Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Women's History Month: Sarah Bernhardt

 In honor of Women's History Month, I will be doing special posts in honor of women throughout history. One of which will be: every Wednesday in the month of March I will profile an extraordinary woman who you may not have heard of. Today's profile is on:

Sarah Bernhardt

Name: Sarah Bernhardt (Born Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernardt)
DOB/DOD: October 23, 1844 – March 26, 1923
Nationality: French
Occupation: Actress
What she was known for: Legendary theatre and early film actress. Once heralded as "the most famous actress the world has ever known".

Bernhardt is one of my most favorite people who has ever lived, so if I start gushing a bit, don't mind me.

Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris in 1844, the illegitimate daughter of courtesan Julie Bernardt from Amsterdam and an unknown father. Bernhardt was brought up in a pension and then later a convent. For a while she had considered being a nun, until one of her mother's lovers suggested she be an actress.

Bernhardt's childhood is often muddy due to the fact that she often exaggerated the truth. She even created false birth records with false parents at one point.

She was admitted to the Comédie-Française in 1862 and went largely unnoticed. That is, until 1863 when she was booted out for slapping the face of a senior actress who had insulted her younger sister (a diva in the making?). During a long period without acting, Bernhardt became a courtesan and mistress to Henri, Prince de Ligne and gave birth to a child. During this time, she acquired a coffin, in which she slept, in order to understand the more tragic roles she would play onstage.

Bernhardt's reputation as an actress started in 1866 when she signed a contract with the Odéon theatre. Her greatest success came in 1869 playing Zanetto in Le Passant. She ended up being in great demand during the 1870s in both Europe and America and eventually became the most famous actress in the world.

In 1882 she married Greek actor Aristides Damala. It was not a happy marriage, but it was a short one when Damala died in 1889. During the last few years, Bernhardt was rumored to be having an affair with the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII).

Bernhardt continued on the stage into the 20th century where she then became one of the pioneers in silent film. In 1915, she had her right leg amputated, due to an injury from 1905. She used a prosthetic limb at first, but then discarded it, and continued a successful theatre tour in America.

'The Divine Sarah' as Queen Elizabeth I (1912)

In today's terms, Bernhardt is what we would consider 'quite a character', if you haven't figured that out yet. Some would just refer to her as fabulous! She is someone I would have loved to have met. She lived a unique life and made it more exciting by embellishing it. You can find out just how much by reading her autobiography My Double Life. Take care not to believe everything you read, but to me, it doesn't matter. It gives a great view into the fabulous time in theatre and establishes Bernhardt as a larger than life figure.

Find out more about her, including every play and film she appeared in, at the following:

The Sarah Bernhardt Pages
Sarah Bernhardt


Lisa said...

Isn't it interesting to see how "acting" has changed over the years?! She really was something!

Joanne said...

Fun post, Christy! Loved the silent film clip.