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Famous Stage Actress Biography of Sarah Bernhardt

About the famous French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, her biography and history.

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). One of the theater's greatest talents, French actress Sarah Bernhardt was also one of its most colorful personalities. Few performers ever moved audiences as Bernhardt did, or succeeded in such a wide variety of roles. None provoked more controversy. This exceedingly slender woman with a strikingly attractive face traveled with, and sometimes slept in, a coffin lined with letters from her innumerable lovers. And her entourage often included a veritable menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, turtles, monkeys, leopards, lions, and alligators. Men fought duels to the death for her, priests exhorted parishioners to shun her, and at least one woman killed herself because she couldn't get a ticket to a Bernhardt performance. Critic Jules Lemaitre once said of Bernhardt, "She could enter a convent, discover the North Pole, have herself inoculated with rabies, assassinate an emperor or marry a Negro king without astonishing me."

Idolized as "the divine Sarah" by fans throughout the world, her name appeared in one publication or another every day for over 60 years. Yet her career had almost ended before it began. In 1862, after critics panned her 1st 3 stage appearances, Bernhardt--still not quite 18--tried to poison herself by drinking liquid rouge. Then, 4 years later, she almost gave up the theater to marry Prince Henri de Ligne, the father of her illegitimate child, Maurice. (Sarah had also been born out of wedlock.) But the prince's family prevented the marriage.

The temperamental actress with "the golden voice" scored her 1st notable success in 1869 in Le Passant. She registered still greater triumphs in Ruy Blas (1872); Phedre (1874); Hernani (1877); La Dame aux camelias (1880); Fedora (1882); Jeanne d'Arc (1889); and L'Aiglon (1900). Bernhardt grossed--and spent--$25 million, earning much of it on tours of the U.S., England, and other countries. In 1883, crowds in Copenhagen thronged about her with such enthusiasm that uninformed onlookers thought the furor signaled an overthrow of the Government.

Bernhardt's retinue of lovers was said to exceed 1,000. Many, like Edmund Rostand, were important writers and artists. Yet, with the exception of the man she married--Jacques Damala, a morphine-addicted actor--"the divine Sarah" almost never bedded with mediocre artists. She married Damala in 1882 and separated from him a year later.

Throughout her career, Bernhardt acted with such intensity that she frequently fainted at the end of a performance. In 1915, at 71, severe problems with her right leg forced her to have it amputated. After the operation, she specialized in roles that required no walking. When, in the last months of her life, a stroke made it impossible for her to leave home, Bernhardt converted her house into a motion picture set. She died of uremia in 1923, just 4 days after completing the movie La Voyante.

Other Bernhardt films include Tosca (1911); Camille (1912); Queen Elizabeth (1912); Jeanne Dore (1915). She also left behind gramophone records, paintings, sculptures, and a number of writings--including novels, plays, film scripts, and her autobiography, Memories of My Life (1907).

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