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6 Reasons to Remember Sarah Bernhardt

Updated on May 19, 2017
Catherine McMahan profile image

Catherine is a college student majoring in Theatre and Creative Writing; she has a special interest in researching the history of Theatre.

The Divine Sarah

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was a French stage actress known for her wild personality and eccentric lifestyle choices, as well as her incredible talent both on and off of the stage. The illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, she went on to become one of the most famous and interesting actresses that the world has ever seen. These are a few of many fascinating aspects of the life of Sarah Bernhardt:

1. She Had Exotic and Dangerous Pets

Like any self-respecting millionaire, Sarah Bernhardt owned a whole menagerie of exotic, beautiful, and dangerous pets. She had a cheetah, a wolf, a monkey named Darwin—and of course—a boa constrictor that would make Britney Spears jealous. The top of this list would have to be her pet baby Alligator, who unfortunately didn’t live too long with the star—the animal died of an overdose of champagne and milk.

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)

2. She Had A Series of Scandalous Love Affairs

Of course as a beautiful, talented actress with maybe a bit too much time on her hands, she managed a whole life full of whimsical, romantic, and scandalous love affairs. With a Belgian prince she had her first and only son but was convinced by his family (who didn’t want them to get married) to end the relationship. She had lovers who were artists—including Gustave Dore and Georges Clairin and the female impressionist painter, Louise Abbema. When King Edward VII was still a Prince, she had him wrapped around her little finger.

Sarah Bernhardt in her coffin-bed.
Sarah Bernhardt in her coffin-bed.

3. Slept in a Coffin

They say that actors can be a bit…well, dramatic. And “they” are not wrong. Sarah Bernhardt, going through some angst of her own, chose her coffin and planned her funeral accordingly. The coffin was lined with love letters and decorated by flowers. And after a few comfy nights spent in it she realized that she like it a lot and made a habit of sleeping right there in her very own death bed ; however, she would not be actually buried in her coffin until she was in her late seventies. Before then she was known to sleep there during the night, take naps during the day, and practice her lines there.

Another time that Sarah Bernhardt played a famous male part was when she played Hamlet.
Another time that Sarah Bernhardt played a famous male part was when she played Hamlet.

4. Played Judas in a Play About Sex

Picture this: Mary Magdalene is a lover of Pontius Pilate. And then the lover of Judas (yes, that Judas). And then of Jesus himself! A blasphemous, juicy story that implied that Judas betrayed Jesus because of a woman. The kicker? Our very own Sarah Bernhardt played the key role of…Judas! The audience, still in the 1800’s, was absolutely shocked by every part of this production and the show was banned from New York the second it closed its first night. This scandalous casting was not unknown to Sarah, though, she often played male roles (such as Hamlet in the Shakespeare play of the same title and Hippolytus in Racine's adaptation of Euripides' Phaedra) and took acting risks that made her stand out from the rest of the celebrities in that day.

Oscar Wilde: "Do you care if I smoke?"

Sarah Bernhardt: "I don't care if you burn."

Which role of Sarah Bernhardt would be more exciting to see?

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5. Started the Fedora Trend

Would Sarah Bernhardt be a true celebrity if she didn’t start some fashion trends? Well, after playing the title role of a Princess in a play called “Fedora,” and wearing the men’s style hat, it was quite the cool thing to do for women to be rebels and wear fedoras as a symbol of “female emancipation.”

Sarah Bernhardt performed into her old age, even without one of her legs.
Sarah Bernhardt performed into her old age, even without one of her legs.

6. Led a Successful Acting Career—After Losing a Leg

There’s always something that gets in the way of the path for fame. Or at least, tries to. For Sarah Bernhardt, it was a terrible knee injury she received after a nasty fall onstage. It troubled her for a while and eventually was festering with gangrene—so she called up one of her lovers, a surgeon, and had her leg amputated from above the knee down. Within the year she was back in the game and went on to live another twenty years, acting and wooing audiences everywhere—wooden leg and all.

Legend remains victorious in spite of History.

— Sarah Bernhardt

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    • DS Dollman profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 4 months ago from Greeley, Colorado

      Fascinating--I thought I knew all about Sarah Bernhardt, but this article makes her seem like a completely different person. I love it! Why spend your lifetime playing characters created by other writers when you can write your own character and become whomever you please? I enjoyed reading this piece and look forward to seeing more from you.