Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – March 26, 1923) was a French stage actress, and has been referred to as "the most famous actress in the history of the world".[1] Bernhardt made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand in Europe and the United States. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the nickname "The Divine Sarah."

Early life

She was born in Paris as Marie Henriette Bernardt, the daughter of Julie Bernardt and a father of Dutch nationality. She added the letter "H" to both her first and last name, and used the name of Édouard Bernardt, her mother's brother, as the name of her father. This was probably done to hide the fact that her father was unknown. Her grandfather, Moritz Bernardt, was a Jewish merchant in Amsterdam. Most likely, her Jewish mother was also born in Amsterdam.

Much of the uncertainty about Bernhardt's life arises because of her tendency to exaggerate and distort. Some claim she was born in Iowa and ran away to Paris, where she assumed a new identity as a French citizen to begin a stage career. Alexandre Dumas, fils (the author of La Dame aux camélias, in which she appeared almost 3000 times) described her as a notorious liar.[2]

To support herself, it is assumed that she combined the career of an actress and that of a courtesan. At the time, the two were considered scandalous to some degree. She was sponsored by the Duc de Morny in 1859 for the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation, for theatrical training.

File:Sarah Bernhardt-Nadar.jpg

Sarah Bernhardt photographed by Nadar

Stage career

Bernhardt's stage career started in 1862 when she was a student at the Comédie-Française, France's most prestigious theater. However, she was not entirely successful at the conservatory and left to become a courtesan by 1865. It was during this time that she acquired her famous coffin, which she often slept in in lieu of a bed, claiming it helped her understand her many tragic roles. She made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand all over Europe and in New York.[3] She soon developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the title "The Divine Sarah"; arguably, she may have been the most famous actress of the 19th century.[4] She coached many young women in the art of acting, including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.

Visual arts and recordings

Although primarily a stage actress, Bernhardt made several cylinders and discs of famous dialogues from various productions. One of the earliest was a reading from Phèdre by Jean Racine, at Thomas Edison's home on a visit to New York City in the 1880s. She was involved with the visual arts, acting, painting and sculpting herself, and modeling for Antonio de La Gandara. She also published a series of books and plays.

During her time, Bernhardt had a strong influence on grand opera, an influence that continues to this day. Tosca and Salome, for example, contain two of opera's most sensational heroines, both based on plays written for Bernhardt.

In 1914, Bernhardt was made a member of France's Legion of Honour.[5]

Private life

File:Sarah Bernhardt-The Fool and Death mg 1804.jpg

The Fool and Death, a bronze sculpture by Sarah Bernhardt depicting the character of Triboulet in Hugo's Le roi s'amuse.

Bernhardt had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri, Prince de Ligne, with whom she had her only child, Maurice Bernhardt, in 1864. He married a Polish princess, Maria Jablonowska (see Jablonowski). Later, close friends included several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges Clarin, and actors Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen, as well as the famous French author Victor Hugo. Alphonse Mucha based several of his iconic Art Nouveau works on her. Her friendship with Louise Abbema, a French impressionist painter 14 years her junior, was so close and passionate that the two women were rumored to be lovers.

She later married Greek-born actor Aristides Damala (known in France by the stage name Jacques Damala) in London in 1882, but the marriage, which legally endured until Damala's death in 1889 at age 34, quickly collapsed, largely due to Damala's dependence on morphine. During the latter years of this marriage, Bernhardt was said to have been involved in an affair with the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII.[6]

Bernhardt was not known to be a religious person, and once stated, "Me pray? Never! I'm an atheist."[7]


Sarah Bernhardt as Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas.

Silent film career

Bernhardt was also one of the pioneer silent movie actresses, debuting as Hamlet in the two minute long film Le Duel d'Hamlet in 1900. (Technically, this was not a silent film, as it had an accompanying Edison cylinder with sound effects.)[8] She went on to star in eight motion pictures and two biographical films in all. The latter included Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (1912), a film about her daily life at home.

Later career

File:Grave of Sarah Bernhardt Père Lachaise.jpg

Bernhardt's grave at Père Lachaise cemetery.

In 1905, while performing in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right knee during the final scene which required her to leap from a high wall. The leg never healed properly. By 1915 gangrene had set in and her entire right leg was amputated, confining her to a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt reportedly refused a $10,000 offer by a showman to display her amputated leg as a medical curiosity (while P.T. Barnum is usually cited as the one to have made the offer, he had been dead since 1891). Nonetheless, she continued her career, and contrary to belief, without the use of a wooden prosthetic limb (she tried using one, but didn't like it). She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to France she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Her later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Régine Armand (1922). Her physical condition confined her practically to immobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her triumphs.[9]

On March 26, 1923, Bernhardt died of uremia in the care of her son Maurice. She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.[10]

Sarah Bernhardt has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.


  • Dans les Nuages, Impressions d'une Chaise Charpentier (1878)
  • L'Aveu, drame en un acte en prose (1888)
  • Adrienne Lecouvreur, drame en six actes (1907)
  • Ma Double Vie (1907), & as My Double Life:Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt, (1907) William Heinemann
  • Un Coeur d'Homme, pièce en quatre actes (1911)
  • Petite Idole (1920; as The Idol of Paris, 1921)
  • L'Art du Théâtre: la voix, le geste, la prononciation, etc. (1923; as The art of the Theatre, 1924)
  • Sarah Bernhardt My Grandmother (1940)

Selected roles


Sarah Bernhardt - 1899
As Hamlet


Sarah Bernhardt, in a portrait, 1890s.

  • 1862: Racine's Iphigénie in the title rôle, her debut.
  • 1862: Eugène Scribe's Valérie
  • 1862: Molière's Les Femmes Savantes
  • 1864: Labiche & Deslandes, Un Mari qui Lance sa Femme
  • 1866: T & H Cognard's La Biche aux Bois
  • 1866: Racine's Phèdre (as Aricie)
  • 1866: Pierre de Marivaux's Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard (as Silvia)
  • 1867: Molière's Les Femmes Savantes (as Armande)
  • 1867: George Sand's Le Marquis de Villemer
  • 1867: Georges Sand's "François le Champi" (as Mariette)
  • 1868: Dumas père Kean (as Anna Damby)
  • 1869: Coppée's La Passant, as a male troubador (Zanetto); her first major stage success
  • 1870: George Sand's L'Autre
  • 1871: Theuriet's Jeanne-Marie
  • 1871: Coppée's Fais ce que Dois
  • 1871: Foussier and Edmond La Baronne
  • 1872: Bouilhet's Mademoiselle Aïssé
  • 1872: Hugo's Ruy Blas (as Doña Maira de Neubourg, Queen of Spain)
  • 1872: Dumas père Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle (as Gabrielle)
  • 1872: Racine's Britannicus (as Junie)
  • 1872: Beaumarchais's Le Mariage de Figaro
  • 1872: Sandeau's Mademoiselle de la Seiglière
  • 1873: Feuillet's Dalila (as Princess Falconieri)
  • 1873: Ferrier's Chez l'Avocat
  • 1873: Racine's Andromaque
  • 1873: Racine's Phèdre (as Aricie)
  • 1873: Feuillet's Le Sphinx
  • 1874: Voltaire's Zaire
  • 1874: Racine's Phèdre (as Phèdre)
  • 1875: Bornier's La Fille de Roland
    • Dumas fils' L'Étrangère (as Mrs. Clarkson)
    • Parodi's Rome Vaincue
  • 1877: Hugo's Hernani (as Doña Sol)
  • 1879: Racine's Phèdre (as Phèdre)
  • 1880: Émile Augier's L'Aventurière
  • 1880: Legouvé & Scribe's Adrienne Lecouvreur
  • 1880: Meilhac & Halévy's Froufrou
  • 1880: Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camélias (as Maguerite)
  • 1882: Sardou's Fédora
    • Sardou's Théodora (as Theodora, Empress of Byzantium)
  • 1887 : La Tosca de Victorien Sardou
    • Dumas fils' La Princesse Georges
  • 1890: Sardou's Cléopâtre, as Cleopatra
  • 1893: Lemaître's Les Rois
  • 1894: Sardou's Gismonda
  • 1895: Molière's Amphytrion
  • 1895: Magda(translation of Sudermann's Heimat)
  • 1896: La Dame aux Camélias
  • 1896: Musset's Lorenzaccio (as Lorenzino de' Medici)
  • 1897: Sardou's Spiritisme
  • 1897: Rostand's La Samaritaine
  • 1898: Catulle Mendès Medée
  • 1898: La Dame aux Camélias (as Marguerite Gautier)
  • 1899: Shakespeare's Hamlet (as Hamlet)
    • Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (as Cleopatra)
    • Shakespeare's Macbeth (as Lady Macbeth) (in French)
    • Richepin's Pierrot Assassin (as Pierrot)
  • 1900: Rostand's L'Aiglon as L'Aiglon
  • 1903: Sardou's La Sorcière
  • 1904: Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande (as Pelléas)
  • 1906: Ibsen's The Lady From the Sea
  • 1906: Mendès' La Vierge d'Avila (as Saint Theresa)
  • 1911: Moreau's Queen Elizabeth (as Queen Elizabeth)
  • 1913: Bernard's Jeanne Doré (as Jeanne Doré)


File:William Downey (1829-18 ), Sarah-Benhardt.jpg

portrait by William Downey

  • 1900: Le Duel d'Hamlet (Hamlet, as Hamlet) An excerpt from the play, featuring Bernhardt in a duel to the death with Laertes.
  • 1908: La Tosca (Tosca, as Tosca) A one-reel condensation of the play by the same name by Victorien Sardou.
  • 1911: La Dame aux Camélias (Lady of the Camelias - Camille, in the U.S. release, as Camille) A two-reel condensation of the play by the same name, and co-starring Lou Tellegen.
  • 1912: Adrienne Lecouvreur (An Actress's Romance; as Adrienne Lecouvreur) A two-reel condensation of the play by the same name. Co-starring Lou Tellegen.
  • 1912: Les Amours d'Elisabeth, Reine d'Angleterre (Queen Elizabeth; a major success) A four-reel condensation of the play of the same name. Co-starring Lou Tellegen.
  • 1912: Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (Sarah Bernhardt at Home, as herself) This documentary features Sarah at home with her family and friends, fishing for shrimp, and cuddling indoors with her pet dogs.
  • 1915: Mères Françaises (Mothers of France, as Madame Jeanne D'Urbex, a war widow in World War I. When she learns that her son has also been wounded, she searches the battlefields, crawls through trenches, and finally reaches him at a medical station only to have him die in her arms. After this tragedy, she dedicates her life to helping others survive the ravages of war.
  • 1915: Ceux de Chez Nous (Those at Home: biographical, home movies) Among other celebrated persons of the era, there is a brief scene featuring Sarah sitting on a park bench and reading from a book.
  • 1916: Jeanne Doré (as Jeanne Doré). Based on a play of the same name. Sarah appears as a widowed mother, who lavishes attention on her son, Jacques. When he is seduced by a temptress and accidentally murders a man, she visits him in his cell on the night before his execution, pretending to be his fiancée, so he can have one moment of final pleasure.
  • 1921: Daniel (5-minute death scene from the play of the same name.) Sarah appears as a morphine addict in the hour before death.
  • 1923: La Voyante (The Fortune Teller,) Sarah appears as a clairvoyant, who makes predictions that influence the outcome of national events. This film was Sarah's final performance, and was made while she was mortally ill. It was eventually completed with scenes made with a stand-in performing Bernhardt's character with her back turned to the camera.


File:Sarah bernhardt 1844 1923i.jpg

Sarah Bernhardt
Georges Clairin (1843 - 1919) oil painting on canvas

Phèdre (1902)
Written by Jean-Baptist Racine
Recorded at Pathé
An excerpt from the play of the same name, a spine-tingling tirade from Phèdre about her illicit passion for her Greek stepson, Hippolyte.

Le Lac (1902)
Written by Maurice Bernhardt
Recorded at Pathé
A poem about the Divine Worker and his creation of a beautiful lake.

La Fiancée du Timbalier (1902)
Written by Victor Hugo
Recorded at Pathé
A thrilling lament from a woman to a handsome soldier playing a timpani in a parade.

Lucie (1902)
Written by Alfred de Musset
Recorded at Pathé
A dreamy poem spoken to a voluptuous woman singing and playing a harpsichord.

Le Lac (The Lake) (1903)
Written by Maurice Bernhardt
Recorded at G and T
A later version of the poem about the Divine Worker and the creation
of His lake under tropical skies.

La Samaritaine (1903)
Written by Edmond Rostand
Recorded at G and T
An excerpt from the play of the same name, about Photine, the woman who met Jesus at the well, and who was told by Him to go forth and love.
Les Vieux (The Old Ones) (1903)
Written by Rosemonde Géard (Mme. Edmont Rostand)
Recorded at G and T
A tender poem about two old lovers sitting under a trellis in the twilight years of their lives.

Un Évangile (A Gospel) (1903)
Written by François Coppée
Recorded at G and T
A moving tale of Jesus and Saint Peter helping a fisherman's widow and her little baby.

Phèdre (1903)
Written by Jean-Baptist Racine
Recorded at G and T
An excerpt from the play of the same name, a later version of the illicit passion between Phèdre and Hippolyte.

La Mort d'Izéil (The Death of Izéil) (1903)
Written by Maurice Bernhardt
Recorded at G and T
An excerpt from the play of the same name, an ode to the death of Izeil, the girl who died of love.

La Rêverie de Théroigne de Méricourt (The Dream of Théroigne de Méricourt) (1903)
Written by Paul Ernest Hervieu
Recorded for Zonophone
A tirade to revolution, an excerpt from a play, during which Sarah's vocal gymnastics reach unnerving heights.

Un Peu de Musique (A Little Music) (1903)
Written by Victor Hugo
Recorded for Zonophone
The tale of a lady and a count riding into the mad mystery of love.

L'Aiglon (The Eaglet) (1910)
Written by Edmond Rostand
Recorded at Edison
An excerpt from the play of the same name, with a full cast of unknown actors, and Sarah as Napoleon’s son languishing among dying soldiers at the battle of Wagram.

Phèdre (1910)
Written by Jean-Baptist Racine
Recorded at Edison (4-minute long version)featuring Lou Tellegen
The passionate love between Phèdre and Hippolyte.

Les Buffons (The Buffoons) (1908)
Written by Miguel Zamacois
Recorded at Edison
An excerpt from the play of the same name, a whimsical story of a zephyr, who falls in love with a beautiful girl spinning wool, and anguishes when she marries a Prince.

La Samaritaine (1910)
Written by Edmond Rostand
Recorded at Edison (4-minute long version)
An excerpt from the play of the same name, about the encounter between Jesus and Photine, the woman at the well.

L'Étoile dans la Nuit (The Star in the Night) (1918)
Written by Émile Guérinon and Henri Cain
Recorded for Aeolian Vocalion
A divine affirmation of faith expressed to a brilliant star in the night sky.

Prière pour nos Ennemis (A Prayer for our Enemies) (1918)
Written by Louis Payen
Recorded for Aeolian Vocalion
An excerpt from Champ d'Honneur, a patriotic speech by Marc, a wounded soldier, who is clutching his flag after a raging battle.


  • Madame Sarah, a biography, by Cornelia Otis Skinner, Paragon House, 1966
  • Sarah Bernhardt in the Theater of Films and Sound Recordings by David W. Menefee. North Carolina: McFarland, 2003.
  • The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee. Connecticut: Praeger, 2004.
  • Jacques Lorcey, Sarah Bernhardt, l'art et la vie, Paris : Éditions Séguier, 2005. 160 pages. Avec une préface d'Alain Feydeau. ISBN 2-84049-417-5.

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