Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me.
Henriette-Rosine Bernard was born on this day in Paris, France in 1844. Today is the 168th anniversary of her birth.
The illegitimate daughter of a Julie Bernardt, a Dutch courtesan working in Paris. She was sent to Grandchamp, a Augustine convent school. She was greatly influenced by her time at the religious school and showed a desire to become a nun herself. Her first role was as the Angel Raphael in Tobais Regains His Sight, a show performed for the Archbishop of Paris when he visited the convent.
When one of her mother’s lovers, the Duke of Monry (Napoleon III’s half-brother) took an interest in young Sarah’s acting abilities, he arranged for her to go to the Paris Conservatoire at age 16 in 1862. She was forced to forget her dreams of becoming a Bride of Christ and took up a life on stage instead.
With the Duke as her patron she moved from the Conservatoire to France’s national theatre company, Comedie-Francaise where she starred in Iphigene. She left Comedie-Francaise after she slapped another actress and had a two year run at Theatre du gymnase-Dramatique.
At about that time she had an affair with Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral de Ligne (Belgium) and gave birth to her son Maurice in 1864. Although the prince proposed the royal family rejected the idea of his marrying an illegitimate actress. They forbade the union and Bernhardt was left to raise Maurine on her own. [See side bar below]
In 1866 she got a contract with Theatre de L’Odeon. During her six year run at the L’Odeon she had her first big success in the French version of King Lear as Cordelia and as the Queen in Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. Perhaps her most memorable star making role was Zanetto in Le Passant (The Passerby), a role she played in a command performance for Napoleon III.
In 1870, in the midst of the Franco-German War, Bernhardt organized a military hospital in the Odéon, and by the late 1870s, when the war was over, she resumed acting and had reached the heights of her acting career, propelled in part by her quirky behavior both on and off the stage.” [biography.com]
In 1899 she took over the Theatre de Nations and renamed it the Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt. In May she premiered a prose adaptation of Hamlet in which she played the great Dane.
At 61 the actress was in Rio de Janeiro starring in La Tosca.
She… injured herself in a leap off the parapet at the end of … the stage play that later became a Puccini opera, and she was in constant pain. [Sarah Bernhardt’s leg, 02.02.09 NYTimes.com]
a decade later she take the pain no longer and she ordered doctors at Bordeaux University to amputate it above the knee. She was wheelchair bound for a while, but eventually she retuned to acting (with or with out the wooden leg which she found cumbersome.) Her last three movies were filmed after the leg was amputated.
With the advent of film Bernhardt became the first classical actress to lend her talents to the new medium. She filmed her version of Hamlet (Le Duel d’Hamlet — which she thought was abysmal); La Tosca; La Dame aux Camelias; Adrienne Lecouvreur; Elisabeth Reine d’Angleterre; Meres Francaise; Jeanne Dore and La Voyante.
She’s alleged to have had over 1,000 lovers. When she was 15 she bought a rosewood coffin. She some times slept in it — allegedly it helped her prepare for her dramatic roles. The coffin was lined with letters from her lovers.
Bernhardt died of kidney failure in 1923.
Side Bar — The Importance of Being Sarah:
[Prince Henri was not completely out of the picture. When Maurice was about to be married Henri offered to “officially recognize him and offered him his name and a substantial fortune.” [IMDB.com] Maruice refused saying his mother had sacrificed so much to raise him that he would remain a Bernhardt. Later when the two were traveling by train Henri was frustrated at having to wait in a long line. He went to the man in charge and demanded to be let in front saying “I am the Prince de Ligne” The man had never heard of him and told him to take his place in the back. So Maurice came forward and said he was the son of Sarah Bernhardt. They were immediately brought through. [ibid]
- Alphonse Mucha’s poster for Bernhardt in as Gismonda [Image courtesy: Art Dish]