Life & Culture

The divine Sarah: How the French actor became the first female celebrity Jew

Sarah Bernhardt both used and blurred her Jewishness to create the first image of global fame


Fame as we know it was born in the 19th century. Napoleon Bonaparte was probably the first person to be born in obscurity but become internationally renowned, with cartoons of his face the advance guard of his celebrity.

Lord Byron was probably the proto-Kardashian, the first person to be famous merely for being famous. It was Byron’s private life, not his verse, that secured his fame.

It was now possible for anyone to become famous in the commercial, democratic and media-driven societies of western Europe — even Jews.

The ideas of the most consequential 19th-century Jews, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl, did not achieve their full consequentiality in their lifetimes; and of the three, only Herzl seems to have desired fame as much as intellectual recognition.

But two other 19th-century Jews did become internationally famous in their own lifetimes. And both of them, unlike almost every famous person from the fame-ridden 19th century, remain famous today.

The first modern celebrity Jew was Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). The second was the French actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Both became baptised Christians at the age of 12, Disraeli when his father fell out with the administrators at Bevis Marks Synagogue, and Bernhardt at the insistence of her mother’s Catholic lover.

Still, both Disraeli and Bernhardt insisted they remained Jewish by descent and sentiment, even as they upgraded their origins with fictional antecedents, and especially after they had won their places in the spotlight.

Disraeli and Bernardt were self-dramatisers and performers. Disraeli played the aristocratic dandy, and Bernhardt created the image of “the Divine Sarah”.

The subtitle of the exhibition now at Le Petit Palais, Et la femme créa le star (“And woman created the star”), is a play on the title of Roger Vadim’s 1956 movie Et dieu créa la femme (And God created Woman), which launched Brigitte Bardot on the world. Both titles refer to a primal creation: “Male and female created He them” (Genesis 5:2).

The author of her fortune, Sarah Bernhardt became the first global star. Oscar Wilde wrote Salome for her. Alphonse Mucha’s posters made her synonymous with Art Nouveau.

Marcel Proust put her in Remembrance of Things Past as La Berma, the actor famed, like Bernhardt, for her “voice of gold” and for playing Racine’s Phèdre. Henry James based Miriam Rooth, the heroine of The Tragic Muse, on Bernhardt.

“The trade of celebrity, pure and simple, had been invented, I think, before she came to London,” James wrote after Bernhardt’s triumphant arrival with the Comédie Française in London in 1879. “If it had not been, it is certain she would have discovered it,” he claimed.

Bernhardt was one of the first to realise that, in the age of celebrity, the famous are never offstage. Her performing style applied the Romantic passion for the morbid, odd or simply overdone to the restrained Classical drama; her public image went in the same direction. She wore a hat with a bat in it.

She slept in a coffin, or at least had herself photographed in it with her eyes closed. Her name preceded her, and the images multiplied accordingly.

She was painted and photographed before the critics came around. She was painted, photographed and filmed all over the world on a lap of honour that took her to Russia, the US, Turkey, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand.

Even the Hawaiians and Samoans heard Bernhardt recite her greatest hits. Yet though her image was replicated more than any living person’s, she could not be duplicated.

Bernhardt was born in Paris in 1844. Her mother Judith (later Julie) Van Hard was a courtesan of either Dutch or German Jewish origins. Julie’s husband, Sarah’s grandfather, was a Jewish oculist from Amsterdam named Maurice Bernard.

The mock-genteel “t” was acquired in the 1840s, as Julie and two of her sisters, Rosine and Henriette, made their way to Basel, London, Le Havre and eventually Paris. There, Henriette made a solid bourgeois marriage to a businessman, and Judith and Rosine became hostesses and horizontal companions to the Duc de Morny.

Robert Gottlieb, the biographer most interested in Sarah’s Jewishness, complains about her “obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations”.

Her father was possibly a naval officer named Morel; more possibly the lawyer from Le Havre who managed the money that Sarah was to inherit on her marriage; but almost certainly not a brilliant but poor law student, as Sarah later suggested, because he is a figure from La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, in which she found her greatest stage success.

Nor did Sarah, with her hereditary tubercular condition, resemble the heroine of a novel she wrote in late life, Petite Idole (Little Idol), which describes the theatrical triumphs of a beloved daughter of loving parents.

When Sarah was three years old, Julie, the stage mother from hell, left her with a nurse in a village in Brittany. Sarah grew up speaking Breton, and the nurse became the first in a series of older women whose affection substituted for the absent Julie.

Sarah’s unknown father had her educated at a fashionable boarding school in the Paris suburb of Auteuil — where she made her stage debut as Queen of the Fairies — and then, with the Duc de Morny’s support, at a convent.

In May 1856, Sarah and her two younger sisters were baptised. Sarah’s certificate of baptism names her father as Édouard Bernhardt; this is a red herring, as this was the name of her maternal uncle.

Sarah was drawn to the dramatic potential of becoming a nun or a goatherd, and her mother had set her up with a chaperone and hoped to marry her off, but one evening, as Sarah told it, the Duc de Morny took her to the Comédie Francaise to see Racine’s Brittanicus. She burst into tears when the curtain went up, and that was that.

The chaperone became Sarah’s lifelong companion, and one of several substitute mothers.

Morny’s influence secured Sarah a place at the Paris Conservatory, and then a job with the Comédie-Française. She was not a distinguished student or performer.

She was skinny in an age that preferred zaftig women, and though her diction was clear, her voice was not yet strong. She was, however, unconventionally beautiful, with red-gold, curly hair, a strong forehead and nose and striking, blue-green eyes.

“She has the head of a virgin and the body of a broomstick,” quipped Dumas fils, though this was already only half-true.

Sarah launched her amorous and stage careers almost simultaneously, with a cavalry officer and the lead role in Racine’s Iphigénie. In 1864, her only son Maurice was born — his father was probably a Belgian, the Prince de Ligne — and she stopped acting for two years.

Gottlieb believes that Sarah was now “living by her wits — and her body”. Cultivating what she called a “menagerie” of admirers in the white-satin salon of her new apartment, she slid back into her mother’s world for two or three years, before her ambition and her devotion to Maurice drove her back to the stage.

In 1868, the critics and crowds came around when she played the female lead in Kean, by Dumas fils.

Et la femme créa le star is full of pictures of Bernhardt in character as Joan of Arc, Cleopatra and Hamlet, striking the almost archaic, stiff poses that used to stand for tragedy, as well as studiously candid portraits and snapshots of Bernhardt engaged in almost normal activities as she plays the offstage star called “Sarah Bernhardt”.

Her costumes, surprisingly diminutive and beautifully made, are in display cases, as if also frozen in time. Further raw materials of the legend lie in a detritus of programmes, reviews and cartoons, in her jewellery and in her surprisingly accomplished sculptures.

None of this would be of interest to anyone apart from historians of the theatre, were it not for Bernhardt’s celebrity.

Bernhardt was in the habit of confiding fictious versions of her past to friends, family members and trusted journalists.

Her own unreliable memoir is called My Double Life. But the doubling is not just between life onstage and off, or even between the grubby obscurity of her origins and the glamorous celebrity that she worked so hard to attain, but also between her Jewishness, which she masked but did not deny, and her fame as an icon of republican France.

While Bernhardt was the global face of France, her face was the subject of antisemitic cartooning back home. Proust’s Swann is accepted in society so long as he hides his Jewishness, but Bernhardt’s Jewishness was essential to her fame, for the 19th century’s new science of race was a kind of licence to act out the clichés.

For Disraeli, that meant ancient claims to intelligence and nobility. For Bernhardt, the Mediterranean irrationalism of tragic drama, and its modern return in Wilde’s oversexed and domineering Salome.

The Goncourt brothers, the sleazeball literary gossips whose diaries are an invaluable barometer of artistic and social snobbery, called Bernhardt a freak.

She had an unnatural “masculine build”, and her vampiric stamina allowed her to spit blood “with no more effect on her constitution than if she were spitting gobs”. The Goncourts also opined that “Jewry and the South” had conquered Paris, and thought Dreyfus was guilty.

Apart from a single cartoon and a caption reference to the Dreyfus Affair, Et la femme créa le star avoids these indelicate facts.

It is strange that in this, our age of identity politics, the centenary of her death is marked with an exhibition that skates past her Jewishness. Perhaps this is partly due to her success, which encourages the mythographical urge to “print the legend”.

In her lifetime, Bernhardt merged her image with that of France. Her last great role, and one of several in which she cross-dressed, was in L’Aiglon (The Eagle), in which she played Bonaparte’s son.

The amputation in 1915 of a leg due to gangrene has a strange synchrony with the loss of limbs and lives in the trenches. Her massive funeral cortège in 1923 was the popular equivalent of a state funeral.

Disraeli remains the odd man out among British prime ministers, but Bernhardt is now fully assimilated into French culture.

‘Et la femme créa le star’ is at Le Petit Palais, Paris until August 27

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