"I cannot say much for the play, but this Sarah, how she played! From the moment I heard her first lines, pronounced in her vibrant and adorable voice, I had the feeling I had known her for years. None of the lines that she spoke could surprise me; I believed immediately everything that she said. The smallest centimeter of this character was alive and enchanted you. And then, there was the manner she had to flatter, to implore, to embrace. Her incredible positions, the manner in which she keeps silent, but each of her limbs and each of her movements play the role for her! Strange creature! It is easy for me to imagine that she has no need to be any different on the street than she is on the stage!"
Bernhardt's mother Judith, or Julie, was born in the early 1820s. She was one of six children, five daughters and one son, of a Dutch-Jewish itinerant eyeglass merchant, Moritz Baruch Bernardt, and a German laundress, Sara Hirsch (later known as Janetta Hartog or Jeanne Hard). Judith's mother died in 1829, and five weeks later, her Father remarried. His new wife did not get along with the children from his earlier marriage. Judith and two of her sisters, Henriette and Rosine, left home, moved to London briefly, and then settled in Le Havre, on the French coast. Henriette married a local in Le Havre, but Julie and Rosine became courtesans, and Julie took the new, more French name of Youle and the more aristocratic-sounding last name of Van Hard. In April 1843, she gave birth to twin girls to a "father unknown." Both girls died in the hospice in Le Havre a month later. The following year, Youle was pregnant again, this time with Sarah. She moved to Paris, to 5 rue de l'École-de-Médicine, where in October 1844, Sarah was born.
Early in Bernhardt's career, she had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral de Ligne (1837–1914), son of Eugène, 8th Prince of Ligne, with whom she bore her only child, Maurice Bernhardt (1864–1928). Maurice did not become an actor, but worked for most of his life as a manager and agent for various theaters and performers, frequently managing his mother's career in her later years, but rarely with great success. Maurice and his family were usually financially dependent, in full or in part, on his mother until her death. Maurice married a Polish Princess, Maria Jablonowska, of the House of Jablonowski, with whom he had two daughters: Simone, who married Edgar Gross, son of a wealthy Philadelphia soap manufacturer; and Lysiana, who married the Playwright Louis Verneuil.
Her date of birth is also uncertain due to the destruction of her birth certificate. She usually gave her birthday as 23 October 1844, and celebrated it on that day. However, the reconstituted birth certificate she presented in 1914 gave the date as 25 October. Other sources give the date 22 October, or either 22 or 23 October.
Now on her own, Bernhardt first assembled and tried out her new troupe at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique in Paris. She performed for the first time La Dame aux Camélias, by Alex Andre Dumas, fils. She did not create the role; the play had first been performed by Eugénie Dochein in 1852, but it quickly became her most performed and most famous role. She played the role more than a thousand times, and acted regularly and successfully in it until the end of her life. Audiences were often in tears during her famous death scene at the end.
Bernhardt's broad circle of friends included the Writers Victor Hugo, Alex Andre Dumas, his son Alex Andre Dumas, fils, Emile Zola, and the Artist Gustave Doré. Her close friends included the Painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma (1853–1927), a French impressionist Painter, some nine years her junior. This relationship was so close, the two women were rumored to be lovers. In 1990, a painting by Abbéma, depicting the two on a boat ride on the lake in the bois de Boulogne, was donated to the Comédie-Française. The accompanying letter stated that the painting was "Peint par Louise Abbéma, le jour anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse" (loosely translated: "Painted by Louise Abbéma on the anniversary of their love affair") Clairin and Abbéma spent their holidays with Bernhardt and her family at her summer residence at Belle-Île, and remained close with Bernhardt until her death.
Bernhardt attended a convent school, where she received her first communion as a Roman Catholic in 1856, and thereafter she was fervently religious. However, she never forgot her Jewish heritage. When asked years later by a reporter if she were a Christian, she replied: "No, I'm a Roman Catholic, and a member of the great Jewish race. I'm waiting until Christians become better." She accepted the last rites shortly before her death. At her request, her Funeral Mass was celebrated at the church of Saint-François-de-Sales, which she attended when she was in Paris.
When Damala left, she took on a new leading man and lover, the poet and Playwright Jean Richepin, who accompanied her on a quick tour of European cities to help pay off her debts. She renewed her relationship with the Prince of Wales, the Future King Edward VII. When they returned to Paris, Bernhardt leased the theater of Porte Saint-Martin and starred in a new play by Richepin, Nana-Sahib, a costume drama about love in British India in 1857. The play and Richepin's acting were poor, and it quickly closed. Richepin then wrote an adaptation of Macbeth in French, with Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth, but it was also a failure. The only person who praised the play was Oscar Wilde, who was then living in Paris. He began writing a play, Salomé, in French, especially for Bernhardt, though it was quickly banned by British censors and she never performed it.
In 1859, Sarah learned that her Father had died overseas. Her mother summoned a family council, including Morny, to decide what to do with her. Morny proposed that Sarah should become an Actress, an idea that horrified Sarah, as she had never been inside a theater. Morny arranged for her to attend her first theater performance at the Comedie Française in a party which included her mother, Morny, and his friend Alex Andre Dumas, père. The play they attended was Brittanicus, by Jean Racine, followed by the classical comedy Amphitryon by Plautus. Sarah was so moved by the emotion of the play, she began to sob loudly, disturbing the rest of the audience. Morny and others in their party were angry at her and left, but Dumas comforted her, and later told Morny that he believed that she was destined for the stage. After the performance, Dumas called her "my little star".
Bernhardt studied acting at the Conservatory from January 1860 until 1862 under two prominent actors of the Comédie Française, Joseph-Isidore Samson and Jean-Baptiste Provost. She wrote in her memoirs that Provost taught her diction and grand gestures, while Samson taught her the power of simplicity. For the stage, she changed her name from "Bernhard" to "Bernhardt". While studying, she also received her first marriage proposal, from a wealthy businessman who offered her 500 thousand francs. He wept when she refused. Bernhardt wrote that she was "confused, sorry, and delighted—because he loved me the way people love in plays at the theater."
Bernhardt made her debut with the company on 31 August 1862 in the title role of Racine's Iphigénie. Her premiere was not a success. She experienced stage fright and rushed her lines. Some audience members made fun of her thin figure. When the performance ended, Provost was waiting in the wings, and she asked his forgiveness. He told her, "I can forgive you, and you'll eventually forgive yourself, but Racine in his grave never will." Francisque Sarcey, the influential theater critic of L'Opinion Nationale and Le Temps, wrote: "she carries herself well and pronounces with perfect precision. That is all that can be said about her at the moment."
Bernhardt did not remain long with the Comédie-Française. She played Henrietta in Molière's Les Femmes Savantes and Hippolyte in L'Étourdi, and the title role in Scribe's Valérie, but did not impress the critics, or the other members of the company, who had resented her rapid rise. The weeks passed, but she was given no further roles. Her hot temper also got her into trouble; when a theater doorkeeper addressed her as "Little Bernhardt", she broke her umbrella over his head. She apologized profusely, and when the doorkeeper retired 20 years later, she bought a cottage for him in Normandy. At a ceremony honoring the birthday of Molière on 15 January 1863, Bernhardt invited her younger sister, Regina, to accompany her. Regina accidentally stood on the train of the gown of a leading Actress of the company, Zaire-Nathalie Martel (1816–1885), known as Madame Nathalie. Madame Nathalie pushed Regina off the gown, causing her to strike a stone column and gash her forehead. Regina and Madame Nathalie began shouting at one another, and Bernhardt stepped forward and slapped Madame Nathalie on the cheek. The older Actress fell onto another actor. Thierry asked that Bernhardt apologize to Madame Nathalie. Bernhardt refused to do so until Madame Nathalie apologized to Regina. Bernhardt had already been scheduled for a new role with the theater, and had begun rehearsals. Madame Nathalie demanded that Bernhardt be dropped from the role unless she apologized. Since neither would yield, and Madame Nathalie was a senior member of the company, Thierry was forced to ask Bernhardt to leave.
From 1864 to 1866, after Bernhardt left the Comédie-Française, and after Maurice was born, she frequently had trouble finding roles. She often worked as a courtesan, taking wealthy and influential lovers. The French police of the Second Empire kept files on high-level courtesans, including Bernhardt; her file recorded the wide variety of names and titles of her patrons; they included the son of the Spanish banker and Marquis Alexandro-Maria de las Marismas del Guadalquivir, the industrialist Robert de Brimont, the banker Jacques Stern, and the wealthy Louis-Roger de Cahuzac. The list also included Khalil Bey, the Ambassador of the Ottoman Empire to the Second Empire, best known today as the man who commissioned Gustave Courbet to paint L'Origine du monde, a detailed painting of a woman's anatomy that was banned until 1995, but now on display at the Musee d'Orsay. Bernhardt received from him a diadem of pearls and diamonds. She also had affairs with many of her leading men, and with other men more directly useful to her career, including Arsène Houssaye, Director of the Théâtre-Lyrique, and the editors of several major newspapers. Many of her early lovers continued to be her friends after the affairs ended.
To support herself after the birth of Maurice, Bernhardt played minor roles and understudies at the Port-Saint-Martin, a popular melodrama theater. In early 1866, she obtained a reading with Felix Duquesnel, Director of the Théâtre de L’Odéon on the Left Bank. Duquesnel described the reading years later, saying, "I had before me a creature who was marvelous gifted, intelligent to the point of genius, with enormous Energy under an appearance frail and delicate, and a Savage will." The co-director of the theater for Finance, Charles de Chilly, wanted to reject her as unreliable and too thin, but Duquesnel was enchanted; he hired her for the theater at a modest salary of 150 francs a month, which he paid out of his own pocket. The Odéon was second in prestige only to the Comédie Française, and unlike that very traditional theater, specialized in more modern productions. The Odéon was popular with the students of the Left Bank. Her first performances with the theater were not successful. She was cast in highly stylized and frivolous 18th-century comedies, whereas her strong point on stage was her complete sincerity. Her thin figure also made her look ridiculous in the ornate costumes. Dumas, her strongest supporter, commented after one performance, "she has the head of a virgin and the body of a broomstick." Soon, however, with different plays and more experience, her performances improved; she was praised for her performance of Cordelia in King Lear. In June 1867, she played two roles in Athalie by Jean Racine; the part of a young woman and a young boy, Zacharie, the first of many male parts she played in her career. The influential critic Sarcey wrote "... she charmed her audience like a little Orpheus."
In 1868, a fire completely destroyed her apartment, along with all of her belongings. She had neglected to purchase insurance. The brooch presented to her by the Emperor and her pearls melted, as did the tiara presented by one of her lovers, Khalid Bey. She found the diamonds in the ashes, and the managers of the Odeon organized a benefit performance. The most famous Soprano of the time, Adelina Patti, performed for free. In addition, the grandmother of her Father donated 120,000 francs. Bernhardt was able to buy an even larger residence, with two salons and a large dining room, at 4 rue de Rome.
In her memoirs, she wrote of her time at the Odéon: "It was the theater that I loved the most, and that I only left with regret. We all loved each other. Everyone was gay. The theater was a like a continuation of school. All the young came there... I remember my few months at the Comédie Française. That little world was stiff, gossipy, jealous. I remember my few months at the Gymnase. There they talked only about dresses and hats, and chattered about a hundred things that had nothing to do with art. At the Odéon, I was happy We thought only of putting on plays. We rehearsed mornings, afternoons, all the time. I adored that." Bernhardt lived with her longtime friend and assistant Madame Guerard and her son in a small cottage in the suburb of Auteuil, and drove herself to the theater in a small carriage. She developed a close friendship with the Writer George Sand, and performed in two plays that she authored. She received celebrities in her dressing room, including Gustave Flaubert and Leon Gambetta. In 1869, as she became more prosperous, she moved to a larger seven-room apartment at 16 rue Auber in the center of Paris. Her mother began to visit her for the first time in years, and her grandmother, a strict Orthodox Jew, moved into the apartment to take care of Maurice. Bernhardt added a maid and a cook to her household, as well as the beginning of a collection of animals; she had one or two dogs with her at all times, and two turtles moved freely around the apartment.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War abruptly interrupted her theatrical career. The news of the defeat of the French Army, the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan, and the proclamation of the Third French Republic on 4 September 1870 was followed by a siege of the city by the Prussian Army. Paris was cut off from news and from its food supply, and the theaters were closed. Bernhardt took charge of converting the Odéon into a hospital for Soldiers wounded in the battles outside the city. She organized the placement of 32 beds in the lobby and the foyers, brought in her personal chef to prepare soup for the patients, and persuaded her wealthy friends and admirers to donate supplies for the hospital. Besides organizing the hospital, she worked as a nurse, assisting the chief surgeon with amputations and operations. When the coal supply of the city ran out, Bernhardt used old scenery, benches, and stage props for fuel to heat the theater. In early January 1871, after 16 weeks of the siege, the Germans began to bombard the city with long-range cannons. The patients had to be moved to the cellar, and before long, the hospital was forced to close. Bernhardt arranged for serious cases to be transferred to another military hospital, and she rented an apartment on rue de Provence to house the remaining 20 patients. By the end of the siege, Bernhardt's hospital had cared for more than 150 wounded Soldiers, including a young undergraduate from the École Polytechnique, Ferdinand Foch, who later commanded the Allied armies in the First World War.
French drama critics praised Bernhardt's performances; Francisque Sarcey, an influential Paris critic, wrote of her 1871 performance in Marie, "She has a sovereign grace, a penetrating charm, and I don't know what. She is a natural and an incomparable Artist." Reviewing her performance of Ruy Blas in 1872, the critic Théodore de Banville wrote that Bernhardt "declaimed like a bluebird sings, like the wind sighs, like the water murmurs." Of the same performance, Sarcey wrote: "She added the music of her voice to the music of the verse. She sang, yes, sang with her melodious voice..."
Victor Hugo was a fervent admirer of Bernhardt, praising her "golden voice". Describing her performance in his play, Ruy Blas in 1872, he wrote in his Carnets, "It is the first time this play has really been played! She is better than an Actress, she is a woman. She is adorable; she is better than beautiful, she has the harmonious movements and looks of irresistible seduction."
In 1876, Bernhardt constructed a large town house at 35 rue Fortuny in the 17th arrondissement, not far from Parc Monceau, for her family, servants, and animals. In 1885, when her debts mounted, she sold the house. Once her fortune was replenished by her tours abroad, she bought an even larger house at 56 avenue Pereire in the 17th arrondissement, where she died in 1923. The house was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by a modern apartment building. A plaque on the facade commemorates Bernhardt's earlier residence.
In 1877, she had another success as Dona Sol in Hernani, a tragedy written 47 years earlier by Victor Hugo. Her lover in the play was her lover off-stage, as well, Mounet-Sully. Hugo himself was in the audience. The next day, he sent her a note: "Madame, you were great and charming; you moved me, me the old warrior, and, at a certain moment when the public, touched and enchanted by you, applauded, I wept. The tear which you caused me to shed is yours. I place it at your feet." The note was accompanied by a tear-shaped pearl on a gold bracelet.
Bernhardt began painting while she was at the Comédie-Française; since she rarely performed more than twice a week, she wanted a new activity to fill her time. Her paintings were mostly landscapes and seascapes, with many painted at Belle-Île. Her painting teachers were close and lifelong friends Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma. She exhibited a 2-m-tall canvas, The Young Woman and Death, at the 1878 Paris Salon.
On 4 June 1879, just before the opening curtain of her premiere in Phédre, she suffered an attack of stage fright. She wrote later that she also pitched her voice too high, and was unable to lower it. Nonetheless, the performance was a triumph. Though a majority of the audience could not understand Racine's classical French, she captivated them with her voice and gestures; one member of the audience, Sir George Arthur, wrote that "she set every nerve and fiber in their bodies throbbing and held them spellbound." In addition to her performances of Zaire, Phédre, Hernani, and other plays with her troupe, she gave the private recitals in the homes of British aristocrats arranged by Jarrett, who also arranged an exhibition of her sculptures and paintings in Piccadilly, which was attended by both the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Gladstone. While in London, she added to her personal menagerie of animals. In London, she purchased three dogs, a parrot, and a monkey, and made a side trip to Liverpool, where she purchased a cheetah, a parrot, and a wolfhound and received a gift of six chameleons, which she kept in her rented house on Chester Square, and then took back to Paris.
She and her troupe departed from Le Havre for America on 15 October 1880, arriving in New York on 27 October. On 8 November, she performed Scribe's Adrienne Lecouvreur at Booth's Theater before an audience which had paid a top price of $40 for a ticket, an enormous sum at the time. Few in the audience understood French, but it was not necessary; her gestures and voice captivated the audience, and she received a thunderous ovation. She thanked the audience with her distinctive curtain call; she did not bow, but stood perfectly still, with her hands clasped under her chin, or with her palms on her cheeks, and then suddenly stretched them out to the audience. After her first performance in New York, she made 27 curtain calls. Although she was welcomed by theater-goers, she was entirely ignored by New York high society, who considered her personal life scandalous.
No crowd greeted Bernhardt when she returned to Paris on 5 May 1881, and theater managers offered no new roles; the Paris press ignored her tour, and much of the Paris theater world resented her leaving the most prestigious national theater to earn a fortune abroad. When no new plays or offers appeared, she went to London for a successful three-week run at the Gaiety Theater. This London tour included the first British performance of La Dame aux Camelias at the Shaftesbury Theater; her friend the Prince of Wales persuaded Queen Victoria to authorize the performance. Many years later, she gave a private performance of the play for the Queen while she was on holiday in Nice. When she returned to Paris, Bernhardt contrived to make a surprise performance at the annual 14 July patriotic spectacle at the Paris Opera, which was attended by the President of France, and a houseful of dignitaries and celebrities. She recited the Marseillaise, dressed in a white robe with a tricolor banner, and at the end dramatically waved the French flag. The audience gave her a standing ovation, showered her with flowers, and demanded that she recite the song two more times.
In 1882, in Paris, Bernhardt met a Greek diplomat, Aristide Damala (known in France by his stage name Jacques Damala), who was 11 years her junior, and notorious for his romantic affairs. Bernhardt's biographer described him as "handsome as Adonis, insolent, vain, and altogether despicable." His affairs with married women had already led to one suicide and two divorces, and the French government had asked him to leave Paris, transferring him to the Greek Embassy in St. Petersburg. She already had a lover at the time, Philippe Garnier, her leading man, but when she met Damala, she fell in love with him, and insisted that her tour be modified to include a stop in St. Petersburg. Garnier politely stepped aside and let her go to St. Petersburg without him. Arriving in St. Petersburg, Bernhardt invited Damala to give up his diplomatic post to become an actor in her company, as well as her lover, and before long, they decided to marry. During a break in the tour, they were married on 4 April 1882 in London. She told her friends that she married because marriage was the only thing she had never experienced. Upon returning to Paris, she found a minor role for Damala in La Dame aux Camelias and a leading role in another play without her, Les Meres Ennemies by Catulle Mendés. Critics dismissed him as handsome, but without noticeable talent. Damala began taking large quantities of morphine, and following Bernhardt's great success in Fedora, Damala took every opportunity to criticize and humiliate her. She later discovered that he was using the money she gave him to buy presents for other women. In early December 1882, when she confronted him, he declared that he was going to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion, and disappeared.
In 1884, Sigmund Freud saw Bernhardt perform Theodora, writing:
Theodora was followed by two failures. In 1885, in homage to Victor Hugo, who had died a few months earlier, she staged one of his older plays, Marion Delorme, written in 1831, but the play was outdated and her role did not give her a chance to show her talents. She next put on Hamlet, with her lover Philippe Garnier in the leading role and Bernhardt in the relatively minor role of Ophelia. The critics and audiences were not impressed, and the play was unsuccessful. Bernhardt had built up large expenses, which included a 10,000 francs a month allowance paid to her son Maurice, a passionate gambler. Bernhardt was forced to sell her chalet in Saint-Addresse and her mansion on rue Fortuny, and part of her collection of animals. Her impresario, Edouard Jarrett, immediately proposed she make another world tour, this time to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chili, Peru, Panama, Cuba, and Mexico, then on to Texas, New York, England, Ireland, and Scotland. She was on tour for 15 months, from early 1886 until late 1887. On the eve of departure, she told a French reporter: "I passionately love this life of adventures. I detest knowing in advance what they are going to serve at my dinner, and I detest a hundred thousand times more knowing what will happen to me, for better or worse. I adore the unexpected."
After her 1886–87 tour, Bernhardt recuperated on Belle-Île, a small island off the coast of Brittany, 10 miles south of the Quiberon peninsula. She purchased a ruined 17th-century fortress, located at the end of the island and approached by a drawbridge, and turned it into her vacation retreat. Between 1886 and 1922, she spent nearly every summer, the season when her theater was closed, on Belle-Île. She built bungalows for her son Maurice and her grandchildren, and bungalows with studios for her close friends, the Painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma. She also took with her large collection of animals, including several dogs, two horses, a donkey, a hawk given to her by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis, an Andean wildcat, and a boa constrictor she had brought back from her tour of South America. She entertained many visitors at Belle-Île, including King Edward VII, who stopped by the island on a cruise aboard the royal yacht. Always wrapped in white scarves, she played tennis (under house rules that required that she be the winner) and cards, read plays, and created sculptures and ornaments in her studio. When the fishermen of the island suffered a bad season, she organized a benefit performance with leading actors to raise funds for them. She gradually enlarged the estate, purchasing a neighboring hotel and all the land with a view of the property, but in 1922, as her health declined, she abruptly sold it and never returned. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied the island, and in October 1944, before leaving the island, they dynamited most of the compound. All that remains is the original old fort, and a seat cut into the rock where Bernhardt awaited the boat that took her to the mainland.
Following this success, she acted in several revivals and classics, and many French Writers offered her new plays. In 1887, she acted in a stage version of the controversial drama Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. Zola had previously been attacked due to the book's confronting content. Asked why she chose this play, she declared to reporters, "My true country is the free air, and my vocation is art without constraints." The play was unsuccessful; it ran for just 38 performances. She then performed another traditional melodrama, Francillon by Alex Andre Dumas, fils in 1888. A short drama she wrote herself, L'Aveu, disappointed both critics and the audience and lasted only 12 performances. She had considerably more success with Jeanne d'Arc by the poet Jules Barbier, in which the 45-year-old Actress played Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old martyr. Barbier had previously written the librettos for some of the most famous French operas of the period, including Faust by Charles Gounod and The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach. Her next success was another melodrama by Sardou, Cleopatra, which allowed her to wear elaborate costumes and finished with a memorable death scene. For this scene, she kept two live garter snakes, which played the role of the poisonous asp which bites Cleopatra. For realism, she painted the palms of her hands red, though they could hardly be seen from the audience. "I shall see them," she explained. "If I catch sight of my hand, it will be the hand of Cleopatra."
From then on, whenever she ran short of money (which generally happened every three or four years), she went on tour, performing both her classics and new plays. In 1888, she toured Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. She returned to Paris in early 1889 with an enormous owl given to her by the Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich, the brother of the Czar. Her 1891–92 tour was her most extensive, including much of Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Samoa. Her personal luggage consisted of 45 costume crates for her 15 different productions, and 75 crates for her off-stage clothing, including her 250 pairs of shoes. She carried a trunk for her perfumes, cosmetics and makeup, and another for her sheets and tablecloths and her five pillows. After the tour, she brought back a trunk filled with 3,500,000 francs, but she also suffered a painful injury to her knee when she leaped off the parapet of the Castello Sant' Angelo in La Tosca. The mattress on which she was supposed to land was misplaced, and she landed on the boards.
In early 1889, Damala reappeared at Bernhardt's door haggard, ill, and penniless. Bernhardt instantly forgave him, and offered him the role of Armand Duval in a new production of Dame aux Camélias at the Variétés. They performed together from 18 May until 30 June. He looked exhausted and old, confused his diction, and forgot his lines. The critic for Le Rappel wrote: "Where is, alas, the handsome Armand Duval who was presented to us for the first time a few years ago at the Gaiéte?" The critic Francisque Sarcey wrote simply, "he makes us feel sick." When his contract ended, he was able to get another contract as an actor at a different theater, and continued to harass Bernhardt. He attended one of her performances sitting in the first row, and made faces at her. Her current lover, Philippe Garnier, saw him and beat him. Later, he entered her house and ravaged the furniture. Bernhardt was a Roman Catholic, and did not want to divorce him. He continued to act, sometimes with success, particularly in a play by Georges Ohnet, Le Maître des Forges, in 1883. However, his morphine addiction continued to worsen. In August 1889, Bernhardt learned that he taken an overdose of morphine in Marseille. She hurried to his bedside and nursed him until he died on 18 August 1889, at the age of 34. He was buried in Athens. Bernhardt sent a bust she had made of him to be placed on his tomb, and when she toured in the Balkans, always made a detour to visit his grave. Until the end of her life, she continued to sign official documents as "Sarah Bernhardt, widow of Damala".
Bernhardt made a two-year world tour (1891–1893) to replenish her finances. Upon returning to Paris, she paid 700,000 francs for the Théâtre de la Renaissance, and from 1893 until 1899, was its artistic Director and lead Actress. She managed every aspect of the theater, from the finances to the lighting, sets, and costumes, as well as appearing in eight performances a week. She imposed a rule that women in the audience, no matter how wealthy or famous, had to take off their hats during performances, so the rest of the audience could see, and eliminated the prompter's box from the stage, declaring that actors should know their lines. She abolished in her theater the Common practice of hiring claqueurs in the audience to applaud stars. She used the new Technology of lithography to produce vivid color posters, and in 1894, she hired Czech Artist Alphonse Mucha to design the first of a series of posters for her play Gismonda. He continued to make posters of her for six years.
Bernhardt was one of the first actresses to star in moving pictures. The first projected film was shown by the Lumiere brothers at the Grand Café in Paris on 28 December 1895. In 1900, the cameraman who had shot the first films for the Lumiere brothers, Clément Maurice, approached Bernhardt and asked her to make a film out of a scene from her stage production of Hamlet. The scene was Prince Hamlet's duel with Laertes, with Bernhardt in the role of Hamlet. Maurice made a phonograph recording at the same time, so the film could be accompanied by sound. The sound of the clashing wooden prop swords was not loud and realistic enough, so Maurice had a stage hand bang pieces of metal together in sync with the sword fight. Maurice's finished two-minute film, Le Duel d'Hamlet, was presented to the public at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition between 14 April and 12 November 1900 in Paul Decauville's program, Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre. This program contained short films of many other famous French theatre stars of the day. The sound quality on the disks and the synchronization were very poor, so the system never became a commercial success. Nonetheless, her film is cited as one of the first examples of a sound film.
In 1898, she performed the female lead in the controversial play La Ville Morte by the Italian poet and Playwright Gabriele D'Annunzio; the play was fiercely attacked by critics because of its theme of Incest between brother and sister. Along with Emile Zola and Victorien Sardou, Bernhardt also became an outspoken defender of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer falsely accused of betraying France. The issue divided Parisian society; a conservative newspaper ran the headline, "Sarah Bernhardt has joined the Jews against the Army", and Bernhardt's own son Maurice condemned Dreyfus; he refused to speak to her for a year.
Bernhardt opened the theater on 21 January 1899 with a revival of Sardou's La Tosca, which she had first performed in 1887. This was followed by revivals of her other major successes, including Phédre, Theodora, Gismonda, and La Dame aux Camélias, plus Octave Feuillet's Dalila, Gaston de Wailly's Patron Bénic, and Rostand's La Samaritaine, a poetic retelling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. On 20 May, she premiered one of her most famous roles, playing the titular character of Hamlet in a prose adaptation which she had commissioned from Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob. She played Hamlet in a manner which was direct, natural, and very feminine. Her performance received largely positive reviews in Paris, but mixed reviews in London. The British critic Max Beerbohm wrote, "the only compliment one can conscientiously pay her is that her Hamlet was, from first to last, a truly grand dame."
In 1900, Bernhardt presented L'Aiglon, a new play by Rostand. She played the Duc de Reichstadt, the son of Napoleon Bonaparte, imprisoned by his unloving mother and family until his melancholy death in the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. L'Aiglon was a verse drama, six acts long. The 56-year-old Actress studied the walk and posture of young cavalry officers and had her hair cut short to impersonate the young Duke. The Duke's stage mother, Marie-Louise of Austria, was played by Maria Legault, an Actress 14 years younger than Berhnardt. The play ended with a memorable death scene; according to one critic, she died "as dying angels would die if they were allowed to." The play was extremely successful; it was especially popular with visitors to the 1900 Paris International Exposition, and ran for nearly a year, with standing-room places selling for as much as 600 gold francs. The play inspired the creation of Bernhardt souvenirs, including statuettes, medallions, fans, perfumes, postcards of her in the role, uniforms and cardboard swords for children, and pastries and cakes; the famed chef Escoffier added Peach Aiglon with Chantilly Cream to his repertoire of desserts.
She also changed, for the first time, her resolution not to perform in Germany or the "occupied territories" of Alsace and Lorraine. In 1902, at the invitation of the French ministry of culture, she took part in the first cultural exchange between Germany and France since the 1870 war. She performed L'Aiglon 14 times in Germany; Kaiser william II of Germany attended two performances and hosted a dinner in her honor in Potsdam.
Between 1904 and 1906, she appeared in a wide range of parts, including in Francesca di Rimini by Francis Marion Crawford, the role of Fanny in Sappho by Alphonse Daudet, the Magician Circe in a play by Charles Richet, the part of Marie Antoinette in the historic drama Varennes by Lavedan and Lenôtre, the part of the prince-poet Landry in a version of Sleeping Beauty by Richepin and Henri Cain, and a new version of the play Pelléas and Mélisande by symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck, in which she played the male role of Pelléas with the British Actress Beatrice Campbell as Melissande. She also starred in a new version of Adrienne Lecouvreur, which she wrote herself, different from the earlier version which had been written for her by Scribe. During this time, she wrote a drama, Un Coeur d'Homme, in which she had no part, which was performed at the Théâtre des Arts, but lasted only three performances. She also taught acting briefly at the Conservatory, but found the system there too rigid and traditional. Instead, she took aspiring actresses and actors into her company, trained them, and used them as unpaid extras and bit players.
Bernhardt made her first American Farewell Tour in 1905–1906, the first of four farewell tours she made to the US, Canada, and Latin America, with her new managers, the Shubert brothers. She attracted controversy and press attention when, during her 1905 visit to Montreal, the Roman Catholic bishop encouraged his followers to throw eggs at Bernhardt, because she portrayed prostitutes as sympathetic characters. The US portion of the tour was complicated due to the Shuberts' competition with the powerful syndicate of theater owners which controlled nearly all the major theaters and opera houses in the United States. The syndicate did not allow outside producers to use their stages. As a result, in Texas and Kansas City, Bernhardt and her company performed under an enormous circus tent, seating 4,500 spectators, and in skating rinks in Atlanta, Savannah, Tampa, and other cities. Her private train took her to Knoxville, Dallas, Denver, Tampa, Chattanooga, and Salt Lake City, then on to the West Coast. She could not play in San Francisco because of the recent 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but she performed across the bay in the Greek Theater at the University of California at Berkeley, and gave a recital, titled A Christmas Night during the Terror, for inmates at San Quentin penitentiary. Her tour continued into South America, where it was marred by a more serious event: at the conclusion of La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, she leaped, as always, from the wall of the fortress to plunge to her death in the Tiber. This time, however, the mattress on which she was supposed to land had been positioned incorrectly. She landed on her right knee, which had already been damaged in earlier tours. She fainted and was taken from the theater on a stretcher, but refused to be treated in a local hospital. She later sailed the few hours by ship from Rio to New York. When she arrived, her leg had swollen, and she was immobilized in her hotel for 15 days before returning to France.
In 1906–1907, the French government finally awarded Bernhardt the Legion of Honor, but only in her role as a theater Director, not as an Actress. However, the award at that time required a review of the recipients' moral standards, and Bernhardt's behavior was still considered scandalous. Bernhardt ignored the snub and continued to play both inoffensive and controversial characters. In November 1906, she starred in La Vierge d'Avila, ou La Courtisan de Dieu, by Catulle Mendes, playing Saint Theresa, followed on 27 January 1907 by Les Bouffons, by Miguel Zamocois, in which she played a young and amorous medieval lord. In 1909, she again played the 19-year-old Joan of Arc in Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc by Émile Moreau. French newspapers encouraged schoolchildren to view her personification of French patriotism.
British author D.H. Lawrence saw Bernhardt perform La Dame aux Camelias in 1908. Afterward, he wrote to a friend:
Her last serious love affair was with the Dutch-born actor Lou Tellegen, 37 years her junior, who became her co-star during her second American farewell tour (and eighth American tour) in 1910. He was a very handsome actor who had served as a model for sculpture Eternal Springtime by Rodin. He had little acting experience, but Bernhardt signed him as a leading man just before she departed on the tour, assigned him a compartment in her private railway car, and took him as her escort to all events, functions, and parties. He was not a particularly good actor, and had a strong Dutch accent, but he was successful in roles, such as Hippolyte in Phedre, where he could take off his shirt. At the end of the American tour they had a dispute and he remained in the United States while she returned to France. At first, he had a successful career in the United States, and married film Actress Geraldine Farrar, but when they split up his career plummeted. He committed suicide in 1934.
Shortly afterwards, she made another film of a scene from her play Adrienne Levouvreur with Tellegen, in the role of Maurice de Saxe. Then, in 1912, the pioneer American Producer Adolph Zukor came to London and filmed her performing scenes from her stage play Queen Elizabeth with her lover Tellegen, with Bernhardt in the role of Lord Essex. To make the film more appealing, Zukor had the film print hand-tinted, making it one of the first color films. The Loves of Queen Elizabeth premiered at the Lyceum Theater in New York City on 12 July 1912, and was a financial success; Zukor invested $18,000 in the film and earned $80,000, enabling him to found the Famous Players Film Company, which later became Paramount Pictures. The use of the visual arts–specifically famous c.19 painting–to frame scenes and elaborate narrative action is significant in the work.
In December 1913, Bernhardt performed another success with the drama Jeanne Doré. On 16 March, she was made a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. Despite her successes, she was still short of money. She had made her son Maurice the Director of her new theater, and permitted him to use the receipts of the theater to pay his gambling debts, eventually forcing her to pawn some of her jewels to pay her bills.
Bernhardt was also the subject and star of two documentaries, including Sarah Bernhardt à Belle-Isle (1915), a film about her daily life at home. This was one of the earliest films by a Celebrity inviting us into the home, and is again significant for the use it makes of contemporary art references in the mis-en-scene of the film. She also made Jeanne Doré in 1916. This was produced by Eclipse and directed by Louis Mercanton and René Hervil from the play by Tristan Bernard. In 1917 she made a film called Mothers of France (Mères Françaises). Produced by Eclipse it was directed by Louis Mercanton and René Hervil with a screenplay by Jean Richepin. As Victoria Duckett explains in her book Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film, this film was a propaganda film shot on the front line with the intent to urge America to join the War.
She returned to Paris in 1916 and made two short films on patriotic themes, one based on the story of Joan of Arc, the other called Mothers of France. Then she embarked on her final American farewell tour. Despite the threat of German submarines, she crossed the Atlantic and toured the United States, performing in major cities including New York and San Francisco. Bernhardt was diagnosed with uremia, and had to have an emergency kidney operation. She recuperated in Long Beach, California, for several months, writing short stories and novellas for publication in French magazines. In 1918, she returned to New York and boarded a ship to France, landing in Bordeaux on 11 November 1918, the day that the armistice was signed ending the First World War.
In 1920, she resumed acting in her theater, usually performing single acts of classics such as Racine's Athelee, which did not require much movement. For her curtain calls, she stood, balancing on one leg and gesturing with one arm. She also starred in a new play, Daniel, written by her grandson-in-law, Playwright Louis Verneuil. She played the male lead role, but appeared in just two acts. She took the play and other famous scenes from her repertory on a European tour and then for her last tour of England, where she gave a special command performance for Queen Mary, followed by a tour of the British provinces.
In 1921, Bernhardt made her last tour of the French provinces, lecturing about theater and reciting the poetry of Rostand. Later that year, she produced a new play by Rostand, La Gloire, and another play by Verneuil, Régine Arnaud in 1922. She continued to entertain guests at her home. One such guest, French author Colette, described being served coffee by Bernhardt: "The delicate and withered hand offering the brimming cup, the flowery azure of the eyes, so young still in their network of fine lines, the questioning and mocking coquetry of the tilted head, and that indescribable Desire to charm, to charm still, to charm right up to the gates of death itself."
In her final years, Bernhardt wrote a textbook on the art of acting. She wrote whenever she had time, usually between productions, and when she was on vacation at Belle-Île. After her death, the Writer Marcel Berger, her close friend, found the unfinished manuscript among her belongings in her house on boulevard Pereire. He edited the book, and it was published as L'Art du Théâtre in 1923. An English translation was published in 1925.
After Bernhardt's death, her theater was managed by her son Maurice until his death in 1928. It kept its name until the occupation of Paris by the Germans in World War II, when, because of Bernhardt's Jewish ancestry, the name was changed to Théâtre de la Cité. The name was changed back to the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in 1947, then in 1957 became the Théâtre des Nations. In 1968, it was renamed the Théâtre de la Ville, which is the name it has today.
In 1960, Bernhardt was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a motion pictures star located at 1751 Vine Street.
A more recent biography by Helene Tierchant (2009) suggests her Father may have been a young man named De Morel, whose family members were notable shipowners and merchants in Le Havre. According to Bernhardt's autobiography, her grandmother and uncle in Le Havre provided financial support for her education when she was young, took part in family councils about her Future, and later gave her money when her apartment in Paris was destroyed by fire.
Ruy Blas played to packed houses. A few months after it opened, Bernhardt received an invitation from Emile Perrin, Director of the Comédie Française, asking if she would return, and offering her 12,000 francs a year, compared with less than 10,000 at the Odéon. Bernhardt asked Chilly if he would match the offer, but he refused. Always pressed by her growing expenses and growing household to earn more money, she announced her departure from the Odéon when she finished the run of Ruy Blas. Chilly responded with a lawsuit, and she was forced to pay 6,000 francs of damages. After the 100th performance of Ruy Blas, Hugo gave a dinner for Bernhardt and her friends, toasting "His adorable Queen and her Golden Voice."
Before the first examination for her tragedy class, she tried to straighten her abundance of frizzy hair, which made it even more uncontrollable, and came down with a bad cold, which made her voice so nasal that she hardly recognized it. Furthermore, the parts assigned for her performance were classical and required carefully stylized emotions, while she preferred Romanticism and fully and naturally expressing her emotions. The teachers ranked her 14th in tragedy and second in comedy. Once again, Morny came to her rescue. He put in a good word for her with the National Minister of the Arts, Camille Doucet. Doucet recommended her to Edouard Thierry, the chief administrator of the Théâtre Français, who offered Bernhardt a place as a pensionnaire at the theater, at a minimum salary.
Sarah Bernhardt's performances were seen and appraised by many of the leading literary and cultural figures of the late 19th century. Mark Twain wrote, "There are five kinds of actresses. Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and then there is Sarah Bernhardt." Oscar Wilde called her "the Incomparable One", scattered lilies in her path, and wrote a play in French, Salomé, especially for her; it was banned by British censors before it could be performed. Shortly before he died, Wilde wrote: "The three women I have most admired in my life are Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, and Queen Victoria. I would have married any one of them with pleasure."