Her birthday is today. Bernhardt was the greatest star of the 19th century. If she didn’t already exist, it would have been necessary to invent her. So great was her fame (and, apparently, her talent) that thousands of English-speakers in Britain and America paid to see her performances despite the fact that they were all in French.

She was born in 1844, the illegitimate daughter of Judith Van Hard, a Jewish Dutch woman. The father took a powder, but he was evidently a man of means, for he set her up with a sizable trust fund before disappearing. Judith was a “kept woman”, not so rare an occupation during the Second Empire. She changed her name to Bernard first, the “h” and “t” were added later.

One day (according to legend), Sara, a highly sensitive girl, announced her intention to become a nun. Her mother and her group of posh friends (including Dumas pere) laughed in her face. (What nice people!) In response, Sara threw one of her tearful tantrums, and, based on the performance, it was jokingly suggested by one of the party that she should go on the stage. This being a group of idle people with nothing better to do, they followed up on the project. The gang brought her to the Comedie Francais to see her first play. She was so moved by the experience she was reduced to a sobbing wreck.

The die was cast. Sarah was to enroll at the National Conservatory of Music and Declamation. Her early career was bumpy. Upon graduating, she was hired by the Comedie Francais and acted there a short time, until she made the mistake of slapping one of the leading ladies during an argument. She then moved to the Gymnase and then to the Odeon. Her first breakthrough was as Cordelia in King Lear. In 1868, she played the female lead in a play called Kean and from there on in, she was aa star of unbelievable magnitude. The Comedie Francais eventually took her back. She played all the great roles of the age: PhaedraThe Lady of the CamelliasAndromache. The fame surrounding her genius was abetted by whispers about her scandalous love life.

In 1879, she made her first trip to London, where she was a smash success. The following year she came to America, where the same was the case. She toured the whole continent on her own special train, the Sarah Bernhardt Special. She got a taste of America’s love of variety, when her frontier “Camille” was supplemented by can-can dancers and a xylophone player. Here’s what Ed Howe of the Atchison Globe said of her in 1881:

At exactly 8:31 last night, Sarah Bernhardt made her appearance on the stage of Toodle’s Opera House [St. Joseph, Missouri], walking down the center as though she had but one joint in her body, and no knees…with reference to Camille in French, it is about as interesting to an American as five acts of a Chinese drama running three months.

Hey, I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.

Bernardt with booker Martin Beck. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Bernardt with booker Martin Beck. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In the teens, Bernhardt toured the Keith circuit twice, receiving sky-high sums for her troubles. In later years, she continued to play roles much younger than she (as was the custom), and with an amputated leg.

She also starred in many filmed versions of her plays, spreading her fame and her genius even further. This legendary person finally conceded mortality in 1923.

Here is a clip from her 1912 film Queen Elizabeth. She was 68 years old at the time:

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



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