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"The secret of that astounding utterance baffles the imagination. The words boomed and crashed with a superhuman resonance which shook the spirit of the hearer like a leaf in the wind. The voix d'or has often been raved over; but in Sarah Bernhardt's voice there was more than gold: there was thunder and lightening; there was Heaven and Hell." 
-- Lytton Strachey

Sarah Bernhardt photo 


Sarah Bernhardt photo
Place: Paris, France
Photographer: Henri Manuel
jpg: University of Pennsylvania Library
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), French actress who became more than just world renown -- but a phonomina that was extraordinary and sublime. Her beautiful voice, the grace of her movement, and her fiery personality made Sarah one of the most famous actresses of her day -- arguably the most famous actresses of the entire 19th century. She had a pale face with frizzy red hair and processed a voice that was so strong and beautiful -- of bell-like clarity with exquisite diction -- that she set the standard for the finest French speech and was acclaimed everywhere as "the Divine Sarah". Her real name was Henriette-Rosine Bernard.  

In 1872 she joined the company of the French Theater where she rocketed to stardom from one triumph after another. She appeared at the London Gaiety Theater in 1879, then in 1880-81 toured Denmark, Russia and America playing in "The Lady of the Camellias" (known as "Camille" in the United States) a part that seemed to be almost made for her. 

She was born the daughter of a courtesan (see Henri Gervex's "Rolla"), educated at a convent before studying at the Paris Conservatory from 1858 to 1862. Briefly, she appeared in burlesque quite unsuccessfully before finding her home in the French Theater.  She became so famous and revered - a goddess of goddesses -- a true superstar, and held court with the other artists and people like Count Robert de Montesquiou. Reportedly, one of her lovers was Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi.  

Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home  

After playing in all the chief countries in Europe, North and South America, as well as Australia, she returned to London in 1892 where she asked Oscar Wilde to write her a play. The result was Salome but while in rehearsal the Lord Chamberlain (who acted in the capacity of the chief public sensor) banned the play from being shown.  

She returned to Paris in 1893 and managed the Renaissance Theater for six years. Then in early of 1899 "the Divine Sarah" left the  Renaissance for the larger Théâtre des National and made a bold move by taking the lead in a French production of Hamlet [1]. It was clearly a success. She repeated the impersonation of men in 1900 as the fate-ridden son of Napoleon I, in Rostand's L'Aiglon. It too was so successful she took it to London the following year. She eventually opened her own Sarah Bernhardt Theater which she managed until her death. During World War I she performed for the troops near the front lines and would ultimately be awarded the Legion of Honor. 


Men had taken the roles of women in theater for centuries -- as far back as Shakespeare and beyond to the Greeks. However, it was exceptionally rare for a woman to have taken the lead role of a man -- and a lead role in Shakespeare's most challenging play at that.  For "the Divine Sarah" to have done it and done it successfully showed her position and power in the theater and the reverence by which she was held. 

But to say all that doesn't quite convey the magnitude of this lady. She was so  SO loved, and SO profoundly revered that to be even remotely associated with her reaped rewards. When Jules Bastien-Lepage painted her the painting won him the cross of the Legion of Honour; and when Antonio de la Gandara painted her it won him the Silver Medal at the 1900 Worlds Fair.

“Sarah Bernhardt” – the name spoke volumes well beyond her death. People were continually (and sometimes even today) evoking her name to proclaim the next rising actress superstar but rarely . . . rarely has it ever been equaled -- not in the sense of how much she completely overshadowed every one of her contemporaries including men.


Sarah Bernhardt photo 

"She understands the art of motion and attitude as no one else does, and her extraordinary personal grace never fails her."  
-- Henry James  

Jules Bastien-Lepage
French Realist Painter (1848-1884)

Sarah Bernhardt

Giovanni Boldin
Italian-French portrait painter (1845 -1931) 
 (Portrait of Sarah BERNHARDT According to the Count Stanislas Ostorog  says about 1880) 

Antonio de la Gandara

French portrait painter (1861-1917)

Sarah Bernhardt in L'Aiglon1900


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2005 all rights reserved
Created 8/23/2002