Sarah Bern­hardt: The Divine and Daz­zling Life of the World’s First Super Star

  • Review
By – January 14, 2021

Sarah Bern­hardt is a name super­charged with show busi­ness ener­gy. She was a woman who filled stages around the world with enchant­i­ng pre­sen­ta­tions of life, death, joy, and mis­ery. From ear­ly child­hood to old age, life for Bern­hardt was not easy, sim­ple, or bor­ing. Oppor­tu­ni­ties, the help of friends, and a raw nat­ur­al tal­ent com­bined to make this woman into a the­ater super­star whose life off stage was no less dra­mat­ic than the emo­tions pre­sent­ed to the audi­ences who packed her performances.

Sarah Bernhardt’s name, in her time and beyond, has become syn­ony­mous with act­ing achieve­ment. Bern­hardt had an unusu­al child­hood — born to an unwed six­teen-year-old seam­stress, her moth­er then became a high class sex work­er whose cus­tomers were pow­er­ful, wealthy men, some­times with roy­al con­nec­tions or titles. While her mother’s job was risqué, she and women like her were val­ued for their beau­ty and charm in sophis­ti­cat­ed French cir­cles. This life left lit­tle time for the young child who, long­ing for her moth­er, was left in the care of hired help. Bern­hardt was sent to board­ing school and from there to a con­vent school. Each school offered edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties and places for Bernhardt’s increas­ing­ly eccen­tric per­son­al­i­ty to devel­op, but her beau­ti­ful, dis­tant moth­er did lit­tle to assure the child of her love.

Resist­ing her mother’s efforts to force her into mar­riage at age six­teen to a per­son with a good trade, Bern­hardt fol­lowed her own star. Her life direc­tion changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly when an influ­en­tial friend of her moth­er sized her up as being des­tined for life in the the­ater. The path was not easy or obvi­ous but with luck, ambi­tion, and occa­sion­al help from influ­en­tial peo­ple, Bern­hardt devel­oped an act­ing style that came to define the­ater. Attrac­tive and tiny, with riv­et­ing blue eyes, her uncon­ven­tion­al por­tray­als of heroes and vil­lains lift­ed her to unher­ald­ed heights. She did things her way— dis­agree­ing with the­ater direc­tors, oth­er actors, and wealthy patrons. She found a mot­to for life in an every­day French expres­sion, quand même, which means all the same” or even so.” No mat­ter the chal­lenges that life pre­sent­ed, she kept going; whether she faced good luck or mis­for­tune: quand même. Beyond her incred­i­ble dra­mat­ic flair, she grew to become a brave and car­ing per­son of hero­ic dimensions.

Anti­semitism was per­va­sive in France dur­ing Bern­hardt’s life­time. Although Bern­hardt was Jew­ish by birth, her con­nec­tion to the reli­gion was tan­gen­tial. She con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism and, at one point, con­sid­ered becom­ing a nun. But when the anti­semitc-tinged Drey­fus tri­al began, she stood proud­ly with those who defend­ed the accused cap­tain and declared, I am a daugh­ter of the great Jew­ish race…” Although she nev­er prac­ticed tra­di­tion­al Judaism, she felt close­ly linked to the Jew­ish people.

This fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry is beau­ti­ful­ly told in ele­gant prose and includes myr­i­ad details which, in addi­tion to describ­ing the life of Sarah Bern­hardt, offers an insider’s view of the his­to­ry of the era. Peri­od pho­tos, an index, a time­line, a bib­li­og­ra­phy, and notes are included.

Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and free­lance writer, Helen Weiss Pin­cus, has taught mem­oir writ­ing and cre­ative writ­ing through­out the NY Metro area to senior cit­i­zens and high school stu­dents. Her work has been pub­lished in The New York Times, The Record, The Jew­ish Stan­dard, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She recent­ly added Bub­by” to her job description.

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