Biography for Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt was one of the premier actresses of 19th- and early-20th-century theater, both in Europe and the United States. Her flair for dramatic presentation catapulted her to the ranks of international superstar at a time when most actors only enjoyed regional success. Celebrated and talented, Bernhardt converted the occupation of actress from kept woman to respectable member of society in the minds of many of her generation. Born Rosine Bernard in Paris on October 23, 1844, Bernhardt was the illegitimate daughter of Judith Bernard, a Dutch Jew who compelled her daughter to convert to Catholicism at the age of 10. Raised by a Breton wet-nurse and among artists and literati in her courtesan mother's Paris salon, Bernhardt took to dramatics early. After being educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, at age 16 Bernhardt entered the famed Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation in Paris to study acting. In 1862, Bernhardt made her public debut at the Comédie Française as the lead actress in Jean Racine's Iphigénie. Although gripped with severe stage fright, she went on to star in several more Racine plays at the Comédie Française. In 1869, Bernhardt acted to great acclaim in Coppée's Le Passant at the Odeon (playing the male page, Zanetto), in which she captivated audiences and began a tradition of playing male roles. Bernhardt's penchant for portraying men became a trademark and earned her accolades and scorn alike from the critics. After a disagreement with the management of the Comédie Française in 1879, Bernhardt left France for several tours abroad, fronting her own theater company. Performing to packed houses throughout Europe, Latin America, and Australia, her most successful tours were in the United States. She made nine trips there, and audiences were in awe of her wide range of abilities, both on stage and off. In addition to performing in such plays as La Dame aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas (son of the famous author by the same name), she made a well-publicized fortune from a variety of such commercial endorsements as cigars, candies, hair curlers, and perfumes. Not all Americans were thrilled with her success, however. A famous jingle poked fun at the fortune Bernhardt amassed while in America: "When 'Ta-Ta' I say to this country/I know I'll be blinded by tears;/But then I'll bear off many dollars/The sweetest of all souvenirs." In America, Bernhardt also faced severe criticism from religious leaders, who often threatened their community members with excommunication if they attended the French actress' plays. However, Bernhardt was able to alleviate fears of corrupting the youth and women of the nation with her keen wit, unsurpassable performances, and deliberate manipulation of the burgeoning American media. It was what Oscar Wilde called "the glamour of her personality" that allowed Bernhardt to captivate American audiences as successfully as she did. In 1899, Bernhardt established the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, where she directed and starred in many successful productions. After her controversial performance as Hamlet in 1899, the "Divine Sarah" continued to act and direct in Paris as well as tour the world. She also starred in several early films, including La Dame aux Camélias in 1908, for which she received the phenomenal salary of $30,000. In 1907, Bernhardt published her autobiography, Ma Double Vie, to great interest. In 1914, Bernhardt's right leg was amputated after an old knee injury causing her continual, horrific pain, flared up. Undaunted, she continued her career in France and abroad, carried about in a sedan chair and performing in stationary roles. This sort of bravado was what the public expected of her, and Bernhardt would not disappoint her fans. She entertained French troops on the Western Front during World War I and continued to be a popular personality until her death on March 26, 1923 in Paris, of uremia.