“Life is short, even for those who live a long time, and we must live for the few who know and appreciate us, who judge and absolve us, and for whom we have the same affection and indulgence….We ought to hate very rarely, as it is too fatiguing, remain indifferent a great deal, forgive often and never forget.” — Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt has been referred to as “the most famous actress the world has ever known.” Famous and infamous, Bernhardt made a name for herself on the stages of France in the 1870’s. Her personal life read like something from the modern day tabloids and she was the lover of princes, noblemen, artists, and writers.
Alexander Dumas called her a notorious liar because she exagerrated and distorted the truth. Disputes over her early life and familial ancestry arose from the various fictions that she told about her family and ancestry. Her birth records were lost in a fire in 1871. In order to prove French citizenship, she created false birth records that listed stated she was the daughter of “Judith van Hard” and “Edouard Bernardt” from Le Havre. At various times she said that her father was a law student, an accountant, or a naval officer. It is believed in actuality that her mother was a Parisian courtesan named Julie Bernardt who was known as “Youle” and her father was never identified.
Bernhardt stage career began at the tender age of thirteen while she was a student at the Comedie-Francaise. Her performance did not garner much interest. She soon left Paris. She tried an unsuccessful stint in burlesque and became a courtesan in Belgium. While she was in Belgium she became the mistress to Henri, Prince de Ligne whose son she bore in 1864. After her son Maurice’s birth, the prince proposed marriage to her but his family forbade the marriage. The Prince de Ligne was not the only prince that she became involved with. She also had an affair with King Edward VII while he was still the Prince of Wales.
In 1865 Bernhardt acquired her famous coffin. As a young child one of Bernhardt’s sister died of tuberculosis and it has been debated whether or not she too was afflicted with the disease. She was frequently sick when she was young and this lead to a fascination with death. She often slept in the coffin. The coffin went with her on tour and became part of the Sarah Bernhardt legend. Bernhardt seemed to enjoy the intriguing presentation that she offered to the public. As it was she didn’t need her coffin until she was 79 years old. She made all of her own funeral arrangements before her death.
Bernhardt was passionate about performing. Jumping from a parapet she injured her leg. The leg continued to give her pain and remained swollen. Her physician had a cast applied. When the cast was removed it was discovered that sepsis had set in and the leg had to be amputated. This occurred in 1915 when she was 70 years old and after she had performed at the front lines during World War I. The loss of her leg never slowed her for a minute. While she found that using a wooden prosthetic leg was painful, she performed in a wheel chair and looked for roles that she could perform while seated.
Perhaps because death was such a triviality to this vibrant women, she continued to act up until her death. Her last profect was a film titled “La Voyante” where she played a fortune teller. In addition to the difficulties with her leg, Sarah Bernhardt developed kidney problems later in life. She left the set of “La Voyante” to never return again to acting. Her son Maurice sat with her at her bedside. When she was informed of the multitude of papparazzi outside her house that were waiting for the announcement of her death, she said, “All my life reporters have tormented me enough. I can tease them now a little by making them cool their heels.” She died the next day, March 26, 1923 from uremia.
Sarah Bernhardt is buried in Paris in the Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Her unofficial funeral procession took over the streets of Paris and stopped briefly in front of her theatre to pay homage to the most famous actress that the world has ever known.