When Sarah Bernhardt met Csar Alexander III she gave a flamboyant courtesy. “No, no,” said the Csar, infamous for encouraging pogroms and anti-Jewish laws, to the Jewish actress. “It is we who must bow to you.”
For Bernhardt was the biggest actress of her day, perhaps the biggest actress the world has ever known. She was not just an actress who became famous; fame was her profession. “There are five kinds of actresses,” said Mark Twain. “Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”
But while much of Bernhardt’s life was a tale of flamboyance, wealth and acclaim, she also suffered greatly in her early years as an unwanted and unloved child. And later, even when established, she would occasionally suffer on account of her Jewishness.
Almost as famous for her affairs and for her performances on stage—her many lovers included Emperor Napoleon III, Victor Hugo and Edward, Prince of Wales—Bernhardt was the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan: a woman who accompanies wealthy men. Her mother Youle, who was a Jew from either Holland or Germany, traveled as a “demimondaine,” which is a fancy word for a woman supported by rich men in a quid pro quo arrangement. Bernhardt was her third daughter born out of wedlock. Bernhardt was sent as a young girl to a foster family in the countryside, and then to a Catholic convent. Then, the Duc de Morny, who was the half-brother of Napoleon III and one of her mother’s lovers, encouraged (and enabled) young Bernhardt to go to stage school.
Bernhardt arrived at stage school as an unhealthily skinny, apparently too Jewish-looking 16-year-old. Her stage debut was not a success. But her big break came by mistake. When one of Bernhardt’s younger sisters came to see her at the theater and accidentally stepped on the dress of an established actress, the star was furious. She slammed Bernhardt’s little sister against a marble pillar. Seeing her sister bleed, Bernhardt slapped the actress, tore up her contract with the theater and stormed out. But rather than ending her career, the incident launched it. Previously unknown, Bernhardt suddenly became the topic of scandalous gossip.
Although she was now no longer unheard of, after stage school Bernhardt did not make most of her money from acting. Instead, encouraged by her mother, she followed Youle into the life of a courtesan or demimondaine. As she did with her other daughters, Youle introduced Bernhardt to wealthy old men at dinner parties. This way of living would cost Sarah’s sister Régine her life at the age of 19. There were other consequences: Bernhardt, like her mother, had an illegitimate child while still in her teens. But unlike her mother, Bernhardt doted on her son, Maurice, who was probably the love of her life.
It was in 1866 that Bernhardt’s career really took off, and she quickly took sole control of her career. She turned her Odéon theater into a military hospital during the 1870 siege of Paris, coercing her many lovers into making donations and treating injured soldiers in the venue’s dressing rooms and on its stage. By 1880, Bernhardt could choose what part she would perform in what play, alongside the actors of her choosing at the theater she preferred. She even ran her own theaters, choosing the lighting, scenery and costumes. On tour in America in 1880, Bernhardt saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s widow by catching her before she fell down a flight of stairs. But as Bernhardt recounted the event in her autobiography “My Double Life,” she looked back on the incident with regret. “I had just done this unhappy woman the only service I ought not to have done her—I had saved her from death. Her husband had been assassinated by an actor, Booth, and it was an actress who had now prevented her from joining her beloved husband.”
Mistress of her own destiny, Bernhardt often chose to play the part of male characters. “I don’t prefer men’s roles,” she said by way of explanation; “I prefer men’s minds.” Among Bernhardt’s male roles were L’Aiglon, Judas and most famously Hamlet. But when she finally chose a man for herself, he proved a bust. She married a Greek aristocrat, Aristedes Damala, who gambled, cheated on her and called her “that Jewess with the long nose” before dying of a morphine addiction.
But not even a terrible husband could hold back Bernhardt. “The trade of a celebrity, pure and simple, had been invented, I think, before she came to London; if it had not been, it is certain she would have discovered it,” Henry James said on seeing Bernhardt in London and realizing she was more than an actress. “I strongly suspect she will find a triumphant career in the Western world,” he continued. “She is too American not to succeed in America.” James was correct. Bernhardt was used to sell all manner of goods in the States—and paid handsomely for it—and given 13,000 acres of land in Argentina when she toured the Americas from 1886 to 1887.
Although by no means religious, Bernhardt saw herself—and was very much seen by others as—as a Jewish woman. During the Dreyfus Affair, she publicly supported the falsely charged Jewish army captain and his high-profile supporter Émile Zola. Some saw her exoticness as due to her Jewishness; Bernhardt herself seems to have put some stock in this. “The cherished blood of Israel that runs in my veins impels me to travel,” she supposedly said. “I love this life of adventure!”
But although widely and wildly popular, Bernhardt was sometimes the target of anti-Semitism. She was twice attacked in Montreal. On her first trip to the city, violent attackers physically threatened Bernhardt at her hotel, and on another visit years later her carriage was pelted with eggs and stones as a cry of “Kill the Jewess” rang out from a braying crowd.
One imagines Bernhardt may have taken these attacks in her stride. After all, early on in her life she adopted as her personal motto the phrase “quand même,” which means “even so” or more defiantly “no matter what.” Bernhardt adorned her stationary, dishes and silverware with the motto. Her belief in “quand même” was evident when during World War I. Bernhardt didn’t allow the amputation of her leg to stop her from an arduous tour of the front. She entertained troops even though it required her to hop “like a guinea hen” as she put it. Clearly, very little could stop Bernhardt.
Her biographer Robert Gottleib describes Bernhardt as “the priestess of Art Nouveau, with her elaborately rich costumes, her splendid ornaments of gem-studded precious metals, and—obvious in the portraits, the photographs, the caricatures—the way she almost always stood and sat: in a pure Art Nouveau spiral.” Meanwhile modernist novelist extraordinaire Marcel Proust immortalized Bernhardt as the actress Berma in “In Search of Lost Time” and D.H. Lawrence wrote that “she represents the primeval passion of woman, and she is fascinating to an extraordinary degree.”
Bernhardt never toured without bringing her own coffin, and surrounded herself with a coterie of exotic animals—a cheetah, wolf, boa constrictor and alligator, Ali-Gaga, who died of a champagne overdose. When Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, 500,000 people lined the streets of Paris to view the funeral procession of the best-known actress in the world. Perhaps they knew that, in the words of her obituary in the Times of London, “No temperament more histrionic than Mme Bernhardt’s has, perhaps, ever existed.”