A Valentine’s Series postcard with photography by Lafayette of Dublin. The date of posting is not legible, but it was posted prior to the 3rd. June 1918, because the card only bears a half-penny stamp, and on the 3rd. June 1918, the UK inland postal rate for postcards was raised to one penny in order to help pay for the Great War.
The card was posted to:
Mr. E. King,
83, Winchelsea Road,
The pencilled message on the divided back of the card was as follows:
I hope you got back
alright on Sunday night.
I have been to school
Aunt Mabel has not
been up today.
I went on the pond this
I wish you were with me.
Love from Violet & Mum
Madame Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt was born Henriette-Rosine Bernard on the 22nd. or 23rd. October 1844. The exact date is not known.
Sarah was a French stage actress who starred in some of the most popular French plays of the late 19th. and early 20th. centuries, including ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’ by Alexandre Dumas, ‘Ruy Blas’ by Victor Hugo; ‘Fédora’ and ‘La Tosca’ by Victorien Sardou; and ‘L’Aiglon’ by Edmond Rostand.
Sarah also played male roles, including Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.
Rostand called her "The Queen of the Pose and the Princess of the Gesture", while Hugo praised her "Golden Voice".
Sarah made several theatrical tours around the world, and was one of the first prominent actresses to make sound recordings and to act in motion pictures.
Sarah Bernhardt – The Early Years
Henriette-Rosine Bernard was born at 5 Rue de L’École-de-Médecine in the Latin Quarter of Paris. She was the illegitimate daughter of Judith Bernard, a Dutch-Jewish courtesan with a wealthy clientele.
The name of Sarah’s father is not recorded. Bernhardt later wrote that her father’s family paid for her education, insisted she be baptised as a Catholic, and left a large sum to be paid when she came of age. Her mother travelled frequently, and saw little of her daughter. She placed Sarah with a nurse in Brittany, then in a cottage in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.
When Sarah was seven, her mother sent her to a boarding school for young ladies in the Paris suburb of Auteuil, paid with funds from her father’s family. There, she acted in her first theatrical performance in the play ‘Clothilde’, where she held the role of the Queen of the Fairies, and performed the first of many dramatic death scenes.
While she was at the boarding school, Sarah’s mother rose to the top ranks of Parisian courtesans, consorting with politicians, bankers, generals, and writers. Her patrons and friends included Charles, Duke of Morny, the half-brother of Emperor Napoleon III and President of the French legislature.
At the age of 10, with the sponsorship of Morny, Bernhardt was admitted to Grandchamp, an exclusive Augustine convent school near Versailles. At the convent, she performed the part of the Archangel Raphael in ‘Tobias and the Angel’.
Sarah declared her intention to become a nun, but did not always follow convent rules; she was accused of sacrilege when she arranged a Christian burial, with a procession and ceremony, for her pet lizard.
She received her first communion as a Roman Catholic in 1856, and thereafter she was fervently religious. However, she never forgot her Jewish heritage. When asked years later by a reporter if she were a Christian, she replied:
"No, I’m a Roman Catholic, and a
member of the great Jewish race.
I’m waiting until Christians become
Sarah accepted the last rites shortly before her death.
In 1859, Bernhardt learned that her father had died overseas. Her mother summoned a family council, including Morny, to decide what to do with her. Morny proposed that Bernhardt should become an actress, an idea that horrified Sarah, as she had never been inside a theatre.
Morny arranged for her to attend her first theatre performance at the Comédie Française in a party which included her mother, Morny, and his friend Alexandre Dumas Père. The play they attended was ‘Brittanicus’, by Jean Racine, followed by the classical comedy ‘Amphitryon’ by Plautus.
Bernhardt was so moved by the emotion of the play, she began to sob loudly, disturbing the rest of the audience. Morny and others in their party were angry with her and left, but Dumas comforted her, and later told Morny that he believed that she was destined for the stage. After the performance, Dumas called her "My little star".
Sarah Bernhardt and the Paris Conservatory
Morny used his influence with the composer Daniel Auber, the head of the Paris Conservatory, to arrange for Bernhardt to audition. She began preparing, as she described it in her memoirs:
"With that vivid exaggeration with
which I embrace any new enterprise."
Dumas coached her. The jury comprised Auber and five leading actors and actresses from the Comédie Française. Sarah was supposed to recite verses from Racine, but no one had told her that she needed someone to give her cues as she recited.
Sarah told the jury she would instead recite the fable of the Two Pigeons by La Fontaine. The jurors were sceptical, but the fervour and pathos of her recitation won them over, and she was invited to become a student.
Bernhardt studied acting at the Conservatory from January 1860 until 1862 under two prominent actors of the Comédie Française, Joseph-Isidore Samson and Jean-Baptiste Provost. She wrote in her memoirs that Provost taught her diction and grand gestures, while Samson taught her the power of simplicity.
For the stage, Sarah changed her name from ‘Bernard’ to ‘Bernhardt’. While studying, she also received her first marriage proposal, from a wealthy businessman who offered her 500 thousand francs. He wept when she refused. Bernhardt later wrote:
"I was confused, sorry, and delighted –
because he loved me the way people
love in plays at the theatre".
Before the first examination for her tragedy class, she tried to straighten her abundance of frizzy hair, which made it even more uncontrollable, and came down with a bad cold, which made her voice so nasal that she hardly recognized it.
Furthermore, the parts assigned for her performance were classical and required carefully stylized emotions, while she preferred romanticism and fully and naturally expressing her emotions. The teachers ranked her 14th. in tragedy, and 2nd. in comedy.
Sarah Bernhardt and The Théâtre Français
Once again, Morny came to her rescue. He put in a good word for her with the National Minister of the Arts, Camille Doucet. Doucet recommended her to Edouard Thierry, the chief administrator of the Théâtre Français, who offered Bernhardt a place as a pensionnaire at the theatre, at a minimum salary.
Bernhardt made her debut with the company on the 31st. August 1862 in the title role of Racine’s ‘Iphigénie’. Her premiere was not a success. She experienced stage fright and rushed her lines. Furthermore some audience members made fun of her thin figure.
When the performance ended, Provost was waiting in the wings, and she asked his forgiveness. He told her:
"I can forgive you, and you’ll
eventually forgive yourself,
but Racine in his grave never
Francisque Sarcey, the influential theatre critic of ‘L’Opinion Nationale’ and ‘Le Temps’, wrote:
‘She carries herself well and pronounces
with perfect precision. That is all that can
be said about her at the moment.’
Bernhardt did not remain long with the Comédie-Française. She played Henrietta in Molière’s ‘Les Femmes Savantes’ and Hippolyte in ‘L’Étourdi’, and the title role in Scribe’s ‘Valérie’, but did not impress the critics, or the other members of the company, who had resented her rapid rise.
The weeks passed, but she was given no further roles. Her hot temper also got her into trouble; when a theatre doorkeeper addressed her as "Little Bernhardt", she broke her umbrella over his head. She apologised profusely, and when the doorkeeper retired 20 years later, she bought him a cottage in Normandy.
At a ceremony honouring the birthday of Molière on the 15th. January 1863, Bernhardt invited her younger sister, Regina, to accompany her. Regina accidentally stood on the train of the gown of a leading actress of the company, Zaire-Nathalie Martel (1816–1885). Madame Nathalie pushed Regina off the gown, causing her to strike a stone column and gash her forehead.
Regina and Madame Nathalie began shouting at one another, and Bernhardt stepped forward and slapped Madame Nathalie on the cheek. The older actress fell onto another actor. Thierry asked that Bernhardt apologise to Madame Nathalie. Bernhardt refused to do so until Madame Nathalie apologised to Regina.
Bernhardt had already been scheduled for a new role with the theatre, and had begun rehearsals. Madame Nathalie demanded that Bernhardt be dropped from the role unless she apologised. Since neither would yield, and Madame Nathalie was the more senior member of the company, Thierry was forced to ask Bernhardt to leave.
The Gymnase and Brussels (1864–1866)
Sarah’s family could not understand her departure from the theatre; it was inconceivable to them that anyone would walk away from the most prestigious theatre in Paris at the age of 18.
Instead, Sarah went to a popular theatre, the Gymnase, where she became an understudy to two of the leading actresses. She almost immediately caused another offstage scandal, when she was invited to recite poetry at a reception at the Tuileries Palace hosted by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, along with other actors from the Gymnase.
Sarah chose to recite two romantic poems by Victor Hugo, unaware that Hugo was a bitter critic of the Emperor. Following the first poem, the Emperor and Empress rose and walked out, followed by the court and all the other guests.
Her next role at the Gymnase, as a foolish Russian princess, was entirely unsuited for her; her mother told her that her performance was "ridiculous". She decided abruptly to quit the theatre to travel, and like her mother, to take on lovers. She went briefly to Spain, then, at the suggestion of Alexandre Dumas, to Belgium.
She carried to Brussels letters of introduction from Dumas, and was admitted to the highest levels of society. She attended a masked ball in Brussels where she met the Belgian aristocrat Henri, Prince de Ligne, and had an affair with him. However the affair was cut short when she learned that her mother had suffered a heart attack. She returned to Paris, where she found that her mother was better, but that she herself was pregnant from her affair with the Prince.
She did not notify the Prince. Her mother did not want the fatherless child born under her roof, so Sarah moved to a small apartment on Rue Duphot, and on the 22nd. December 1864, the 20-year-old actress gave birth to her only child, Maurice Bernhardt.
Sarah never discussed Maurice’s parentage with anyone. When asked who his father was, she sometimes answered:
"I could never make up my mind
whether his father was Gambetta,
Victor Hugo, or General Boulanger."
Many years later, in January 1885, when Bernhardt was famous, the Prince came to Paris and offered to formally recognise Maurice as his son, but Maurice politely declined, explaining he was entirely satisfied to be the son of Sarah Bernhardt.
Sarah Bernhardt and the Théâtre de l’Odéon (1866–1872)
To support herself after the birth of Maurice, Bernhardt played minor roles and understudies at the Porte-Saint-Martin, a popular melodrama theatre.
In early 1866, she obtained a reading with Felix Duquesnel, director of the Théâtre de L’Odéon on the Left Bank. Duquesnel described the reading years later, saying:
"I had before me a creature who
was marvellously gifted, intelligent
to the point of genius, with enormous
energy under an appearance frail and
delicate, and a savage will."
The co-director of the theatre, Charles de Chilly, wanted to reject Sarah as unreliable and too thin, but Duquesnel was enchanted; he hired her for the theatre at a modest salary of 150 francs a month, which he paid out of his own pocket.
The Odéon was second in prestige only to the Comédie Française, and unlike that very traditional theatre, specialised in more modern productions. The Odéon was popular with the students of the Left Bank.
Sarah’s first performances at the Odéon were not successful. She was cast in highly stylised and frivolous 18th.-century comedies, whereas her strong point on stage was her complete sincerity.
Sarah’s thin figure also made her look ridiculous in the ornate costumes. Dumas, her strongest supporter, commented after one performance:
"She has the head of a virgin
and the body of a broomstick."
Soon, however, with different plays and more experience, her performances improved; Sarah was praised for her performance of Cordelia in ‘King Lear’. In June 1867, she played two roles in ‘Athalie’ by Jean Racine: the part of a young woman and a young boy, Zacharie, the first of many male parts she played in her career. The influential critic Sarcey wrote
‘She charmed her audience
like a little Orpheus.’
Sarah’s breakthrough performance was in the 1868 revival of ‘Kean’ by Alexandre Dumas, in which she played the female lead part of Anna Danby. The play was interrupted in the beginning by disturbances in the audience by young spectators who called out:
"Down with Dumas!
Give us Hugo!"
Bernhardt addressed the audience directly:
"Friends, you wish to defend the
cause of justice. Are you doing it
by making Monsieur Dumas
responsible for the banishment of
With this, the audience laughed and applauded, and then fell silent. At the final curtain, she received an enormous ovation, and Dumas hurried backstage to congratulate her. When she exited the theatre, a crowd had gathered at the stage door and tossed flowers at her. Her salary was immediately raised to 250 francs a month.
Sarah’s next success was her performance in François Coppée’s ‘Le Passant’, which premiered at the Odéon on the 14th. January 1868, playing the part of the boy troubadour, Zanetto, in a romantic renaissance tale. Critic Theophile Gautier described the ‘delicate and tender charm’ of her performance.
‘Le Passant’ played for 150 performances, plus a command performance at the Tuileries Palace for Napoleon III and his court. Afterwards, the Emperor sent her a brooch with his initials written in diamonds.
In her memoirs, Sarah wrote of her time at the Odéon:
"It was the theatre that I loved the most,
and that I only left with regret. We all
loved each other. Everyone was gay.
The theatre was a like a continuation of
school. All the young came there…
I remember my few months at the
Comédie Française. That little world was
stiff, gossipy, jealous.
I remember my few months at the Gymnase.
There they talked only about dresses and
hats, and chattered about a hundred things
that had nothing to do with art.
At the Odéon, I was happy. We thought only
of putting on plays. We rehearsed mornings,
afternoons, all the time. I adored that."
Bernhardt lived with her longtime friend and assistant Madame Guerard and her son in a small cottage in the suburb of Auteuil, and drove herself to the theatre in a small carriage. She developed a close friendship with the writer George Sand, and performed in two plays that she had written.
Sarah received celebrities in her dressing room, including Gustave Flaubert and Leon Gambetta. In 1869, as she became more prosperous, she moved to a larger seven-room apartment at 16 Rue Auber in the centre of Paris. Her mother began to visit her for the first time in years, and her Orthodox Jewish grandmother moved into the apartment to take care of Maurice.
Bernhardt added a maid and a cook to her household, as well as the beginning of a collection of animals; she had one or two dogs with her at all times, and two turtles moved freely around the apartment.
In 1868, a fire completely destroyed Sarah’s apartment, along with all of her belongings. She had neglected to purchase insurance. The brooch presented to her by the Emperor and her pearls melted, as did the tiara presented by one of her lovers, Khalid Bey. She found the diamonds in the ashes.
The managers of the Odéon organized a benefit performance for Sarah. The most famous soprano of the time, Adelina Patti, performed for free. In addition, the grandmother of her father donated 120,000 francs. Bernhardt was able to buy an even larger residence, with two salons and a large dining room, at 4 Rue de Rome.
Sarah Bernhardt’s Wartime service at the Odéon (1870–1871)
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War abruptly interrupted Sarah’s theatrical career. The news of the defeat of the French Army, the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan, and the proclamation of the Third French Republic on the 4th. September 1870 was followed by a siege of the city of Paris by the Prussian Army.
Paris was cut off from news and from its food supply, and the theatres were closed. Bernhardt took charge of converting the Odéon into a hospital for soldiers wounded in the battles outside the city. She organized the placement of 32 beds in the lobby and in the foyers, brought in her personal chef to prepare soup for the patients, and persuaded her wealthy friends and admirers to donate supplies to the hospital.
Besides organising the hospital, Sarah worked as a nurse, assisting the chief surgeon with amputations and operations. When the coal supply of the city ran out, Bernhardt used old scenery, benches, and stage props for fuel to heat the theatre. In early January 1871, after 16 weeks of siege, the Germans began to bombard the city with long-range artillery. The patients had to be moved to the cellar, and before long, the hospital was forced to close.
Bernhardt arranged for serious cases to be transferred to another military hospital, and she rented an apartment on Rue de Provence to house the remaining 20 patients. By the end of the siege, Bernhardt’s hospital had cared for more than 150 wounded soldiers, including a young undergraduate from the École Polytechnique, Ferdinand Foch, who later commanded the Allied armies in the First World War.
The French government signed an armistice on the 19th. January 1871, and Bernhardt learned that her son and family had been moved to Hamburg. She went to the new chief executive of the French Republic, Adolphe Thiers, and obtained a pass to go to Germany to bring them back.
When she returned to Paris several weeks later, the city was under the rule of the Paris Commune. She moved again, taking her family to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She later returned to her apartment on the Rue de Rome in May, after the Commune was defeated by the French Army.
The Tuileries Palace, the City Hall of Paris, and many other public buildings had been burned by the Commune or damaged in the fighting, but the Odéon was still intact.
Charles-Marie Chilly, the co-director of the Odéon, came to her apartment, where Bernhardt received him reclining on a sofa. He announced that the theatre would re-open in October 1871, and he asked her to play the lead in a new play, ‘Jean-Marie’ by André Theuriet. Bernhardt replied that she was finished with the theatre, and was going to move to Brittany in order to start a farm.
Chilly, who knew Bernhardt’s moods well, told her that he understood and accepted her decision, and would give the role to Jane Essler, a rival actress. According to Chilly, Bernhardt immediately jumped up from the sofa and asked:
"When are the rehearsals beginning?"
‘Jean-Marie’, featuring a young Breton woman forced by her father to marry an old man she did not love, was another critical and popular success for Bernhardt. The critic Sarcey wrote:
‘She has the sovereign grace, the
penetrating charm, the I don’t
know what. She is a natural artist,
an incomparable artist.’
The directors of the Odéon next decided to stage ‘Ruy Blas’, a play written by Victor Hugo in 1838, with Bernhardt playing the role of the Queen of Spain. Hugo himself attended all the rehearsals. At first, Bernhardt pretended to be indifferent to him, but he gradually won her over, and she became a fervent admirer.
The play premiered on the 16th. January 1872. The opening night was attended by the Prince of Wales and by Hugo himself; after the performance, Hugo approached Bernhardt, dropped to one knee, and kissed her hand. After the 100th. performance of ‘Ruy Blas’, Hugo gave a dinner for Bernhardt and her friends, toasting:
"My adorable Queen
and her Golden Voice."
‘Ruy Blas’ played to packed houses. A few months after it opened, Bernhardt received an invitation from Emile Perrin, Director of the Comédie Française, asking if she would return, and offering her 12,000 francs a year, compared with less than 10,000 at the Odéon. Bernhardt asked Chilly if he would match the offer, but he refused.
Always pressed by her growing expenses and growing household to earn more money, she announced her departure from the Odéon when she finished the run of ‘Ruy Blas’. Chilly responded with a lawsuit, and she was forced to pay 6,000 francs in damages.
Sarah Bernhardt and the Comédie Française
Sarah returned to the Comédie Française on the 1st. October 1872, and quickly took on some of the most famous and demanding roles in French theatre. She played Junie in ‘Britannicus’ by Jean Racine, the male role of Cherubin in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ by Pierre Beaumarchais, and the lead in Voltaire’s five-act tragedy ‘Zaïre’.
In 1873, with just 74 hours to learn the lines and practise the part, Sarah played the lead in Racine’s ‘Phédre’, playing opposite the celebrated tragedian, Jean Mounet-Sully, who soon became her lover. The leading French critic Sarcey wrote:
‘This is nature itself served by marvellous
intelligence, by a soul of fire, by the most
melodious voice that ever enchanted
human ears. This woman plays with her
heart, with her entrails.’
Phédre became her most famous classical role, performed over the years around the world, often for audiences who knew little or no French; she made them understand by her voice and gestures.
In 1877, Sarah had another success as Dona Sol in ‘Hernani’, a tragedy written 47 years earlier by Victor Hugo. Her lover in the play was her lover off-stage, as well, Mounet-Sully. Hugo himself was in the audience. The next day, he sent her a note:
"Madame, you were great and charming;
you moved me, me the old warrior, and,
at a certain moment when the public,
touched and enchanted by you, applauded,
I wept. The tear which you caused me to
shed is yours. I place it at your feet."
The note was accompanied by a tear-shaped pearl on a gold bracelet.
Sarah maintained a highly theatrical lifestyle in her house on the Rue de Rome. She kept a satin-lined coffin in her bedroom, and occasionally slept in it, or lay in it to study her roles, though, contrary to popular belief, she never took it with her on her travels.
Sarah cared for her younger sister who was ill with tuberculosis, and allowed her to sleep in her own bed, while she slept in the coffin. She posed in it for photographs, adding to the legends she created about herself.
Bernhardt repaired her old relationships with the other members of the Comédie Française; she participated in a benefit for Madame Nathalie, the actress she had once slapped. However, she was frequently in conflict with Perrin, the director of the theater.
In 1878, during the Paris Universal Exposition, she took a flight over Paris with balloonist Pierre Giffard, in a balloon decorated with the name of her current character, Dona Sol. However, an unexpected storm carried the balloon far outside of Paris to a small town.
When she returned by train to the city, Perrin was furious; he fined Bernhardt a thousand francs, citing a theatre rule which required actors to request permission before they left Paris. Bernhardt refused to pay, and threatened to resign from the Comédie. Perrin recognised that he could not afford to let her go. Perrin and the Minister of Fine Arts arranged a compromise; she withdrew her resignation, and in return was raised to a Societaire, the highest rank of the theatre.
Triumph in London and Departure from the Comédie Française (1879–1880)
Bernhardt was earning a substantial amount at the theatre, but her expenses were even greater. By this time she had eight servants, and she built her first house, an imposing mansion on rue Fortuny, not far from the Parc Monceau. She looked for additional ways to earn money.
In June 1879, while the theatre of the Comédie Française in Paris was being remodelled, Perrin took the company on tour to London. Shortly before the tour began, a British theatre impresario named Edward Jarrett travelled to Paris and proposed that she give private performances in the homes of wealthy Londoners; the fee she would receive for each performance was greater than her monthly salary with the Comédie.
When Perrin read in the press about the private performances, he was furious. Furthermore, the Gaiety Theatre in London demanded that Bernhardt star in the opening performance, contrary to the traditions of Comédie Française, where roles were assigned by seniority, and the idea of stardom was scorned.
When Perrin protested, saying that Bernhardt was only 10th. or 11th. in seniority, the Gaiety manager threatened to cancel the performance; Perrin had to give in. He scheduled Bernhardt to perform one act of ‘Phèdre’ on the opening night, between two traditional French comedies, ‘Le Misanthrope’ and ‘Les Précieuses’.
On the 4th. June 1879, just before the opening curtain of her premiere in ‘Phèdre’, she suffered an attack of stage fright. She wrote later that she also pitched her voice too high, and was unable to lower it. Nonetheless, the performance was a triumph. Though most of the audience could not understand Racine’s classical French, she captivated them with her voice and gestures; one member of the audience, Sir George Arthur, wrote that:
"She set every nerve and fibre in
their bodies throbbing, and held
In addition to her performances of ‘Zaire’, ‘Phèdre’, ‘Hernani’, and other plays with her troupe, she gave the private recitals in the homes of British aristocrats arranged by Jarrett, who also arranged an exhibition of her sculptures and paintings in Piccadilly. This was attended by both the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Gladstone.
While in London, Sarah added to her personal menagerie of animals by buying three dogs, a parrot, and a monkey. She also made a side trip to Liverpool, where she purchased a cheetah, a parrot, and a wolfhound, as well as receiving a gift of six chameleons, which she kept in her rented house on Chester Square, before taking them all back to Paris.
Having returned to Paris, Sarah was increasingly discontented with Perrin and the management of the Comédie Française. He insisted that she perform the lead in a new play, ‘L’Aventurière’ by Emile Augier, a play which she thought was mediocre. When she rehearsed the play without enthusiasm, and frequently forgot her lines, she was criticised by the playwright.
"I know I’m bad, but not
as bad as your lines."
The play went ahead, but was a failure. She wrote immediately to Perrin:
"You forced me to play when I
was not ready… what I foresaw
came to pass… this is my first
failure at the Comédie and my
Sarah sent a resignation letter to Perrin, made copies, and sent them to all the major newspapers. Perrin sued her for breach of contract; the court ordered her to pay 100,000 francs, plus interest, and she lost her accrued pension of 43,000 francs. She did not settle the debt until 1900.
Later, however, when the Comédie Française theatre was nearly destroyed by fire, she allowed her old troupe to use her own theatre.
‘La Dame aux Camélias’ and the first American tour (1880–1881)
In April 1880, as soon as he learned Bernhardt had resigned from the Comédie Française, the impresario Edward Jarrett hurried to Paris and proposed that she make a theatrical tour of England and then the United States. She could select her repertoire and the cast. She would receive 5,000 francs per performance, plus 15% of any earnings over 150,000 francs, plus all of her expenses, plus an account in her name for 100,000 francs, the amount she owed to the Comédie Française. Sarah accepted immediately.
Now on her own, Bernhardt first assembled and tried out her new troupe at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique in Paris. She performed for the first time ‘La Dame aux Camélias’, by Alexandre Dumas. She did not create the role; the play had first been performed by Eugénie Dochein in 1852, but it quickly became Sarah’s most performed and most famous role. She eventually played the role more than a thousand times, and acted regularly and successfully in it until the end of her life. Audiences were often in tears during her famous death scene at the end.
Sarah could not perform ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ on a London stage because of British censorship laws; instead, she put on four of her proven successes, including ‘Hernani’ and ‘Phèdre’, plus four new roles, including ‘Adrienne Lecouvreur’ by Eugène Scribe and the drawing-room comedy ‘Frou-Frou’ by Meilhac-Halévy, both of which were highly successful in London.
In six of the eight plays in her repertoire, Sarah died dramatically in the final act. When she returned to Paris from London, the Comédie Française asked her to come back, but she refused their offer, explaining that she was making far more money on her own. Instead, she took her new company and new plays on tour to Brussels and Copenhagen, and then on a tour of French provincial cities.
Sarah and her troupe departed from Le Havre for America on the 15th. October 1880, arriving in New York on the 27th. October. On the 8th. November, she performed Scribe’s ‘Adrienne Lecouvreur’ at Booth’s Theatre before an audience which had paid a top price of $40 for a ticket, an enormous sum at the time.
Few in the audience understood French, but it was not necessary; her gestures and voice captivated the audience, and she received a thunderous ovation. She thanked the audience with her distinctive curtain call; she did not bow, but stood perfectly still, with her hands clasped under her chin, or with her palms on her cheeks, and then suddenly stretched them out to the audience.
After her first performance in New York, she made 27 curtain calls. However, although she was welcomed by theatre-goers, she was entirely ignored by New York high society, who considered her personal life scandalous.
Bernhardt’s first American tour carried her to 157 performances in 51 cities. She travelled on a special train with her own luxurious palace car, which carried her two maids, two cooks, a waiter, her maitre d’hôtel, and her personal assistant, Madame Guérard. It also carried an actor named Édouard Angelo whom she had selected to serve as her leading man, and, according to most accounts, her lover during the tour.
From New York, Sarah made a side trip to Menlo Park, where she met Thomas Edison, who made a brief recording of her reciting a verse from Phèdre, which has not survived. She crisscrossed the United States and Canada from Montreal and Toronto to Saint Louis and New Orleans, usually performing each evening, and departing immediately after the performance.
Sarah gave countless press interviews, and in Boston posed for photos on the back of a dead whale. She was condemned as immoral by the Bishop of Montreal and by the Methodist press, which only increased ticket sales.
Sarah performed ‘Phèdre’ six times and ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ 65 times (which Jarrett had renamed ‘Camille’ to make it easier for Americans to pronounce, despite the fact that no character in the play has that name).
On the 3rd. May 1881, Sarah gave her final performance of ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ in New York. Throughout her life, she always insisted on being paid in cash. When Bernhardt returned to France, she brought with her a chest filled with $194,000 in gold coins. She described the result of her trip to her friends:
"I crossed the oceans, carrying my dream
of art in myself, and the genius of my nation
I planted the French verb in the heart of a
foreign literature, and it is that of which I am
Return to Paris, European tour, Fédora to Theodora (1881–1886)
No crowd greeted Bernhardt when she returned to Paris on the 5th. May 1881, and theatre managers offered no new roles; the Paris press ignored her tour, and much of the Paris theatre world resented her leaving the most prestigious national theatre to earn a fortune abroad.
When no new plays or offers appeared, she went to London for a successful three-week run at the Gaiety Theatre. This London tour included the first British performance of ‘La Dame aux Camelias’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre; her friend, the Prince of Wales, had persuaded Queen Victoria to authorise the performance. Many years later, Sarah gave a private performance of the play for the Queen while she was on holiday in Nice.
When she returned to Paris, Bernhardt contrived to make a surprise performance at the annual 14th. July patriotic spectacle at the Paris Opera, which was attended by the President of France, and a houseful of dignitaries and celebrities.
Sarah recited the Marseillaise, dressed in a white robe with a tricolor banner, and at the end dramatically waved the French flag. The audience gave her a standing ovation, showered her with flowers, and demanded that she recite the song two more times.
With her place in the French theatre world restored, Bernhardt negotiated a contract to perform at the Vaudeville Theatre in Paris for 1,500 francs per performance, as well as 25 percent of the net profit. She also announced that she would not be available to begin until 1882.
She departed on a tour of theatres in the French provinces, and then on to Italy, Greece, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Austria, and Russia. In Kiev and Odessa, she encountered anti-Semitic crowds who threw stones at her; pogroms were being conducted, forcing the Jewish population to leave.
However, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, she performed before Czar Alexander III, who broke court protocol and bowed to her. During her tour, she also gave performances for King Alfonso XII of Spain, and the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.
The only European country where she refused to play was Germany, due to the German annexation of French territory after the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War.
When she returned to Paris, she was offered a new role in ‘Fédora’, a melodrama written for her by Victorien Sardou. It opened on the 12th. December 1882, with her husband Damala as the male lead. The play received good reviews. Critic Maurice Baring wrote:
‘A secret atmosphere emanated from her,
an aroma, an attraction, which was at once
exotic and cerebral. She literally hypnotised
Another journalist wrote,
‘She is incomparable … The extreme love,
the extreme agony, the extreme suffering.’
However, the abrupt end of her marriage shortly after the premiere put her back into financial distress. She had leased and refurbished a theatre, the ‘Ambigu’, specifically to give her husband Damala leading roles, and made her 18-year-old son Maurice, who had no business experience, the manager.
‘Fédora’ ran for just 50 performances and lost 400,000 francs. She was forced to give up the Ambigu, and then, in February 1883, to sell her jewellery, her carriages, and her horses at an auction.
When Damala left, she took on a new leading man and lover, the poet and playwright Jean Richepin, who accompanied her on a quick tour of European cities to help pay off her debts. She renewed her relationship with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.
When they returned to Paris, Bernhardt leased the theatre of Porte-Saint-Martin and starred in a new play by Richepin, ‘Nana-Sahib’, a costume drama about love in British India in 1857. The play and Richepin’s acting were poor, and it quickly closed. Richepin then wrote an adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ in French, with Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth, but it was also a failure.
The only person who praised the play was Oscar Wilde, who was then living in Paris. He began writing a play, ‘Salomé’, in French, especially for Bernhardt, though it was quickly banned by British censors, and Sarah never performed it.
Bernhardt then performed a new play by Sardou, ‘Theodora’ (1884), a melodrama set in sixth-century Byzantium. Sardou wrote a non-historic but dramatic new death scene for Bernhardt; in his version, the empress was publicly strangled, whereas the historical empress died of cancer.
Bernhardt travelled to Ravenna, Italy, to study and sketch the costumes seen in Byzantine mosaic murals, and had them reproduced for her own costumes. The play opened on the 26th. December 1884 and ran for 300 performances in Paris, and 100 in London, and was a financial success.
Sarah was able to pay off most of her debts, and bought a lion cub, which she named Justinian, for her home menagerie. She also renewed her love affair with her former lead actor, Philippe Garnier.
World tours (1886–1892)
Theodora was followed by two failures. In 1885, in homage to Victor Hugo, who had died a few months earlier, she staged one of his older plays, ‘Marion Delorme’, written in 1831, but the play was outdated, and her role did not give her a chance to show her talents. She next put on ‘Hamlet’, with Philippe Garnier in the leading role and Bernhardt in the relatively minor role of Ophelia. The critics and audiences were not impressed, and the play was unsuccessful.
Bernhardt had built up large expenses, which included a 10,000 francs a month allowance paid to her son Maurice, a passionate gambler. Bernhardt was forced to sell her chalet in Sainte-Addresse and her mansion on Rue Fortuny, and part of her collection of animals.
Her impresario, Edouard Jarrett, immediately proposed she make another world tour, this time to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Panama, Cuba, and Mexico, then on to Texas, New York, England, Ireland, and Scotland.
Sarah was on tour for 15 months, from early 1886 until late 1887. On the eve of departure, she told a French reporter:
"I passionately love this life of adventures.
I detest knowing in advance what they are
going to serve at my dinner, and I detest a
hundred thousand times more knowing
what will happen to me, for better or worse.
I adore the unexpected."
In every city she visited, she was feted and cheered by audiences. Emperor Pedro II of Brazil attended all of her performances in Rio de Janeiro, and presented her with a gold bracelet with diamonds, which was almost immediately stolen from her hotel.
The two leading actors both fell ill with yellow fever, and her long-time manager, Edward Jarrett, died of a heart attack. Bernhardt was undaunted, however, and went crocodile hunting at Guayaquil, and also bought more animals for her menagerie.
Her performances in every city were sold out, and by the end of the tour, she had earned more than a million francs. The tour allowed her to purchase her final home, which she filled with her paintings, plants, souvenirs, and animals.
From then on, whenever she ran short of money (which generally happened every three or four years), she went on tour, performing both her classics and new plays. In 1888, she toured Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. She returned to Paris in early 1889 with an enormous owl given to her by the Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich, the brother of the Czar.
Sarah’s 1891–92 tour was her most extensive, including much of Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Samoa. Her personal luggage consisted of 45 costume crates for her 15 different productions, and 75 crates for her off-stage clothing, including her 250 pairs of shoes. She carried a trunk for her perfumes, cosmetics and makeup, and another for her sheets and tablecloths and her five pillows.
After the tour, she brought back a trunk filled with 3,500,000 francs, but she had also suffered a painful injury to her knee when she leaped off the parapet of the Castello Sant’ Angelo in ‘La Tosca’. The mattress on which she was supposed to land was misplaced, and she landed on the boards.
La Tosca to Cleopatra (1887–1893)
When Bernhardt returned from her 1886–87 tour, she received a new invitation to return to the Comédie Française. The theatre management was willing to forget the conflict of her two previous periods there, and offered a payment of 150,000 francs a year.
The money appealed to her, and she began negotiations. However, the senior members of the company protested the high salary offered, and conservative defenders of the more traditional theatre also complained; one anti-Bernhardt critic, Albert Delpit of ‘Le Gaulois’, wrote:
‘Madame Sarah Bernhardt is forty-three;
she can no longer be useful to the Comédie.
Moreover, what roles could she have?
I can only imagine that she could play mothers’.
Bernhardt was deeply offended, and immediately broke off negotiations. She turned once again to Sardou, who had written a new play for her, ‘La Tosca’, which featured a prolonged and extremely dramatic death scene at the end.
The play was staged at the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, opening on the 24th. November 1887. It was extremely popular, and critically acclaimed. Bernhardt played the role for 29 consecutive sold-out performances.
The success of ‘La Tosca’ allowed Bernhardt to buy a new pet lion for her household menagerie. She named him Scarpia, after the villain of ‘La Tosca’. The play inspired Giacomo Puccini to write one of his most famous operas, ‘Tosca’ (1900).
Following this success, Sarah acted in several revivals and classics, and many French writers offered her new plays. In 1887, she acted in a stage version of the controversial drama ‘Thérèse Raquin’ by Emile Zola. Zola had previously been attacked due to the book’s confronting content. Asked why she chose this play, she declared to reporters:
"My true country is the free air,
and my vocation is art without
The play was unsuccessful; it ran for just 38 performances. She then performed another traditional melodrama, ‘Francillon’ by Alexandre Dumas in 1888. A short drama Sarah wrote herself, ‘l’Aveu’, disappointed both critics and the audience, and lasted only 12 performances.
Sarah had considerably more success with ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ by the poet Jules Barbier, in which the 45-year-old actress played Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old martyr.
Sarah’s next success was another melodrama by Sardou and Moreau, ‘Cleopatra’, which allowed her to wear elaborate costumes and finished with a memorable death scene. For this scene, she kept two live garter snakes, which played the role of the poisonous asp which bites Cleopatra. For realism, she painted the palms of her hands red, though they could hardly be seen from the audience. Sarah explained:
"I shall see them. If I catch sight
of my hand, it will be the hand
Bernhardt’s violent portrayal of Cleopatra led to the theatrical story of a matron in the audience exclaiming to her companion:
"How unlike, how very unlike, the
home life of our own dear Queen!"
Théâtre de la Renaissance (1893–1899)
Bernhardt made a two-year world tour (1891–1893) to replenish her finances. Upon returning to Paris, she paid 700,000 francs for the Théâtre de la Renaissance, and from 1893 until 1899, was its artistic director and lead actress.
She managed every aspect of the theatre, from the finances to the lighting, sets, and costumes, as well as appearing in eight performances a week.
Sarah imposed a rule that women in the audience, no matter how wealthy or famous, had to take off their hats during performances, so the rest of the audience could see, and eliminated the prompter’s box from the stage, declaring that actors should know their lines.
She abolished in her theatre the common practice of hiring claqueurs in the audience to applaud stars. She used the new technology of lithography to produce vivid colour posters, and in 1894, she hired Czech artist Alphonse Mucha to design the first of a series of posters for her play ‘Gismonda’. He continued to make posters for her for six years.
In five years, Bernhardt produced nine plays, three of which were financially successful. The first was a revival of her performance as ‘Phédre’, which she took on tour around the world. In 1898, she had another success, in the play ‘Lorenzaccio’, playing the male lead role in a Renaissance revenge drama written in 1834 by Alfred de Musset, but never before actually staged.
As her biographer Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote, she did not try to be overly masculine when she performed male roles:
‘Her male impersonations had the
sexless grace of the voices of
choirboys, or the not quite real
pathos of Pierrot.’
Anatole France wrote of her performance in ‘Lorenzaccio’:
‘She formed out of her own self
a young man melancholic, full of
poetry and of truth.’
This was followed by another successful melodrama by Sardou, ‘Gismonda’, one of Bernhardt’s few plays not finishing with a dramatic death scene. Her co-star was Lucien Guitry, who also acted as her leading man until the end of her career. Besides Guitry, she shared the stage with Edouard de Max, her leading man in 20 productions, and Constant Coquelin, who frequently toured with her.
In April 1895, she played the lead role in a romantic and poetic fantasy, ‘Princess Lointaine’, by the little-known 27-year-old poet Edmond Rostand. It was not a monetary success and lost 200,000 francs, but it began a long theatrical relationship between Bernhardt and Rostand. Rostand went on to write ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and became one of the most popular French playwrights of the period.
In 1898, she performed the female lead in the controversial play ‘La Ville Morte’ by the Italian poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio; the play was fiercely attacked by critics because of its theme of incest between brother and sister.
Along with Emile Zola and Victorien Sardou, Bernhardt also became an outspoken defender of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer falsely accused of betraying France. The issue divided Parisian society; a conservative newspaper ran the headline:
‘Sarah Bernhardt has joined
the Jews against the Army’.
Even Bernhardt’s own son Maurice condemned Dreyfus; he refused to speak to her for a year.
At the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Bernhardt staged and performed in several modern plays, but she was not a follower of the more natural school of acting that was coming into fashion at the end of the 19th. century, preferring a more dramatic expression of emotions. She declared:
"In the theatre the natural is good,
but the sublime is even better."
Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (1899–1900)
Despite her successes, Sarah’s debts continued to mount, reaching two million gold francs by the end of 1898. Bernhardt was forced to give up the Renaissance, and was preparing to go on another world tour when she learned that a much larger Paris theatre, the Théâtre des Nations on the Place du Châtelet, was for lease. The theatre had 1,700 seats, twice the size of the Renaissance, enabling her to pay off the cost of performances more quickly; it had an enormous stage and backstage, allowing her to present several different plays a week; and since it was originally designed as a concert hall, it had excellent acoustics. On the 1st. January 1899, she signed a 25-year lease with the City of Paris, though she was already 55 years old.
She renamed it the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, and began to renovate it to suit her needs. The facade was lit by 5,700 electric bulbs, 17 arc lights, and 11 projectors. She completely redecorated the interior, replacing the red plush and gilt with yellow velvet, brocade, and white woodwork. The lobby was decorated with life-sized portraits of her in her most famous roles.
Her dressing room was a five-room suite, which, after the success of her Napoleonic play ‘l’Aiglon’, was decorated in Empire Style, featuring a marble fireplace with a fire Bernhardt kept burning all year round, a huge bathtub that was filled with the flowers she received after each performance, and a dining room seating 12 people, where she entertained guests after the final curtain.
Bernhardt opened the theatre on the 21st. January 1899 with a revival of Sardou’s ‘La Tosca’, which she had first performed in 1887. This was followed by revivals of her other major successes, including ‘Phédre’, ‘Theodora’, ‘Gismonda’, and ‘La Dame aux Camélias’, plus Octave Feuillet’s ‘Dalila’, Gaston de Wailly’s ‘Patron Bénic’, and Rostand’s ‘La Samaritaine’.
On the 20th. May, Sarah premiered one of her most famous roles, playing the titular character of Hamlet in a prose adaptation. She played Hamlet in a manner which was direct, natural, and very feminine. Her performance received largely positive reviews in Paris, but mixed reviews in London. The British critic Max Beerbohm wrote:
‘The only compliment one can
conscientiously pay her is that
her Hamlet was, from first to last,
a truly grand dame.’
In 1900, Bernhardt presented ‘l’Aiglon’, a new play by Rostand. She played the Duc de Reichstadt, the son of Napoleon Bonaparte, imprisoned by his unloving mother and family until his melancholy death in the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. ‘l’Aiglon’ was a verse drama, six acts long.
The 56-year-old actress studied the walk and posture of young cavalry officers, and had her hair cut short to impersonate the young Duke. The Duke’s stage mother, Marie-Louise of Austria, was played by Maria Legault, an actress 14 years younger than Bernhardt. The play ended with a memorable death scene; according to one critic:
‘She died as dying angels would
die if they were allowed to."
The play was extremely successful; it was especially popular with visitors to the 1900 Paris International Exposition, and ran for nearly a year, with standing-room places selling for as much as 600 gold francs.
The play inspired the creation of Bernhardt souvenirs, including statuettes, medallions, fans, perfumes, postcards of her in the role, uniforms and cardboard swords for children, and pastries and cakes; the famed chef Escoffier added Peach Aiglon with Chantilly Cream to his repertoire of desserts.
Bernhardt continued to employ Mucha to design her posters, and expanded his work to include theatrical sets, programs, costumes, and jewellery props. His posters became icons of the Art Nouveau style. To earn more money, Bernhardt set aside a certain number of printed posters of each play to sell to collectors.
Farewell tours (1901–1913)
After her season in Paris, Bernhardt performed ‘l’Aiglon’ in London, and then made her sixth tour of the United States. On this tour, she travelled with Constant Coquelin, then the most popular leading man in France.
Bernhardt played the secondary role of Roxanne to his Cyrano de Bergerac, a role which he had premiered, and he co-starred with her as Flambeau in ‘l’Aiglon’ and as the first grave-digger in ‘Hamlet’.
Sarah also changed, for the first time, her resolution not to perform in Germany or the "occupied territories" of Alsace and Lorraine. In 1902, at the invitation of the French Ministry of Culture, she took part in the first cultural exchange between Germany and France since the 1870 war. She performed ‘l’Aiglon’ 14 times in Germany; Kaiser William II of Germany attended two performances and hosted a dinner in her honour in Potsdam.
During her German tour, she began to suffer agonising pain in her right knee, probably connected with the fall she had suffered on stage during her tour in South America. She was forced to reduce her movements in l’Aiglon.
A German doctor recommended that she halt the tour immediately and have surgery, followed by six months of complete immobilisation of her leg. Bernhardt promised to see a doctor when she returned to Paris, but continued the tour.
In 1903, she had another unsuccessful role playing another masculine character in the opera ‘Werther’, a gloomy adaptation of the story by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
However, Sarah quickly came back with another hit, ‘La Sorcière’ by Sardou. She played a Moorish sorceress in love with a Christian Spaniard, leading to her persecution by the church. This story of tolerance, coming soon after the Dreyfus affair, was financially successful, with Bernhardt often giving both a matinee and evening performance.
Between 1904 and 1906, Sarah appeared in a wide range of parts, including in ‘Francesca di Rimini’ by Francis Marion Crawford, the role of Fanny in ‘Sappho’ by Alphonse Daudet, the magician Circe in a play by Charles Richet, and the part of Marie Antoinette in the historical drama ‘Varennes’ by Lavedan and Lenôtre.
Sarah also played the part of the prince-poet Landry in a version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by Richepin and Henri Cain, and a new version of the play ‘Pelléas and Mélissande’ by Maurice Maeterlinck, in which she played the male role of Pelléas with the British actress Mrs Patrick Campbell as Mélissande.
Sarah also starred in a new version of ‘Adrienne Lecouvreur’, which she wrote herself, departing from the earlier version which had been written for her by Scribe.
During this time, she wrote a drama, ‘Un Coeur d’Homme’, in which she had no part, which was performed at the Théâtre des Arts, but lasted only three performances. She also taught acting briefly at the Conservatory, but found the system there too rigid and traditional. Instead, she took aspiring actresses and actors into her company, trained them, and used them as unpaid extras and bit players.
Bernhardt made her first American Farewell Tour in 1905–1906, the first of four farewell tours she made to the US, Canada, and Latin America, with her new managers, the Shubert brothers.
Sarah attracted controversy and press attention when, during her 1905 visit to Montreal, the Roman Catholic bishop encouraged his followers to throw eggs at Bernhardt, because she portrayed prostitutes as sympathetic characters.
The US portion of the tour was complicated due to the Shuberts’ competition with the powerful syndicate of theatre owners who controlled nearly all the major theatres and opera houses in the United States. The syndicate did not allow outside producers to use their stages.
As a result, in Texas and Kansas City, Bernhardt and her company performed under an enormous circus tent, seating 4,500 spectators, and in skating rinks in Atlanta, Savannah, Tampa, and other cities.
Her private train took her to Knoxville, Dallas, Denver, Tampa, Chattanooga, and Salt Lake City, then on to the West Coast. She could not play in San Francisco because of the recent 1906 earthquake, but she performed across the bay in the Hearst Greek Theatre at the University of California at Berkeley.
Sarah also gave a recital, entitled ‘A Christmas Night during the Terror’, for inmates at San Quentin penitentiary. (Johnny Cash – Sarah did it first!)
In April 1906 Bernhardt toured the ruins of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire, escorted by the critic Ashton Stevens.
Sarah’s tour continued into South America, where it was marred by a more serious event: at the conclusion of ‘La Tosca’ in Rio de Janeiro, she leaped, as always, from the wall of the fortress to plunge to her death in the Tiber. This time, however, the mattress on which she was supposed to land had been positioned incorrectly.
She landed on her right knee, which had already been damaged in earlier tours. She fainted, and was taken from the theatre on a stretcher, but refused to be treated in a local hospital. She later sailed by ship from Rio to New York. When she arrived, her leg had swollen, and she was immobilised in her hotel for 15 days before returning to France.
In 1906–1907, the French government finally awarded Bernhardt the Legion of Honour, but only in her role as a theatre director, not as an actress. The award at that time required a review of the recipient’s moral standards, and Bernhardt’s behaviour was still considered scandalous.
Bernhardt ignored the snub, and continued to play both inoffensive and controversial characters. In November 1906, she starred in ‘La Vierge d’Avila, ou La Courtisan de Dieu’, by Catulle Mendes, playing Saint Theresa, followed on the 27th. January 1907 by ‘Les Bouffons’, by Miguel Zamocois, in which she played a young and amorous medieval lord.
In 1909, she again played the 19-year-old Joan of Arc in ‘Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc’ by Émile Moreau. French newspapers encouraged schoolchildren to view her personification of French patriotism.
Despite the injury to her leg, Sarah continued to go on tour every summer, when her own theatre in Paris was closed. In June 1908, she made a 20-day tour of Great Britain and Ireland, performing in 16 different cities.
In 1908–1909, she toured Russia and Poland. Her second American farewell tour (her eighth tour in America) began in late 1910. She took along a new leading man, the Dutch-born Lou Tellegen, a very handsome actor who had served as a model for the sculpture ‘Eternal Springtime’ by Auguste Rodin, and who became her co-star for the next two years, as well as her escort to all events, functions, and parties.
Lou was not a particularly good actor, and had a strong Dutch accent, but he was successful in roles such as Hippolyte in ‘Phédre’, where he could take off his shirt and show off his physique.
In New York, Sarah created yet another scandal when she appeared in the role of Judas Iscariot in ‘Judas’ by the American playwright John Wesley De Kay. It was performed in New York’s Globe Theatre for only one night in December 1910 before it was banned by local authorities. It was also banned in Boston and Philadelphia.
In April 1912, Bernhardt presented a new production in her theatre, ‘Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth’, a romantic costume drama by Émile Moreau about Queen Elizabeth’s romances with Robert Dudley and Robert Devereux.
It was lavish and expensive, but was a financial failure, lasting only 12 performances. Fortunately for Bernhardt, she was able to pay off her debt with the money she received from the American producer Adolph Zukor for a film version of the play.
Sarah departed on her third farewell tour of the United States in 1913–1914, when she was 69. Her leg had not yet fully healed, and she was unable to perform an entire play, only selected acts. She also separated from her co-star and lover of the time, Lou Tellegen. When the tour ended, he remained in the United States, where he briefly became a silent movie star, while she returned to France in May 1913.
Amputation of Sarah’s Leg and Wartime Performances (1914–1918)
In December 1913, Bernhardt achieved another success with the drama ‘Jeanne Doré’. On the 16th. March, she was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. Despite her successes, she was still short of money. She had made her son Maurice the director of her new theatre, and permitted him to use the receipts of the theatre to pay his gambling debts, eventually forcing her to pawn some of her jewels to pay her bills.
In 1914, she went as usual to her holiday home on Belle-Île with her family and close friends. There, she received the news of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the beginning of the Great War.
Sarah hurried back to Paris, which was threatened by an approaching German army. In September, Bernhardt was asked by the Minister of War to move to a safer place. She departed for a villa on the Bay of Arcachon, where her physician discovered that gangrene had developed on her injured leg.
She was transported to Bordeaux, where on the 22nd. February 1915, a surgeon amputated her leg almost to the hip. She refused the idea of an artificial leg, crutches, or a wheelchair, and instead was usually carried in a palanquin she had designed, supported by two long shafts and carried by two men. She had the chair decorated in the Louis XV style, with white sides and gilded trim.
She returned to Paris on the 15th. October, and, despite the loss of her leg, continued to go on stage at her theatre; scenes were arranged so she could be seated, or supported by a prop with her leg hidden. She took part in a patriotic ‘scenic poem’ by Eugène Morand, ‘Les Cathédrales’, playing the part of Strasbourg Cathedral; first, while seated, she recited a poem; then she hoisted herself up on her one leg, leaned against the arm of the chair, and declared:
"Weep, weep, Germany! The German
eagle has fallen into the Rhine!"
Bernhardt joined a troupe of famous French actors and travelled to the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Argonne, where she performed for soldiers who had just returned or were about to go into battle.
Propped on pillows in an armchair, she recited her patriotic speech at Strasbourg Cathedral. Another actress present at the event, Beatrix Dussanne, described her performance:
"The miracle again took place; Sarah,
old, mutilated, once more illuminated
a crowd by the rays of her genius.
This fragile creature, ill, wounded and
immobile, could still, through the magic
of the spoken word, re-instil heroism in
those soldiers weary from battle."
Sarah returned to Paris in 1916 and made two short films on patriotic themes, one based on the story of Joan of Arc, the other called ‘Mothers of France’.
Sarah then embarked on her final American farewell tour. Despite the threat of German submarines, she crossed the Atlantic and toured the United States, performing in major cities including New York and San Francisco.
Bernhardt was diagnosed with uremia, and had to have an emergency kidney operation. She recuperated in Long Beach, California, for several months, writing short stories and novellas for publication in French magazines. In 1918, she returned to New York and boarded a ship to France, landing in Bordeaux on the 11th. November 1918, the day that the Armistice was signed ending the First World War.
Sarah Bernhardt – The Final years (1919–1923)
In 1920, Sarah resumed acting in her theatre, usually performing single acts of classics such as Racine’s ‘Athelée’, which did not require much movement. For her curtain calls, she stood, balancing on one leg and gesturing with one arm.
She also starred in a new play, ‘Daniel’, written by her grandson-in-law, playwright Louis Verneuil. She played the male lead role, but appeared in just two acts. She took the play and other famous scenes from her repertory on a European tour and then for her last tour of England, where she gave a special performance for Queen Mary.
In 1921, Bernhardt made her last tour of the French provinces, lecturing about the theatre and reciting the poetry of Rostand. Later that year, she produced a new play by Rostand, ‘La Gloire’, and another play by Verneuil, ‘Régine Arnaud’ in 1922. She continued to entertain guests at her home. One such guest, French author Colette, described being served coffee by Bernhardt:
"The delicate and withered hand offering
the brimming cup, the flowery azure of the
eyes, so young still in their network of fine
lines, the questioning and mocking coquetry
of the tilted head, and that indescribable
desire to charm, to charm still, to charm
right up to the gates of death itself."
In 1922, Sarah began rehearsing a new play by Sacha Guitry, called ‘Un Sujet de Roman’. On the night of the dress rehearsal she collapsed into a coma for an hour, then awakened with the words, "When do I go on?"
She recuperated for several months, before preparing for a new role as Cleopatra in ‘Rodogune’ by Corneille, and agreed to make a new film called ‘La Voyante’, for a payment of 10,000 francs a day.
The Death of Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah was too weak to travel, so a room in her house on Boulevard Pereire was set up as a film studio, with scenery, lights, and cameras. However, on the 21st. March 1923, Sarah collapsed again, and never recovered. She died at the age of 78 from uremia on the 26th. March 1923.
Sarah died peacefully in the arms of her son. At her request, her Funeral Mass was celebrated at the church of Saint-François-de-Sales, which she attended when she was in Paris.
The following day, 30,000 people attended her funeral to pay their respects, and an enormous crowd followed her casket from the church to Père Lachaise Cemetery.
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