This Day in Jewish History / Sarah Bernhardt, Mother of All Drama Queens, Is Born

The French-Jewish actress who used to sleep in a coffin (because it helped her prepare for tragic roles) was virtually the world's first international celebrity.

October 22 (or 23), 1844, is the birthdate of Sarah Bernhardt, the outstanding French actress who was ahead of herself in almost every way, including perhaps in being the world’s first international celebrity, whose expertise at self-promotion was only equaled by the artistic talent she had to promote.

She was born as Rosine Bernard, the daughter of Julie Bernard and an unknown father. Julie (1821-1876) was the daughter of a Dutch oculist and small-time crook named Moritz Baruch Bernardt, who after the death of Julie’s mother, Sara, remarried and soon after abandoned his second wife and the six children he had had with Sara. Julie took herself to Paris, where she survived as a courtesan. and where Sarah was born

Julie sent Sarah away, first to an Augustine convent near Versailles, and then, at age 13, to the drama school at the Paris Conservatoire. Sarah’s thought had been to become a nun, but it was her mother’s then-lover, Charles Duc de Morny, the illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon III, who decided that she should be trained as an actress. At the Conservatoire, she learned about the acting tradition of an earlier student, the great Jewish actress Rachel (Eliza Rachel Felix, 1821-1858). Bernhardt always kept in her dressing room a portrait of Rachel.

In 1862, de Morny arranged for Sarah to be accepted on probation to the Comedie Francaise, the national acting company. Her debut performances there made little impression, but her slapping the face of a senior actress of the company, when the latter shoved her sister, did: Sarah was promptly expelled from the Comedie.

A period of uncertainty led to Bernhardt’s travel to Belgium, where she became the lover of Henri, Prince of Ligne. He was the father of her one child, Maurice, born in 1864, and although Henri wanted to marry Bernhardt, his family was opposed, and convinced her to decline his offer.

Throughout her life, Bernhardt, who was notoriously creative about her own biography, was always very forthright about the fact that her son was illegitimate. Similarly, she never tried to conceal or deny her Jewish origins, but instead expressed pride in them. Although she had been baptized as a Catholic, and declared herself an atheist, she was the frequent object of anti-Semitic comments and even literary caricatures. When, after the Franco-Prussian War, she was accused of being German and Jewish in the press, she was reported to have responded, “Jewish most certainly, but German, no.” And a biographer of Bernhardt’s quoted a letter she wrote addressing these same accusations: “If I have a foreign accent - which I much regret - it is cosmopolitan, but not Teutonic. I am a daughter of the great Jewish race, and my somewhat uncultivated language is the outcome of our enforced wanderings.”

By 1866, Bernhardt had returned to Paris, where she began acting at the Odeon Theater. She stayed there for six years, and had a number of successes, the most notable of which was probably in 1869, as the wandering male minstrel Zanetto in the one-act verse play “The Passerby,” by Francois Coppee.

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the Odeon was shut for performances, and Bernhardt converted its building into a hospital, where she herself helped care for wounded soldiers.

Two years later, she had her return to the Comedie Francaise. She played in roles by Victor Hugo, who also became her lover, and in the title role in Jean Racine’s Phedre. Bringing the latter role to London in 1879 was the beginning of an international career for Bernhardt. After starting her own theater company, in 1880, she began touring, not only around Europe, but also to the United States (in 1906, she performed in a tent in Waco, Texas, before an audience of 5,000), and eventually to South America and Australia. She always traveled with the coffin that she slept in (she said that it helped her prepare for tragic roles), and at times with an alligator she called Ali-Gaga.

In 1905, after jumping from a balcony during the final scene of “La Tosca,” in a performance in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right leg. A decade later, when it became gangrenous, she was required to have it amputated. But this did not stop her from acting, appearing with an artificial limb. She even came to the front to perform during World War I. She played men – including Hamlet and also, in Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon, the 21-year-old son of Napoleon, when she herself was 55.

She owned and managed her own theater, the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, which was renamed during the German occupation of Paris, during World War II. And she performed in some very early motion pictures. She also wrote a novel, a memoir and a book called “The Art of the Theater.” She also took to painting and sculpture.

Bernhardt was married once, to Greek actor Aristides Damala, who died young from his addiction to morphine. Her many love affairs apparently included a relationship with the future King Edward VII, when he was still Prince of Wales.

Sarah Bernhardt lived to the age of 78. She died on March 26, 1923, after suffering kidney failure.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Library of Congress
William Downey