Sarah Bernhardt (France 1844-1923)


Figure 1.--This is Madame Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice. He was adored and pamperd by his mother. Here he looks to be about 5 years old meaning that the portrait was taken about 1869.

Sarah Bernhardt is one of those women who lived life to the full. And what a life! Her actual name was Rosine Nernard. Her parents were were French and Dutch of Jewish descent, but she was raised in a Catholic convent. At age 13 she she entered the Conservatoire was soon astonishing her teachers with her acting skills. Bernhardt was perhaps the most accalimed actress of the 19th century, if not of all time. She was born in Paris in 1844. She had a spectacularly successful acting career in France and then went to England in 1876 where she soon became the leading actress of the London stage, making annual appearances. She made visits to America in the 1880s and there were two world tours during the 1890s. She asked Oscar Wilde in 1892 to write a play for her. Wilde wrote Salome for her, but the Lord Chamberlain banned it before it could be staged. She founded the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris during 1899. Her leg was amputated in 1914, but she continued to appear on the stage. She appeared at the front during World War I to entertain the troops and helped raise money in America and Britain. She had one child, Maurice (1864- ), after an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles Joseph Eugene Henri, Prince de Ligne. She raised Maurice and spoiled him shamefully. She left his hair long and dressed him in fancy clothes until he was quite old. She continued working on the stage until her death. Maurice and Sarah were close their entire lives. She died in his arms during 1923.

Family

Sarah was born in Paris on October 22, 1845. She was the illegitimate daughter of French and Dutch individuals of Jewish descent. Her mother was Julie van Hard, was a Dutch Jewish courtesan. Her father was a struggling law student, Edouard Berhardt. His name appears all that he gave to his daughter. Sarah's real name was Rosine Nernard.

Childhood

Sarah was born in Paris during 1844. Her parents were Jewish, but as with many illegiatimate girls she was raised in boarding schools and convents. She was at baptised at age 12 and raised strictly in a Catholic convent. As a child she desired to be a nun. She cried when her mother removed her from the convent. She was apauled when her mother introduced her to theater life. A the time there was little moral difference between courtesans and actresses in the popukar mind.

Duc de Morny

Sarah's mother Julie became the mistress of the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III's half brother. At the time he was the second most influential man in France. He arranged for Srah to enter the Institut National dev Déclamation and later the Conservatoire. Without his influence, Sarah would have never have been admitted. [Emboden, p. 13.]

Education

At age 13 she she entered the Conservatoire. One source says that she was soon astonishing her teachers with her acting skills. Another that Sarah was very unhappy there with the formal teaching program.

Heni Prince de Ligne

De Ligne and Bernhardt were not close. In Sarah's heart the her affection was centered on her son Maurice and the theater.

Maurice (1864- )

Sarah had one son, Maurice who she she absolutely adored. She pampered and spoiled him outrageously. Maurice was born in 1864 and was the son of Heni Prince de Ligne of Belgium. Several portraits were taken of Maurice with his mother. The one here was taken abiut 1969 (figure 1). She left his hair long and dressed him in fancy clothes until he was quite old. Nothing was too beautifull for Maurice. Maurice had two passions as he gre older: gambling and fencing. He fought several duels, he was quick to take offence if something was said against his mother. Maurice had two daughters.

Career

Sarah Bernhardt was perhaps the greatest actress of all time. She had a spectacularly successful acting career in France and then went to England in 1876 where she soon became the leading actress of the London stage, making annual appearances. She made triumfal visits to America in the 1880s, but it took all of B.T. Barnum's considerable skills to convince her to come. There were two world tours during the 1890s. She asked Oscar Wilde in 1892 to write a play for her. Wilde wrote Salome for her, in French no less. The Lord Chamberlain, however, banned it before it could be staged. She founded the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris during 1899. Her leg was amputated in 1914, but she continued to appear on the stage.

French Patriot

Sarah was a devoted French patriot. As the Prussians moved toward Paris in the Franco Prussian War, Sarah sent her mother and Maurice who was 6 years old to Le Havre (a port), but stayed hehind. She set up a hospital at the Odéon Theater and served as a nurse. [Emboden , p. 19.] She had no love for the Germans. Once when asked what it would cost for here to perform in Germany, her respose was immedaite -- Alsace-Lorraine. [Emboden , p. 122.] Of course her perforances in productuins of Joan of Arc would make her alegend in France. After avoiding Germany for years, she finally appeared in a play during 1902. Kaiser Wilhelm II gave a luncheon for her. A toast was proipised to French artists. Sarah amended it to "All of France". The room fell silent. [Emboden, pp. 120-122.]

World War I

Bernhardt appeared at the front during World War I to entertain the troops and helped raise money in America and Britain. Sarah in 1914 recieved the most prestigious decoration of France : La Légion d'Honneur, very rarely awarded to a woman.

Popularity

A French reader writes, "The name of this exceptional " Dame " is well know here as one of the greatest international tragedienne with a gold voice . Several books have been written on her life."

Final Years

Berhhardt continued working on the stage until her death in 1923. Sarah and Maurice were close all their lives. She died in his arms.

Sources

Baring, Maurice. Sarah Bernhardt (Peter Davies Ltd, London, 1933).

Bernhardt, Sarah Bernhardt, ma grand'mère (Paris, 1945).

Bernhardt, Sarah Bernhardt, My Grandmother (Hurst & Blackett, London, 1949).

Emboden, William. Darah Bernhardt (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York: 1974), 176p.







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Created: April 13, 2003
Last updated: August 17, 2003