Stardom Is Born

Sarah Bernhardt listening to a recording of her voice, early 1890s
Bettmann/Getty Images
Sarah Bernhardt listening to a recording of her voice, New York City, early 1890s

Celebrity culture is not new, even if it often feels that way. Henry James greatly admired Sarah Bernhardt when he first saw her on the Parisian stage in 1876, but what he witnessed when she arrived in London three years later was “the success of a celebrity, pure and simple”—a success that in James’s eyes had very little to do with her gifts as an artist. “It would require some ingenuity,” he wrote, “to give an idea of the intensity, the ecstasy, the insanity as some people would say, of curiosity and enthusiasm provoked by Mlle. Bernhardt.” If “the trade of a celebrity” had not already been invented, according to James, Bernhardt “would have discovered it. She has in a supreme degree what the French call the génie de la réclame—the advertising genius; she may, indeed, be called the muse of the newspaper.” Though she had yet to make her first tour of his native land, he was confident of the reception she would find: “She is too American not to succeed in America.” Like James’s other remarks on the actress’s newfound “trade,” this was not intended as a compliment.

Bernhardt would in fact make ten triumphant tours of the United States, performing not only in obvious places like New York, Chicago, and Boston, but in comparatively provincial towns like Salisbury, North Carolina, and Battle Creek, Michigan. On the first of her four “farewell” tours to the US in 1905–1906, her stops in Texas alone included Dallas, Waco, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. In Kansas City, she ordered a custom-made tent with seating for five thousand and raked in nearly $10,000 for a performance in the Convention Hall before the tent could be finished—“the largest single night receipts from a dramatic engagement ever known in the history of the stage,” according to a contemporary account in Theatre Magazine. Her European tours took her as far afield as Turkey and Russia; she also performed in Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, and multiple countries in South America.

Even when she was not on stage, Bernhardt managed to keep herself in the spotlight: arranging to be photographed sleeping in a coffin, for instance, or chartering a hot-air balloon to fly over Paris and then following up with a book ostensibly narrated by her balloon chair. Both these well-publicized stunts took place as her fame was first accelerating in the 1870s, but her genius for self-promotion scarcely flagged in the decades that followed. By the time of her death in 1923, she was clearly the most famous actress in the world. A crowd estimated at a million lined the streets of Paris for her funeral, anticipating those who would gather for Princess Diana in London more…

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