadar

It is no wonder that we know so little about the woman who was the world’s most famous actress for the best part of half a century. When Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, almost half a million people lined the streets of Paris. Most of them had seen her on stage and in movies, performing as though each plot were a conduit for her own emotions and as though every play from Racine’s Phèdre to Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias had been written as a psychobiography of Sarah Bernhardt. “No temperament more histrionic than Mme Bernhardt’s has, perhaps, ever existed,” wrote the obituarist of the London Times. “To read her memoirs is to live in a whirl of passions and adventures—floods of tears, tornadoes of rage, deathly sickness and incomparable health and energy.” As Robert Gottlieb warns in his appropriately lively biography, “She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it.”

Alexandre Dumas fils saw her deceitfulness as an essential part of her genius: “You know,” he said of the famously thin actress, “she’s such a liar, she may even be fat!” For Bernhardt herself, deception was not just a matter of theatrical illusion. Even as a child, she had reasons to conceal the truth. Her Jewish mother, Youle, who was either Dutch or German, was a wandering demimondaine—a polite term, in her case, for a prostitute specializing in wealthy men. Sarah, or Rosine, as she appears in some documents, was Youle’s third child: she had given birth to twin girls when she was only fifteen years old. All three were illegitimate, and all three may have had the same father, a naval officer from Le Havre. Whoever he was, he disappeared, never to return. The name Bernhardt was borrowed from Youle’s lover of the moment, “one of the wildest youngsters in the Latin Quarter.” He was called Édouard de Therard, and Bernhardt was his nom de guerre.

Bernhardt’s own version of her family background—a beautiful, neglectful young mother and a handsome father mysteriously detained in China—suggests a mind steeped in cheap melodrama, though perhaps the clichés simply fitted the emotional reality. Starved of parental affection, she became troublesome, tomboyish, and oddly prone to accidents. She fell into a fire and was “thrown, all smoking, into a large pail of fresh milk”; she flung herself in front of her aunt’s carriage and broke her arm in two places; she hit her classmates and cried herself into life-threatening fevers. She also assembled a gruesome little zoo of lizards, crickets, and spiders, which she gleefully fed with flies.

While little Sarah was learning to make herself the center of attention and—according to her memoirs—behaving like an actress-to-be, her mother was preparing her for a slightly different, though related, career.…

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