Born in Paris in 1844, Sarah Bernhardt —arguably the most famous actress in the world—was the daughter not only of a courtesan, but also of a Jew. Although Bernhardt was baptized and raised as a Catholic, her origins as a Jewish woman were somehow never eradicated from the public eye.
In “Sarah Bernhardt, the Art of High Drama,” a show currently on view at The Jewish Museum in New York City, curators Carol Ockman and Kenneth Silver make this powerfully clear by their inclusion of several chilling anti-Semitic renditions of the fabled actress, such as an 1886 caricature in which Bernhardt stands on a carpet of gold coins, a pointed reference to her supposed Jewish greed, and another, from 1878, where she is shown in profile, flaunting her hooked and bulging “Jewish” nose. Still another image shows her face superimposed over a large Jewish star. The catalogue which accompanies the show quotes the highly anti-Semitic and character-defaming pseudo-biography of Bernhardt, in which its author, the lesser-known actress Marie Colombier, claims her rival possesses “the commercial intelligence inherent to her race,” a “lust for profit,” the “instincts of a daughter of Israel” as well as a general “disorder and…oriental laissez faire.” As Ockman and Silver aptly point out, “.. .when she was praised, her Catholicism was often mentioned, and when she was criticized, she was more often identified as Jewish.”
Bernhardt herself was not in the least intimidated by this ruthless hounding. She sued Colombier, the author of the so-called biography; as a result, Colombier was convicted of slander, fined and imprisoned for two months. During the Dreyfus Affair, Bernhardt openly proclaimed her alliance with Emile Zola, Dreyfus’s famed champion. And she had a long and bitter falling out with her only son, who was both an outspoken anti- Semite and anti-Dreyfusard.
It is interesting to note that another famous actress, Marilyn Monroe, converted to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller. Yet when she divorced Miller, she did not give up her attachment to the Jewish faith, and among her personal effects, auctioned by Christie’s in 1999, was her 1956 conversion certificate and a menorah that played the Israeli national anthem. Monroe’s Judaism, however, is rarely treated as anything more than a quirky footnote, a mildly interesting aside. The Jewishness of a woman who actively chooses to be a Jew is not worth notice, but one who was born a Jew and did not identify as such was marked by a hideous and indelible stain.
It is a testament to Bernhardt’s remarkable gifts as an actress and the indomitable force of her personality—after a knee injury sustained onstage caused the partial amputation of a leg, she nonetheless had herself carried to the front during WWI, to give moral support to the French troops—that she’s remembered and celebrated today, despite her having been a Jew, and perhaps, in some deeper sense, because of it as well.