PARIS – Pioneering French theater star Sarah Bernhardt was one of the world’s most famous women until her death in 1923 – a status she owed not only to acting talent but also to her modern instinct for self-promotion and using the press for branding her image.
A century later, a French museum has opened an exhibit on the eccentric, scandalous and multi-faceted performer known as “La Divine,” who many consider the world’s first celebrity.
At the Petit Palais Museum in Paris, audiences now discover the crazy puzzle of Gothic stories, costumes, recordings, films, photographs, jewelry, sculptures and personal items together for the first time—that made Bernhard an object of fascination from Berlin to London and New York .
“Sarah Bernhardt was more than a famous actress. She was one of the first celebrities. She was a businesswoman, fashion icon, sculptor, theater director, visionary, courtesan. She pushed the boundaries between the sexes. Through self-promotion, she paved the way for many people, including Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé,” said Stephanie Cantaruti, curator of the Sarah Bernhardt: And Woman Made the Star exhibit.
The show, marking the centenary of her death, brings together some 400 exhibits that go beyond her life on stage.
It begins at the dawn of her career: a handwritten diary in the official Parisian register of courtesans from 1860 with her photograph and descriptions of the activities of this young “courtesan”. After all, Bernhard was born into the first role in her life: her mother was also a courtesan and mistress of Napoleon III’s half-brother.
The exhibition meanders loosely through the chronology of her life: from her beginnings on the stage after Alexandre Dumas took her to the Comédie Française, to her most famous roles as Joan of Arc, Phaedra and Cleopatra – showcasing the dazzling costumes worn at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhard, which for Americans at the time were emblematic of Paris at the dawn of the modern fashion industry. The Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Chatelet has since been renamed the Theater de la Ville, while all that remains of the building that bears her name is a café-restaurant.
She was one of France’s most prolific gender-benders, known for saying she had to play male characters to feel less restricted. A photograph in the exhibition shows Bernhard in male costume playing Hamlet in a French version of the play.
“She said that the roles given to women weren’t interesting enough and she couldn’t show all her talent playing them, so she played a lot of male roles. important. She was ahead of her time,” Cantaruti said, adding that Bernhardt was bisexual and was often photographed wearing pants — when it was illegal for a woman to do so — decades before stars like Marlene Dietrich.
She was an early influence, dazzling Oscar Wilde, who wrote the play Salome in French about her and called her “the incomparable.” She inspired Marcel Proust. She was visited in her dressing room by Gustave Flaubert, while Mark Twain wrote: “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.
Her intuition for using emerging media and staging stories for the press was the key to the actress’ particular mystique.
She made a name for herself during the 1878 World’s Fair by escaping in a hot-air balloon over the Tuileries Garden, where she cut the neck of a champagne bottle with a sword and tasted foie gras, she said, to escape the bad smell of Paris.
It wasn’t all rosy – she suffered from having one lung, one kidney and later in life only one leg – but she was never down.
Because of her penchant for tragic roles, rumors spread that Bernhard slept in a coffin at night. She saw the potential to play on gossip: She paid to have a padded coffin installed in her home and hired a photographer to photograph her sleeping in it.
“That picture went everywhere; became very famous. She also had a hat made out of bats,” Cantaruti said.
Gothic then became her trademark when she got a pet baby alligator at home, whom she named Ali Gaga. Ali Gaga died of liver failure because Bernhard fed him only champagne, according to Cantaruti.
Bernhard later went on to take the United States by storm. She was received as a celebrity there during her American tour in 1912-1913, although few could understand anything of her performances in French.
The tour followed the success of her groundbreaking 1912 silent film Queen Elizabeth. The man who secured the U.S. rights to broadcast it during her tour, Adolph Zukor, became so wealthy that he used the film’s profits to found Paramount Pictures — then the Famous Players Film company — according to the museum.
Yet it was sculpture that was the inexhaustible passion of her life, producing remarkable works in marble and bronze – some of which were honored and displayed at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Several of her sculptures are on permanent display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
“Now it seemed to me that I was born to be a sculptor, and I had begun to see my theater in a bad light,” Bernhardt said in her autobiography, My Double Life.
“Despite it all” was her mantra and the phrase she identified with, the exhibition says.
“Despite the difficulties in her life, starting out as a courtesan, trying to break into the world of men. Despite all that, and then as an amputee, she continued,” Cantaruti said.
Sarah Bernhardt: And Woman Made the Star runs through August 27.