In the history of the world, it would not be wrong to offer Sarah Bernhardt as its most celebrated actress. Her lifelong motto Quand même (her own translation was "nevertheless") summed up her life: rambunctious, vivacious, preposterous, divine, tireless, and so full as to be bursting at the seams. In short, dramatic.
Much of her early years are spotty, as the building containing her birth certificate and early childhood memorabilia burned in a fire while she was still a teenager before scrutiny set in. Most of the official record comes from her autobiography (a book so otherwise filled with hokum and hyperbole as to be classified as fiction in most libraries). She was born Henriette Rosine Bernard in 1844 in Paris to a Jewish courtesan known as Youle. Although her last name is that of the lawyer Edouard Bernard, there is no proof he was her biological father. A courtesan with a child simply wouldn't do, and thus young Sarah was sent to a convent in Brittany at the age of 1.
While at the nunnery she adopted a flair for the dangerous, once falling into a fire and another time breaking her wrist while demonstrating some amateur acrobatics. According to her mythos, she would've stayed at the convent much longer were it not for the Dickensian arrival of her Aunt Rosine (for whom she was named) at the school. When her aunt decided to leave without taking her back, Sarah threw herself out of a balcony window, breaking her kneecap. Whether or not this story is true, Sarah's relationship with her mother was forever strained by this abandonment, and she spent the rest of her life trying to prove her worth to her mother through the world.
Upon her return to Paris in 1859, she was allowed to enter the conservatory to learn how to act. By 1862 she had won a role as an understudy at the prestigious Comedie-Francaise, where she was more acknowledged for her distinctive look - that impossible thinness and her fiery red hair - than her talents. A few months later, the 18 year old Sarah was out on the street, and again the record turns hazy. At 20 she gave birth to her son Maurice (her one true love) and became a courtesan herself, entertaining many of the same men in Louis Napoleon's court that her own mother had. It was during this time that she acquired her famous coffin from which she honed in on the core existential tragedy of the many roles she would later undertake.
In 1866 she took a job at the Odeon and her realism and emotional depths won over the rising Left Bank youth movement, promoting her to stardom within a few short years, culminating with her performances in Alexander Dumas's Kean and Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas (she had an affair with Hugo, 42 years her senior, which allegedly ended with an abortion.) In 1870, as the Germans sieged Paris, she turned her beloved theater into a makeshift military hospital - dressing rooms became operating rooms, the seat cushions pillows, the costumes bedgowns. It was, in her words, her "proudest moment." By 1872 she had returned to the Comedie-Francaise, where she undertook perhaps her two most famous roles: the titular character of Jean Racine's Phedre, and Marguerite in the younger Dumas's La Dame aux Camélias. Henry James sang her praises and modeled a character in The Tragic Muse after her; Proust followed suit with the famous La Berma passages of Remembrance of Things Past; Oscar Wilde wrote Salome with her in mind. She was not without her detractors: Chekhov begged for her not to be given parts in his plays, and Shaw dismissed her as a "hack" and offering the consolation that after Bernhardt there would always be another chance to have the plays done right.
A Woman of the World
By 1880, though, restlessness sank in, and Divine Sarah decided to tour America for six months. On her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, she saved the life of Mary Todd Lincoln from a rogue wave which nearly sent the former First Lady tumbling down an ominous stairwell. (Unlike much Bernhardt apocrypha, this tale has several verified sources.) Upon arrival in America, she was nothing short of an utter sensation (she returned to it eight more times during her life.) She toured all across the East Coast, and curiosity about her made her the first real tabloid subject of the modern newspaper era. In addition to her tremendous talent and celebrity, the public was fascinated by her indulgent personal life: her childhood, her many lovers, her exotic menagerie (which contained, among other things, lions, leopards, alligators, snakes, an ostrich, and 200 other species), her stage fright, her curious coffin habit, and her own cheeky personality and wit. She was admired by Mark Twain, visited Thomas Edison and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, played footsie with Joseph Pulitzer.
By the time she returned to the continent, she was even more well-regarded and she used her newfound fame to take control over her theatrical presentations, from script to stage to decorations in the theaters. The great Victorien Sardou began writing bombastic productions centered around tragic female characters for her, including La Tosca and Gismonda. While many of the plays themselves were poor, the central character roles were meaty and Sarah was no wilted flower in taking up the challenge. Her international acclaim made her rely less and less on her dramatic skills and more on elaborate scenery and costuming, seductive poses (she was famously dubbed "the Queen of Attitude" by Edmond Rostand), her famous "golden voice", and her glowering sexuality.
She slept with all her leading men, including a torrid affair with the dashing Jean Mounet-Sully, seduced the sculptor Gustave Doré (she, an accomplished sculptor herself, often cited him as her best friend), and most famously bedded the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. In 1882 she married another actor, the Greek-born Aristides Damala, but he carried an unfortunate addiction to morphine and died in 1889, although the marriage itself had succumbed much sooner. Despite her many lovers, Bernhardt was notorious for being unable to achieve orgasm, causing one wag to note, "She doesn't have a clitoris, she has a corn."
Throughout the 1890s Bernhardt became a fervent Dreyfusard and supporter of Georges Clemenceau and Emile Zola. In 1900 the 56 year old performer starred as Hamlet in one of the earliest silent movies. She starred in ten movies overall, most famously 1912's Queen Elizabeth, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her lifelong contribution to theater and drama. In 1915 she had her right leg amputated as the result of an injury she suffered ten years prior (P.T. Barnum offered her $10,000 to display the leg at his shows. Divine Sarah refused.) Unfazed by this setback, she picked up and went on her final tour of the United States the following spring, carting herself around on a silver-decked wheelchair. In 1917, the Legion of Honor recipient read poetry to the men on the front line during World War I.
Her final days were spent in her regal home just outside of the City of Lights, collecting animals and children's dolls, giving acting lessons and entertaining guests. She made numerous home movies which she showed off in lavish unveilings at her home. And she continued to perform on the stage despite her immobility, never stopping until her final days, when she slipped into a coma and died March 26, 1923, in the arms of her beloved son. Hundreds of thousands of mourners flocked to her funeral procession in Paris, to mourn the loss of one of the world's greatest icons.