Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

Robert Got­tlieb
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
Sarah Bern­hardt — the very name sum­mons dra­ma, and dra­ma was the core of the divine actress’ work and life. In this ini­tial vol­ume of the Yale Jew­ish Lives series, Robert Got­tlieb, the promi­nent edi­tor and author, cap­tures Sarah’s life in a brisk and live­ly cap­sule biog­ra­phy.

Born by an unknown father to a teenaged Jew­ish cour­te­san who quick­ly got Sarah out of her way, Sarah cre­at­ed her own life, achiev­ing a bril­liant career even as she embroi­dered and con­stant­ly redec­o­rat­ed the facts of her life. How then write her biog­ra­phy?

What­ev­er bar­ri­ers and after-the-facts rec­ol­lec­tions Sarah erect­ed to hide her ori­gins and embell­ish her life, she could not hide her indomitable will. So putting aside irrec­on­cil­able facts and con­tra­dic­to­ry accounts, Got­tlieb gives us Sarah the immor­tal actress, the patri­ot, the moth­er.

And it is a fab­u­lous sto­ry. Although the sto­ry of her career starts with lack­lus­ter reviews for her debut per­for­mances, it sweeps through her tri­umphant tours, daz­zling world­wide audi­ences with her per­for­mances, all in French, and final­ly run­ning her own the­ater. Dur­ing the Fran­co-Pruss­ian War she set up a ful­ly stocked hos­pi­tal in a the­ater; dur­ing World War I she under­took a nine­ty-nine-city Amer­i­can tour to encour­age the Unit­ed States to sup­port the Allied effort. Despite a lone­ly child­hood she was devot­ed to all the mem­bers of her fam­i­ly, espe­cial­ly her spoiled and beloved son. She flew in a hot-air bal­loon, col­lect­ed wild ani­mals, slept in a cof­fin and the beds of almost every man she met, from kings to fel­low actors, and insist­ed, in her sev­en­ties, on hav­ing her painful right leg ampu­tat­ed. Bap­tized a Catholic in child­hood, she suf­fered many anti-Semit­ic attacks but did not flinch from her Jew­ish back­ground, stand­ing up for Alfred Drey­fus dur­ing his tri­al. In all a dra­mat­ic life so uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized that her epi­taph sim­ply reads, Sarah Bern­hardt, 1844 – 1923.”

Sarah is gen­er­ous­ly illus­trat­ed, giv­ing read­ers a look at Sarah’s life and the extra­or­di­nary range of her roles from La Dame aux Camélias to Ham­let, from Racine to Ros­tand, all played in high clas­si­cal style. What­ev­er the facts of Sarah’s life, Got­tlieb tells a styl­ish sto­ry, con­vey­ing the bril­liance and force of this leg­endary woman. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, note on sources, photographs.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions