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20+ Facts About Sarah Bernhardt, Who Wasn’t Very Attractive, but Still Charmed the Most Handsome Men of Her Time

“There are 5 kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses — and then there is Sarah Bernhardt,” Mark Twain said. The Divine Sarah, as many people called her, wasn’t a classically beautiful woman, but she still captured the attention of men. People of high society refused to come to her shows because they thought she was immoral, but the actress had a lot of fun provoking people.

Sarah Bernhardt is called the first superstar and the most famous actress in the world because she was amazingly talented, really smart, and she had a very good heart. We at Bright Side were charmed by “The Divine Sarah” and we couldn’t help but tell you about her.

  • Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris in 1844. To date, she is the earliest born person on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, followed by Thomas Edison, born in 1847.
  • Her real name is Henriette-Rosine Bernard.
  • The mother of Henriette was a very attractive woman and she had reputed lovers, such as Duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s half-brother. He paid for the girl’s education at a prestigious school in a monastery. The young Bernhardt wanted to become a nun, but she kept breaking the rules. For example, when her lizard died, she arranged a Christian burial for it which was a violation.
  • It was de Morny’s idea for Sarah to become an actress. He invited her to the theater where his friend Alexandre Dumas was. Bernhardt was moved by the play she saw and she started to cry loudly. Her mother and de Morny were angry with her, but Dumas calmed the child down and predicted she would have a successful acting career.
  • The debut of the young actress was not very successful. She panicked — because she had stage fright. And some viewers laughed at her because she was too skinny.
  • After leaving the theater, Bernhardt traveled. In Brussels, she met Prince de Ligne and got pregnant with him. The aristocrat wanted to marry her, but he was told he would lose all of his inheritance if he did. So, the couple broke up and Sarah had their son, Maurice, who took her last name.
  • Many years later, the Prince suggested to Bernhardt that he wanted to officially recognize the child, which would mean Maurice would get his noble name and a title, but the young man refused because he was happy to be Bernhardt’s son.
  • To provide for her and her little boy, Sarah found a job in the theater again. She only got roles in silly comedies, even though she was really good in dramatic roles. And with her slim body, she looked quite weird in the big historic costumes. Even Dumas, a big fan of the actress, said after one of her plays, “She has the head of a virgin and the body of a broomstick.”
  • Once the actress changed directions, she became successful. She was very good in the roles written for men. For one of her roles, an Emperor who saw her sent her a brooch with his initials written in diamonds.
  • Bernhardt’s career won her quite a few fans in high places. One royal who was fond of her was King Christian IX of Denmark, who gave her his yacht. Bernhardt was also once given a rosary as a present from Pope Leo XIII.
  • In 1873, Sarah played the main part in Phèdre. She learned and rehearsed her part in just 74 hours. The leading French play critic, Sarcey, wrote, “This is nature itself served by marvelous 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.”
  • The best and the most important role in Sarah Bernhardt’s life was the role of Marguerite Gautier in a play based on Alexandre Dumas’ Camille. She portrayed her more than a thousand times in her life. Viewers often cried when they saw the famous scene where Marguerite dies.
  • The actress adored animals and as soon as her income increased, she started to collect them. Throughout her life, she had 2 dogs, 2 turtles, a hawk she was given by the brother of Alexander III during a trip to Russia, and even a lion cub that she named Justinian.
  • As she became more famous and successful, Sarah Bernhardt’s life choices were becoming more provocative and odd. She had a satin coffin in her house that she slept in sometimes. There is even a photo of her in the coffin and it eventually became part of her image.
  • Bernhardt was a very kind person. During the Franco-Prussian War, she turned the Odéon Theater, where she was an actress, into a hospital for soldiers that defended Paris. Sarah convinced her rich friends to donate money and supplies to the hospital and she served as a nurse there.
  • It was Sarah that made noblewomen remove their hats to allow other people to be able to see the stage.
  • Sarah Bernhardt nicknamed, “The Divine Sarah” and critics were amazed by her voice and elegance. But the actress also had her critics. For example, Chekhov thought that her acting wasn’t divine, as he said, it was just a honed mastery. And Turgenev believed that her only talent was her voice.
  • Bernhardt quickly won over the English public that didn’t speak French, but understood everything thanks to the gestures and the tone of the actress. The tickets for her New York shows were $40 — which was extremely expensive at the time. Her shows always sold out and when Sarah returned from her US tour, she had a box of money that totaled $194,000.
  • It seemed that age didn’t matter to Bernhardt. At the age of 56, she portrayed 20-year-old L’Aiglon, the young son of Napoleon Bonaparte (the actress that portrayed the mother of L’Aiglon was 14 years younger than Sarah).
  • Sarah Bernhardt appeared in several silent movies and she even portrayed Marguerite Gautier in the film version of Camille. It was said that after she watched it, she fainted, and asked to have it removed from theaters. It was because in the theater, she could easily hide her age on stage, but this feat was impossible on film.

Sarah Bernhardt, portraying L’Aiglon

  • Sarah Bernhardt was also a good artist. She preferred painting landscapes, including the sea. And in 1878, she held and exhibition called The Young Woman and Death at the Paris Salon.
  • Also Bernhardt was a sculptor, even though many people didn’t believe she was that good. In 1876, her work Après la Tempête was exhibited at the Paris Salon, and one of the critics thought it was great work, but also tried to say that the actress couldn’t have been the sculptor. In 1879, Bernhardt’s sculptures were exhibited in London and the exhibit was very successful.
  • Bernhardt was very proud of her heritage, once telling a reporter that she was “a Roman Catholic and a member of the great Jewish race.”
  • While on tour in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her leg. Doctors recommended that she have surgery right away, but the actress continued her tour. Because of this, she ended up losing her leg.
  • She continued to act. Her scenes were set up so that she could lie or lean onto something invisible to the audience. And during World War I, Bernhardt acted for the soldiers, despite her injury.
  • At the end of her life, Sarah wrote a book about acting. She focused a lot on the use of the voice, saying that it was the most important tool for a dramatic actor, in her opinion. She recommended that actors to train their lungs to read big pieces in one breath.
  • In 1922, Sarah agreed to appear in Sacha Guitry’s movie. The actress was weak and couldn’t travel to the shoot, so the studio was created right where she lived. But the movie wasn’t released: on March 26, 1923, she died. The newspapers wrote that she died without suffering, in her son’s arms.
  • When the news about Sarah’s death reached the theater, the curtain fell, the audience silently left the theater, and the actors, still wearing their costumes and their makeup, went to her house to say goodbye to their great colleague.

Did you know the story of Sarah Bernhardt before you read this article?

Preview photo credit akg-images / EAST NEWS