An Actress Melodramatic About Death

by M-Gillies

Sarah Bernhardt is buried at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in France.

If coffins are meant for vampires and the dead, then the iconoclastic French actress, Sarah Bernhardt’s fascination with death teetered on the scandalous.

Considered to be the most famous actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bernhardt was not just recognized for her intense performances that left her often passing out at the end of each show, but also for her eccentric, flamboyant and scandalous lifestyle. Her international stardom, numerous affairs and entourage of exotic animals, which included a cheetah, a wolf, a boa-constrictor, and an alligator named Ali-Gaga (before it’s untimely death of being fed too much milk and champagne) saw her name appear in one publication after another everyday throughout her 60 year career.

Idolized as the “Divine Sarah” by fans around the world, the temperamental actress with the “golden voice” nearly ended her career before it had even taken off. It was in 1862, when critics panned her first three performances. Not quite 18, the critique had left her so distraught that she attempted to poison herself by drinking liquid rouge.

Shortly after leaving France, Bernhardt became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne and gave birth to an illegitimate son. While Henri had proposed to her, his family forbade the marriage and persuaded Bernhardt to refuse and end the relationship.

It was during this time that Bernhardt’s idiosyncrasy soon developed. Having made her own funeral arrangements, she picked out her own coffin and had it delivered to her home. It was there that she would regularly sleep in the coffin, lined with letters from her innumerable lovers, and decorated with an array of flowers. Knowing she was going to spend forever in it, she wrote in her 1907 biography, “My bedroom was very tiny. The big bamboo bed took up all the room. In front of the window was my coffin, where I frequently installed myself to learn my lines.”

She further commented that she, “Found it quite natural to sleep every night in this little bed of white satin which was to be my last couch”

After the death of her sister, Bernhardt saw tabloid publicity once more when faced with a tragic-comic incident.

“When the undertaker’s men came to the room to take away the body (of her sister), they found themselves confronted with two coffins. Losing his wits, the master of ceremonies sent in haste for a second hearse. I was at that moment with my mother who had lost consciousness, and I got back just in time to prevent the black-clothed men from taking away my coffin. The second the hearse was sent back, the papers got hold of this incident. I was blamed, criticized, etc.”

But to her detractors she was completely unapologetic and simply said, “Quand meme” (so what), a motto which she would inscribe on her furniture.

With thousands of lovers willing to fight duels to the death for her; priests who exhorted parishioners to ostracize her; and in one incident, a woman who had killed herself because she could not get a ticket to a Bernhardt performance, the starlet was on top of the world.

In fact, one critic, Jules Lemaitre once said, “(Bernhardt) could enter a convent, discover the North Pole, have herself inoculated with rabies, assassinate an emperor or marry a Negro king without astonishing me.”

By 1915, at the age of 71, gangrene had set in her entire right leg, due to a previous injury that never healed properly. To circumvent the infection, her right leg was amputated, and after spending several months in a wheelchair, specialized in roles that required minimal mobility.

While her career continued on, it was only after a stroke, that she found it impossible to leave her home. While she once stated, “Me pray? Never! I’m an atheist,” she did accept last rites shortly before her death from uraemia following kidney failure in 1923 at the age of 78.

Read more:

The Drama of Sarah Bernhardt | The New York Review of Books


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