Home / General / Erik Visits an (Non) American Grave, Part 508

Erik Visits an (Non) American Grave, Part 508

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This is the grave of Sarah Bernhardt.

Born Henriette Bernard in Paris in 1844, Bernhardt was the daughter of a Jewish courtesan. The courtesan was a significant part of 19th century France, effectively high-end prostitutes engaging in long-term affairs with very wealthy men, often minor royalty from the many royal houses of Europe that still existed. Being a well-connected courtesan could actually make one a very powerful woman and that was the case with Bernhardt’s mother. Bernhardt’s father, believed to be a wealthy merchant, agreed to pay for her education so long as she was baptized as a Catholic, which was done. Bernhardt never denied her Jewish heritage, but also remained a committed Catholic for her whole life. Her father died when she was 15, which caused a significant crisis for the family, as they money dried up for her future. She was attending one of France’s wealthiest convent schools and had already shown some acting talent. So her mother decided she should become an actress. As her mother also knew Alexandre Dumas, he attended her first play and saw her talent.

Bernhardt became studying acting and got a job with a prominent acting company in Paris in 1862. It didn’t go well and she left for a popular theater. She was successful, but, being asked to present a performance to Napoleon III, chose to read some poems by Victor Hugo. Whoops–Hugo and Napoleon III hated each other. He walked out, it was a disaster, and Bernhardt was embarrassed. In the aftermath, she followed her mother’s path for awhile, becoming a courtesan. Dumas helped her get set up in Brussels. She had an affair with a member of the Belgian nobility and got pregnant. She moved back to Paris and had the child. The father did not acknowledge it.

In the aftermath of all this, Bernhardt got serious about acting. And she rose in the field. Fast. Although much of polite society would shun her over her background, she became the most popular actor of her day. She ran with the artistic crowd of the day, now not only Dumas, but George Sand, starring in her plays, as well as an aging Victor Hugo. Her performances packed houses. She started playing the most difficult roles in French theatre by the early 1870s, including male roles. She took many lovers through these years too, some fellow actors, others extremely wealthy men. She married once, in the 1880s, but left the guy when she discovered that he was using her money to buy presents for other women. He died in 1889, by which time she had forgiven him. She loved spending money more than anything and began to discover that if she really wanted to make a ton of money, she could do tours. She started this in London in 1879 and continued on and off through her life, including multiple tours to the United States and even Latin America. The French public was somewhat resentful over this, but she won them over after being shut out of the theatre after her first U.S. tour by showing up for Bastille Day celebrations wearing a dress like the tricolor and singing “La Marseillaise,’ which won them back.

Bernhardt became most known for playing in Dumas’ La Dame aux Caméilas, which she performed over 1,000 times. She produced and financed her own theatre productions as well, most of which left her in debt, but she knew she could always roam the world for more money, which she also enjoyed. She strongly supported Dreyfus in the legendary anti-Semitic affair that still defines French history to some extent. Her own son refused to speak to her for a year after that, though I think he was still living off her fortune, which he did over his whole life. She could attract controversy. She faced anti-Semitic attacks in Russia. In Canada, she had eggs thrown at her after the Archbishop of Montreal condemned her for portraying prostitutes sympathetically.

Bernhardt was also a pretty serious artist off the stage too, especially sculpture. She exhibited and sold quite a bit, and while her name in acting certainly didn’t hurt, by most accounts that I can see, it’s well-regarded work, even today. Rodin hated her work, and OK, he was a better sculptor, but she certainly had her defenders, including Emile Zola, who she also defended when he got in trouble as well during the Dreyfus Affair. She also wrote a textbook on the art of acting in her later years, which seems to be still an interesting book today, with a lot of good advice on the use of the voice. Of course, a lot of things can’t really be taught and one of them was Bernhardt’s uncanny ability to learn her lines almost immediately.

Eventually, a lifetime of theatre took a toll on her body. She hurt her leg in 1906 during a performance in Rio, it never quite got better, and then she hurt it again and again. Being an actor is a pretty physical vocation, especially on the stage. As she refused to rest (she really did need the money and it’s equally clear she had little desire to do anything but live the life she had created for herself), it got worse and worse. Finally, in 1914, gangrene began to set into the leg. It was amputated the next year. She still did not stop acting! As she refused to have any sort of prosthetic, she just changed the roles she played so she wouldn’t have to move and was carried from place to place on a palaquin.

Bernhardt also took to film much faster than most stage actors, appearing in quite a few. It was her kidneys that finally took her out. Uremia killed her in 1923.

There are a few clips of Bernhardt that still exist, both audio and visual, so let’s check them out.

Sarah Bernhardt is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France. I swear that this post going up on Bastille Day is entirely coincidental. It was intended to go up yesterday, but I didn’t get it done in time.

If you would like this series to visit other famous actress of the 19th and early 20th centuries, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Since you all are too cheap to send me back to Paris, or even better, to London, where I could get all the cool graves, Fay Templeton is in Valhalla, New York and Ethel Barrymore is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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