Book Report: Sarah Bernhardt -- The First Cause Celeb

Dec 30, 2010

Sad but true: few people today are familiar with Sarah Bernhardt’s illustrious career and personality. History and film buffs know that Bernhardt was the first artist to market her talent to modern audiences by creating an adoring following. In other words, she was the first celebrity. Unfortunately, not many of us today know why she was so famous.

Former Simon and Schuster Editor-in-Chief Robert Gottlieb pieces together the person and the persona in Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt. Although it’s a biography, Gottlieb’s book reads like a novel, with highly digestible anecdotes and propulsive narration.

Gottlieb admits researching Bernhardt's life was a difficult task. Considered the most famous person in the world, Bernhardt was a dramatist who preferred story to fact. Biographers can't look to her for accurate accounts of dates, places or even birth parents. Perhaps this is why Gottlieb’s is the first English-language biography of Bernhardt.

Her childhood reads like a rewrite on Les Miserables. Starting in 1844—or, as Gottlieb questions, “Was it 1843?”—in Paris, Sarah bounced around to various homes as a foster child. Despite a cruel and detached mother, and no father at all, she had an extraordinary will to survive, if only for vindictive triumph. At age 9, Bernhardt adopted her lifetime motto: Quand meme, loosely translated as “Against all odds.”

Her acting career began at the Comedie-Francaise theater, though she later signed on with the famous Odeon in 186l. Sarah was constantly compared to the celebrated memory and reputation of Rachel, a classic tragedienne of the time.

By 1880, she had carved out a name for herself by taking the lead in Joan of Arc, Camille, and even Hamlet (as the Danish prince himself). Death scenes became her stock in trade, and she was especially revered for her melodramatic onstage suicides. Her beautiful voice and delivery repeatedly charmed sold-out audiences.

Gottlieb notes that Bernhardt’s mix of personal eccentricities and onstage talent made her the most fascinating human alive. At the peak of her career, Bernhardt traveled with a coffin, which she sometimes slept in. Her notorious private zoo housed three dogs, a parrot named Bizibouzon, a monkey named Darwin, a cheetah, seven chameleons, and a wolf.

Bernhardt also collected men. In a letter to one lover, she writes, “My heart demands more excitement than anyone can give it.” Her long string of suitors included writer Victor Hugo and Jacques Damala, a bigoted gambler who didn’t love her and was the model for Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The actress never revealed the father of her son, Maurice. She did boldly admit her love for her illegitimate son throughout her life, though, in no way trying to conceal her status as an unmarried mother.

Sarah Bernhardt was not only the first celebrity, she was also the first cause celebrity. Her strongest legacy, which Gottlieb covers in great detail, was her dedication to causes other than acting. She knew how to parlay her fame into awareness for women’s rights, civil rights, and religious freedom.

Bernhardt ran a hospital during World War I, working in the trenches to take care of wounded soldiers. On her first voyage to America, she helped a young woman in steerage give birth, and saved an elderly woman from plunging headfirst down a dangerous staircase. Although raised Catholic, Bernhardt was born Jewish, and she always stood firm against anti-Semites of the age. Being Jewish to Bernhardt was a matter of race, not belief.

Despite an amputated leg, for which P.T. Barnum offered $10,000, Bernhardt continued acting until the last moments of her life, famously claiming she tortured the French paparazzi just as they had tortured her. Her brilliance, avarice, and sexuality make her a personality that eclipses even the likes of Lady Gaga or Madonna.

By the time you finish Gottlieb’s account of Bernhardt’s life, you will be in as much awe of the woman as her audiences were. Gottlieb has distilled the truths of Berndhardt’s history. He lets his readers form their own opinions: Was Bernhardt mostly diva, actress, or missionary?

Sarah Bernhardt lived life like a performance. It's only fitting that her biography follows suit.



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