Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb (Yale University Press, $25.00) is a breezy, somewhat irreverent look at the life of the famous French stage and early film actress. Bernhardt, who debuted in the theaters Paris in the 1870s, invented herself as both an actress and as one of the first world-renowned media celebrities. Along the way she demonstrated not only blazing dramatic talent but also a flair for making money — and as quickly losing it — and a predilection for spectacle in both her professional and personal life.
All the elements of the Bernhardt biography are here: The famous roles, the elaborate costumes and jewels, the international tours, the parade of lovers, the fierce French patriotism, the amputated leg, the coffin in which she reputedly slept. The book is enhanced with numerous photographs that illustrate the power of Bernhardt’s dramatic appeal and charismatic personality. Gottlieb adds great interest to his account of the elusive actress by discussing the problematic biographical sources available, many written either by sworn enemies or by defensive family members. Her own memoirs are unreliable, to say the least, and Gottlieb clearly indicates when he is speculating or relying on others’ speculations.
Although Sarah Bernhardt was baptized at age 12, and referred to herself as a Roman Catholic, Gottlieb notes that “there was never a question of her forgetting that she was also a Jew, even if the world would have let her forget it.” In fact, she was dogged throughout her career by anti-Semitic attacks. In 1905, while performing in Montreal, she was pelted with rotten eggs on the stage and followed to the train station by cries of “Kill the Jewess.” Still, Bernhardt took pride in her Jewish roots, which she saw more as a matter of race than religion. She was a staunch defender of Alfred Dreyfus even at the cost of a very serious breach with her beloved son Maurice.
By the time Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, she had achieved iconic status. No other actress of her time had performed so many roles in front of so many audiences in so many places. Her repertoire ranged from classical heroines such as Phedre and Cleopatra to a gender-bending personification of L’Aiglon, Napoleon’s young and dying son, which she continued to perform well into old age. Her personal bravery tending to and performing for soldiers perilously close to the front lines during both the Franco-Prussian War and World War I earned her the adoration of the masses in France: The municipal council of Paris staged a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people, with the cortege pausing in front of the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.
Gottlieb closes his account by tracing the long afterlife of Bernhardt’s image in theater history, fashion, and popular culture. As he concludes, anyone who has ever purchased the Madame Alexander Sarah Bernhardt doll, or anyone who has ever admired Andy Warhol’s silk screen rendition of her portrait, or, more to the point, anyone who had ever been admonished for “being a regular Sarah Bernhardt” can testify to the power of her legacy.
Melissa R. Klapper is Associate Professor of History at Rowan University and author of Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860 –1920.