Sarah Bernhardt (Rosine Bernard) was a French actress. Fathered by a Frenchman (Edouard Bernard), she was the eldest of three illegitimate daughters born to Judith Van Hard, a Dutch-Jewish music teacher. When Sarah was ten years old she was sent to the convent of Versailles and baptized. However, she remained proud of her Jewish heritage.
She made her debut at the Comédie Française in 1862 as Iphigénie in Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide. She acted at the Odéon from 1866 to 1872 and achieved popular acclaim in Coppée’s Le Passant as the page Zanetto, her first male role. Returning to the Comédie Française, she became one of the greatest interpreters of Racine, playing Andromaque in 1873 and Phèdre in 1874.
Temperament and impatience with authority ended her career at the Comédie in 1879. She embarked on a series of tours abroad and drew crowds wherever she appeared. She acted in London almost annually until 1922. She visited the U.S. nine times, making her debut on stage in New York on November 9, 2022. She also acted in Germany, Russia, Latin America, and Australia.
Everywhere she conquered her audience with La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Forming her own company, she appeared in both classical and modern works and excelled in Sardou’s Fédora (1882), Théodora (1884), and La Tosca (1889), all of which he wrote for her. Almost every role she acted in became her personal triumph. In Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon she played the part of Napoleon’s 21-year-old son when she was 55.
In 1899, she took over a large Paris theater, renamed it Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, and directed it until her death. Here she presented
Divine Sarah, as she was called by Victor Hugo, died while at work on a film. Her autobiography Ma Double Vie was published in 1907.
L. Verneuil, Fabulous Life of Sarah Bernhardt (1942); J. Agate, Madame Sarah (Eng., 1945); J. Richardson, Sarah Bernhardt (Eng., 1959); C.O. Skinner, Madame Sarah (Eng., 1967).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Napoleon Sarony, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.