Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt was a famous actress, who became a right above the knee amputee, after gangrene in the year 1915.
Sarah Bernhardt (c. 22/23 October 1844 — 26 March 1923) was a French stage and early film actress, and has been referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known". Bernhardt made her fame on the stages of France in the 1870s, and was soon in demand in Europe and the Americas. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the nickname "The Divine Sarah".
Bernhardt was born in Paris as Rosine Bernardt, the daughter of Julie Bernardt (1821, Amsterdam – 1876, Paris) and an unknown father. Julie was one of six children of a widely traveling Jewish spectacle merchant, "vision specialist" and petty criminal, Moritz Baruch Bernardt, and Sara Hirsch (later known as Janetta Hartog; c. 1797–1829). Julie's father remarried Sara Kinsbergen (1809–1878) two weeks after his first wife's death, and abandoned his family in 1835. Julie left for Paris, where she made a living as a courtesan and was known by the name "Youle". Sara would add the letter "H" to both her first and last names. Sarah's birth records were lost in a fire in 1871, but in order to prove French citizenship, necessary for Légion d'honneur eligibility, she created false birth records, on which she was the daughter of "Judith van Hard" and "Edouard Bernardt" from Le Havre, in later stories either a law student, accountant, naval cadet or naval officer.


Bernhardt's stage career started in 1862 while she was a student at the Comédie-Française, France's most prestigious theater. She decided to leave France, and soon ended up in Belgium, where she became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne, and gave birth to their son, Maurice, in 1864. After Maurice's birth, the Prince proposed marriage, but his family forbade it and convinced Bernhardt to refuse and end their relationship.

However, she was not entirely successful at the conservatory and left to become a courtesan by 1865. During this time that she acquired her famous coffin, in which she often slept in lieu of a bed – claiming that doing so helped her understand her many tragic roles. She made her fame on the stages of Europe in the 1870s, and was soon in demand all over Europe and in New York. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the title "The Divine Sarah"; arguably, she was the most famous actress of the 19th century. In 1872 she left the Odéon and returned to Comédie-Française. One of her remarkable successes there was in the title role of Voltaire's Zaïre (1874). She even traveled to Cuba and performed in the Sauto Theater, in Matanzas, in 1887. She coached many young women in the art of acting, including actress and courtesan Liane de Pougy.
Bernhardt had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral de Ligne (1837–1914), son of Eugène, 8th Prince of Ligne, with whom she had her only child, Maurice Bernhardt, in 1864. He married a Polish princess, Maria Jablonowska (see Jablonowski).


Sarah's close friends would include several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges Clairin, and actors Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen, as well as the famous French author Victor Hugo. Alphonse Mucha based several of his iconic Art Nouveau works on her. Her friendship with Louise Abbéma (1853–1927), a French impressionist painter, some nine years her junior, was so close and passionate that the two women were rumored to be lovers. In 1990, a painting by Abbéma, depicting the two on a boat ride on the lake in the bois de Boulogne, was donated to the Comédie-Française. The accompanying letter stated that the painting was "Peint par Louise Abbéma, le jour anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse."
Bernhardt also expressed strong interest in inventor Nikola Tesla, only to be disregarded as a distraction to his work.
She later married Greek-born actor Aristides Damala (known in France by the stage name Jacques Damala) in London in 1882, but the marriage, which legally endured until Damala's death in 1889 at age 34, quickly collapsed, largely due to Damala's dependence on morphine. During the later years of this marriage, Bernhardt was said to have been involved in an affair with the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII.
Bernhardt once stated, "Me pray? Never! I'm an atheist." However, she had been baptised a Roman Catholic, and accepted the last rites shortly before her death.

In 1905, while performing in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca in Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right knee when jumping off the parapet in the final scene. The leg never healed properly. By 1915, gangrene had set in and her entire right leg was amputated; she was required to use a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt reportedly refused a $10,000 offer by a showman to display her amputated leg as a medical curiosity (while P.T. Barnum is usually cited as the one to have made the offer, he had been dead since 1891). She continued her career often without using a wooden prosthetic limb; she had tried to use one but didn't like it. She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to France she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Her later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Régine Armand (1922). According to Arthur Croxton, the manager of London's Coliseum, the amputation was not apparent during her performances, which were done with the use of an artificial limb. Her physical condition may have limited her mobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her triumphs.
Sarah Bernhardt died from uremia following kidney failure in 1923; she is believed to have been 78 years old. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.

Stamp from France - Sarah Bernhardt

Comic from Sarah Bernhardt in the series of Lucky Luke:


Lucky Luke is a Belgian comics series created by Belgian cartoonist, Maurice De Bevere better known as Morris, the original artist, and was for one period written by René Goscinny. Set in the American Old West, it stars the titular character, Lucky Luke, the cowboy known to shoot faster than his shadow.
Along with The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix, Lucky Luke is one of the most popular and best-selling comic-book series in continental Europe. Popular in Canada, about half of the series' adventures have been translated into English. Lucky Luke comics have been translated into 23 languages, including many European languages, some African and Asian languages.

Movie fragment from Sarah Bernhardt,
3 years before she became an amputee

Sarah Bernhardt Asleep in Her Coffin, Circa 1882

She picked her own coffin because she was going to "sleep" in it forever. She would frequently lay in her coffin while memorizing lines for her more tragic roles. 

The 'Divine Sarah' had her right leg amputated on February 22nd, 1915. She had injured her leg when performing Victorien Sardou's play Tosca (on which Puccini's opera was based), in which she was the heroine who finally hurls herself off a castle wall to kill herself in despair. ...

Out on a limb: Sarah Bernhardt, c.1920 Sarah Bernhardt's Leg

The 'Divine Sarah' had her right leg amputated on February 22nd, 1915.

The great French actress was 70 and her right knee was causing her agonising pain. She had injured her leg when performing Victorien Sardou’s play Tosca (on which Puccini’s opera was based), in which she was the heroine who finally hurls herself off a castle wall to kill herself in despair. In 1914 she tried wearing a cast and in January 1915 she rented a villa at Andernos, near Bordeaux, hoping that a period of complete immobilisation would help, but it did not.

The ‘Divine Sarah’ was nothing if not strong minded and she decided she would be better off without the leg altogether. She wrote to one of her lovers, the surgeon Samuel Pozzi, telling him to cut it off above the knee. ‘Why condemn me to constant suffering?’, she asked. If he did not help her, she threatened to shoot herself in the leg and then it would have to be cut off. ‘I want to live what life remains to me,’ she wrote, ‘or die at once.’ Pozzi authorised a young surgeon called Maurice Denucé to carry out the operation in Bordeaux. He used ether as an anaesthetic and telegraphed Pozzi that day to say that there had been no problems, the minimum ether had been needed and all was well.

The unstoppable Sarah tried several wooden legs, but irritably threw them away and bought a sedan chair to be carried about in. Before the year was out she was on stage in Paris again. She entertained French soldiers at the front, made numerous theatre appearances and a final tour of the US before she died in Paris aged 78 in 1923 and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
Her amputated leg was supposedly rediscovered late in 2008, preserved in formalin at Bordeaux’s Faculty of Medicine and
found in a storeroom with other grisly curiosities. Experts, however, said it was a left leg that had been amputated below the knee, so not in any sense the right one.

Sarah Bernhardt's Dramatic Life, Onstage And Off

Mark Twain once identified five kinds of actresses: "bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses -- and then there is Sarah Bernhardt." Bernhardt was, indeed, one of a kind. From her debut onstage, in 1862, in the title role of Racine's Iphigenia, to her death in 1923, she was a sensational success.  A favorite of counts, couturiers and commoners in France, she brought Americans to their feet during nine tours, even though she spoke a language most of them did not understand.

She played 19-year-old Joan of Arc when she was 46, and was credible in many male roles, including Hamlet. She kept a coffin in her bedroom, and on at least one occasion, slept in it. Throughout World War I, she performed for soldiers, even though her leg had been amputated. No wonder then, her tombstone merely read, "Sarah Bernhardt."

In Sarah, Robert Gottlieb, a legendary editor and the biographer of George Balanchine, provides an elegant and engaging portrait worthy of Bernhardt. Separating myth and misrepresentation (Bernhardt lied a lot) from fact, he shows how she morphed from a figure of scandal, as the fatherless daughter of a Jewish courtesan, who was promiscuous herself (Bernhardt started an affair with Victor Hugo when he was 70 and she was 27), into a magnificent artist -- and then into a symbol of, and ambassador for, France.

Gottlieb attributes Bernhardt’s "special allure" to her exaggerated thinness, exotic face, and the charm (and perfect articulation) of a rather weak voice.  Even more importantly, he points out, as a child of the Romantic Age she revealed a "touch of hysteria, perhaps even danger, in her willingness to expose her emotions, to impose them on her audience."

Bernhardt, Gottlieb acknowledges, had her detractors. Chekhov found that her "enchantment is smothered in artifice." George Bernard Shaw dismissed her as a "worn out hack tragedienne." And in the 20th century, her exaggerated gestures didn't play well on the silver screen.

It didn't really matter. On March 26, 1923, Gottlieb tells us, in a touching conclusion to a terrific book, when the news of her death reached the theater that bore her name, during the first act of L’Aiglon, the curtain went down, the audience quietly filed out, and the actors, still in costume and makeup, walked to her house to bid her adieu. For once, for "The Divine Sarah," the show did not go on.


Sarah Bernhardt was born in July or September or October of 1844. Or was it 1843? Or even 1841?

She was born in Paris at 5, rue de l’Ecole de Medecine (that’s where the plaque is). Or was it 32 (or 265), rue St. Honore? Or 22, rue de la Michandiere?

We’ll never know, because the official records were destroyed when the Hotel de Ville, where they were stored, went up in flames during the Commune uprising of 1871. With someone else that would hardly matter, because we’d have no reason to doubt whatever he or she told us. But dull accuracy wasn’t Bernhardt’s strong point: She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything less than the best story? For the ultimate word on Sarah’s veracity we can turn to Alexandre Dumas fils,who, referring to her famous thinness, remarked affectionately, "You know, she’s such a liar, she may even be fat!"

We do know who her mother was, but her father remains an enigma. We think we know who the father of her son was, but can we be sure? Everything about her early years is elusive -- no letters, no reminiscences of family or friends, and what few documents that exist, highly obscure. Her singularly unreliable memoirs, My Double Life, carry her through her first thirty-five or so years, and they’re the only direct testimony we have of her life until she’s in her mid-teens. Yet despite her obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies, we can track her path, and (more important) begin to grasp her essential nature.

There are three basic components to her experience of childhood, two of them enough to derail an ordinary mortal: Her mother didn’t love her, and she had no father. What she did have was her extraordinary will: to survive, to achieve, and -- most of all -- to have her own way. She would like us to believe that it was at the age of nine that she adopted her lifelong motto, Quand meme. You can translate quand meme in a number of (unsatisfactory) ways: "Even so." "All the same." "Despite everything." "Nevertheless." "Against all odds." "No matter what." They all fit both the child she was and the woman she was to become.

The mother -- Judith, Julie, Youle Van Hard -- had her own reserves of strength and willpower, but unlike Sarah’s, they were hidden under layers of lazy charm and an almost phlegmatic disposition. She was a pretty blonde, she played and sang appealingly, she was a congenial hostess, and she welcomed the expensive attentions of a variety of men-about-town. As a result, she had managed to fashion for herself a comfortable niche in the higher reaches of the demimonde of the Paris of the 1840s. Never one of the great courtesans -- les grandes horizontales -- she nevertheless always had one or two well-to-do "protectors" to squire her around the elegant spas of Europe.

Youle conducted a relaxed salon to which a group of distinguished men gravitated, among them her lover Baron Larrey, who was the Emperor Louis-Napoleon’s doctor (his father had been chief medical officer of the first Napoleon’s armies); the composer Rossini; the novelist and playwright Dumas pere; and the duc de Morny, known as the most powerful man in France, who was Louis-Napoleon’s illegitimate half-brother. Morny was a highflying and successful financier as well as the president of the Corps Legislatif, exerting immense political influence without entering the field of politics himself. It was Rosine, Youle’s younger, prettier, livelier sister, who was Morny’s mistress -- except when Youle herself was; in these circles, it hardly mattered. The important thing, since it would prove crucial to Sarah’s life, was that Morny was a regular fixture in the intimate life of the family.

Youle and Rosine had come a long way. Their mother, Julie (or Jeanette) Van Hard -- a Jewish girl either German or Dutch in origin -- had married Maurice Bernard, a Jewish oculist in Amsterdam. There were five or six daughters (Sarah doesn’t make it easy to keep track of her aunts) and at least one son, Edouard Bernard, who, like Sarah, eventually morphed into “Bernhardt.” When their mother died and their father remarried, Youle and Rosine struck out on their own, first to Basel, then on to London and Le Havre, where in 1843 Youle -- perhaps fifteen years old -- gave birth to illegitimate twin girls, both of whom died within days. Documents about their birth provide the first verifiable data we have about her. Although the twins’ father isn’t named, the supposition is that he was a young naval officer named Morel, from a prominent Havrais family.

Undeterred, the ambitious Youle quickly set out for Paris, her daytime occupation seamstress, her nighttime career a quick ascent into the demimonde. Soon, two of her sisters followed her to Paris: the younger Rosine, who would surpass her in the ranks of courtesans, and the older Henriette, who made a solid marriage to a well-off businessman, Felix Faure. (The Faures would be the only respectable bourgeoisie of Sarah’s youth.) Quickly -- or already? -- Youle was pregnant again, with Sarah, whose name appears in various documents as Rosine Benardt (her application for the Conservatoire) and Sarah Marie Henriette Bernard (her certificate of baptism).

The most likely candidate for the honor of having fathered Sarah is that same naval Morel. His (or someone’s) family lawyer in Havre later administered a sum of money that Sarah was to inherit on her marriage; he also at times involved himself in the child’s future. Another suggested candidate was a brilliant young law student in Paris with whom Youle lived happily in poverty (a likely story!), until his family forced them apart. (It’s La Dame aux camelias, Sarah’s greatest success, before the fact.) Sarah never names her father in My Double Life, although on her certificate of baptism, filled out when she was thirteen, he’s called Edouard Bernhardt. But isn’t that the name of her mother’s brother? Looking for consistency in Sarah’s early history is a fruitless task.

What matters, finally, is that there was no father. In My Double Life, Sarah sketches a highly implausible tale. She rarely saw him -- his business, whatever it was, kept him away from Paris until he suddenly died in Italy. He did, however, come with Youle to enroll Sarah in the aristocratic convent school he insisted she attend -- apparently the only occasion on which the three of them did something together. As she tells it, on the night before she was to be installed in the school, her father said to her, "Listen to me, Sarah. If you are very good at the convent I will come in four years and fetch you away, and you shall travel with me and see some beautiful countries." "Oh, I will be good!" she exclaimed; "I’ll be as good as Aunt Henriette." "This was my Aunt Faure," she writes. "Everybody smiled."

After dinner, she and her father had a serious talk. "He told me things that were sad which I had never heard before. Although I was so young I understood, and I was on his knee with my head resting on his shoulder. I listened to everything he said and cried silently, my childish mind distressed by his words. Poor Father! I was never, never to see him again." Nor are we to hear about him again except when Sarah remarks in passing that he was "handsome as a god" (what else could he have been? No parent of Sarah’s could be merely good-looking), and that she "loved him for his seductive voice and his slow, gentle gestures."

It’s clear that Sarah needed to believe that she was important to this shadowy father -- that he was lovingly concerned about her even when he was absent. That impression is strengthened by the father (and mother) she invented for a ridiculous novel she wrote in her old age. In Petite Idole (The Idol of Paris), Esperance -- the beautiful beloved daughter of a refined family -- is destined to become a great actress at a far younger age than Sarah did, and with far less difficulty.

 Esperance is worshiped by her all-loving, all-understanding, and highly distinguished parents, who are prepared to sacrifice anything and everything (including the philosopher-father’s induction into the Academie Francaise) to their daughter’s well-being. (She ends up marrying a duke.) The pathetic act of wish-fulfillment that this fiction represents only serves to underline the deep traumas of Sarah’s childhood. After more than half a century, the most illustrious woman of her time was still grappling with having been an unwanted and unloved child.

Excerpted from Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb. Copyright 2010 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.


Links about Sarah Bernhardt:
dp/1156216095 (book: French Amputees)