1845 – 1923 A.D.
Sarah Bernhardt, a noted French actress born in Paris of French and Dutch parentage. She was of Jewish descent, but at the age of twelve, in accordance with her father’s wish, was baptized into the Christian faith and entered a convent to be educated.
In 1858 she joined the company at the Odéon and made her first notable success as Cordelia in a French version of King Lear, and as the Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. In 1872 she was called to the Comédie Française, later was elected “societaire [sic],” and by a series of remarkable performances, chief among which was the rôle of Dona Sol in Hugo’s Hermani (1877), she steadily increased her reputation till she became the best-known actress of her time.
Leaving the Comédie in 1879 she appeared in London, and later made tours of Denmark, Russia and America. In 1882 she returned to London and married Jaques Damala, a Greek actor, from whom she separated the following year.
On her return to Paris she achieved another signal triumph in the Fedora of Sardou, and thus began her long connection with this popular author., who wrote for her Theodora, La Tosca and Cléopâtre. During this decade she made visits to the United States, and made a tour of the world, including North and South America, Australia, and the chief European countries.
In 1896, during an elaborate public fête held in honor at Paris, she received congratulations from almost every country in the civilized world.
Three years later she opened the Théâtre Sara-Bernhardt with a revival of La Tosca, and later appeared as the weak-willed son of Napoleon I in Rostand’s L’Aiglon. Her success in this led her to attempt a French production of Hamlet, in which she played the title rôle.
In the spring of 1913 she visited America again and played a short engagement in single acts selected from her repertoire. Owing to a permanent injury to her knee, she was unable to walk without assistance, but her matchless voice was unimpaired and she received an ovation at every performance. In 1914 she was made a member of the Legion of Honor, and in the same year won one of her greatest triumphs in Bernard’s Jeanne Doré.
Six years later, in April, 1920, she appeared in her own theatre in Paris in her famous rôle of Athalie in Racine’s play. At her first performance the emotion of her admirers who crowded the theatre, was the most singular of all the tributes ever paid to this extraordinary woman. When she was carried on the stage in the golden litter of Athalie, surrounded by attendants, the audience cheered and wept in a kind of frenzy, which even she, in all her fifty years of triumphs, had never known equaled.
In spite of her seventy-five years, in spite of her infirmities, including partial blindness, her power seemed as great as ever, and she showed herself still to be beyond question the foremost actress of France.
She was at work, rehearsing for a new production, only a week before her death in Paris, on March 26, 1923, aged seventy-eight having been sixty-one years on the stage.
While Sara Bernhardt’s position as the first actress of her day was undisputed, she was never able, as Modjeska was, to portray the highest inspirations of poetry, and she lacked Duse’s serenity and sincerity an her ability to suggest unutterable emotions; but she was mistress of every item of stage-craft, and when inspiration failed her she triumphed by sheer technical efficiency. Before age destroyed her panther-like grace, her every pose and movement were so artfully contrived that they appeared inseparable from the character she was portraying. Her amazing power of emotional acting, the extraordinary realism and pathos of her death-scenes, the magnetism of her personality, and the beauty of her “golden voice,” made the public tolerant of her occasional caprices.
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.