Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

By: Robert Gottlieb
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: September 2010
ISBN: 978-0300141276
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: October 21, 2010

Let’s see who this paragraph describes:

She is a child of her age—of her moment—and she has known how to profit by the idiosyncrasies of the time. The trade of a celebrity, pure and simple [has] been invented…. She is in a supreme degree what the French call the génie de la réclame—the advertising genius… (pg. 81).

Madonna? Lady Gaga? Paris Hilton? No, indeed. This is an excerpt of a review written by Henry James in 1880 about the world’s greatest actress, Sarah Bernhardt, who was touring America at the time.

Bernhardt was born in 1844 (or thereabouts—her birth records disappeared in a fire and all her life she invented and reinvented facts about herself) and died in 1923. She was the unloved daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan and never knew who her father was. She was a member of France’s national theater, the Comédie Française, and later owned her own theater. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she turned the Odéon Theatre into a hospital. She toured the whole world, always acting in French and winning thunderous applause from audiences who didn’t understand a word she said. Fortunately for us, she also made some films, in the silent age, alas, so if we go to YouTube we can see little snippets of her performances. She acted with some of France’s greatest, handsomest leading men, and like more movie stars than we can name also went to bed with them. Some of her finest roles were in La Dame aux Camelias (called Camille in the U.S. to sort of disguise the fact that the tragic heroine was a prostitute), Racine’s Phèdre, Cleopatra, Hamlet (she loved trousers roles), and Jeanne d’Arc.Even after she had her leg amputated in her seventies, she continued to act. Tout le monde filled the streets of Paris for her funeral.

Quill says: Pay no attention to those celibi-idiots in the grocery-store and TV tabloids. This is the true story of a great actress whose talent—and scandalous life—puts any modern day movie star in the shade. On every page, you’ll ask yourself, What did she do next? What did she do? On-stage and off, she acted.

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