Mark Twain once famously said that there were five kinds of actresses- bad, fair, good, great and Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah was born to a family of modest income in Paris, October 22, 1844. Her Dutch mother was only 16 when she gave birth to Sarah and early in her life studied to be a nun in a convent in Versailles but her love of the theater led her to study acting at the Paris Conservatoire, the most prestigious such school in France.
On September 1, 1862 she debuted at the Theatre Francais as Iphigenia in a tragedy by Racine and sparked critical disapproval. In a depression she left for Spain but regrouped and returned to increasing critical acclaim and performances in London which became the rage in 1879 when she was 34. They dubbed her The Divine Sarah.
In 1880, she first toured America giving 27 performances in French in New York City and grossing huge amounts of money and she was labeled the greatest tragedienne of all time. She was so popular in America that people went to see her despite being given programs that explained each scene performed in French. She made seven tours of America.
In 1912, Martin Beck who was at that time desperately trying to save his
failing new Palace Theater from going under due to unfavorable press, heavier than expected construction costs and much higher prices than other vaudeville houses of the city brought in Sarah Bernhardt who did astonishingly great business despite the higher prices. But Beck had previously had good luck at bringing great actresses of the stage into vaudeville. He had brought Ethel Barrymore into the Orpheum Circuit to do two playlets per day in "two a day" vaudeville.
How did Beck convince the acting legend to come and do vaudeville? He convinced her by going to Paris and telling her that if she appeared at a moderate price to audiences she would be seen by a huge multitude who would also be grateful for the opportunity. This desire to reach larger and larger audiences led her to perform in silent films as early as 1900.
A woman of considerable intelligence and skill, she was also an artist and a talented sculptor who studied art and art history. She was outspoken about being an atheist while at the same time respecting if not believing in her family's Jewish beliefs. She was also the model for many posters of a commercial nature as well as paintings by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha and she became the inspiration for the graphic Art Nouveau style which swept over Paris in the later 1890s. The Art Nouveau style with wildly spiraling female hairstyling and a fondness for non-historical ornament owes a great debt to Bernhardt and Mucha in its full-blown form.
The University of Arizona possesses an original program from the limited engagement of Sarah Bernhardt at Martin Beck's Palace Theater in New York City. She did one act from one of her famous plays so that it might be Une Nuit de Noel, La Dame aux Camelias, La Tosca, Theodora, Lucrece Borgia or Phedre. The audience received a scene by scene guide which explained everything going on on the stage in French. It seemed not to bother American audiences in the slightest that they couldn't understand the nuances of what was going on before them.
In 1905 she injured her leg jumping off a landing in a play and after gangrene set in the leg was amputated and, remarkably, she soon resumed her career, moving around on an artificial leg on stage! She had one son, from an affair with a Belgian nobleman. Working until near the end, she suffered kidney failure and died in 1926 with her son holding her. She is thought to have been 79 years old.
Sarah Bernhardt in 1905: