Book review of "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt," by Robert Gottlieb

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

By Robert Gottlieb

Yale Univ. 233 pp. $25

You know the celebrities who star in sex tapes to help launch their careers? Or the ones we talk endlessly about whenever they scandalize the nation with a "wardrobe malfunction" or with grainy photos of coke being snorted? They look shy next to the French stage icon Sarah Bernhardt. Adored by both the public and critics alike, Bernhardt was France's leading actress throughout the late 19th century.

A brief rundown of her most flagrant habits must include: wearing a stuffed bat on her head; traveling around Europe and the Americas with an animal menagerie that included a cheetah, a lion cub, an alligator and seven chameleons; transforming Paris's premier theater into a military hospital during the Franco-Prussian War; a "lifelong habit of automatically sleeping with her leading men" and probably also Victor Hugo, the Prince of Wales and Emperor Louis-Napoleon; and a fondness for snoozing in a coffin she kept with her.

Bernhardt began life as "an unwanted and unloved child" who never knew her father and was treated with scorn by her mother. As an adult, she devoted herself to earning the admiration and affection of her country and the world. Her arrival in American cities, from New York to Denver to Grand Rapids, often received breathless coverage by the press.

"Sarah," part of Yale's Jewish Lives series, is a smart and sprightly biography. Robert Gottlieb shows how Bernhardt nurtured celebrity with her outlandish style and exaggerated stories about herself, or even made them up entirely. There was also her tremendous talent. Her most famous role was Hamlet. True to her own character, Bernhardt gave the audience the opposite of a conflicted, languishing prince. Her Hamlet is determined. "All his philosophizing and temporary hesitation does not alter the basis of his character," she said. "His resolution swerves, but immediately returns to the channel he has marked for it. I know this view is heterodox, but I maintain it. It is just as well to have a decided opinion of one's own, and adhere to it."

-- Stephen Lowman

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