High Drama, On And Off Stage


When my sisters and I were overly dramatic while growing up, we were lovingly rebuked, “You’re a regular Sarah Bernhardt.” We weren’t the only ones to hear this line, which echoed across suburbs and cities.

In “Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt” (Yale), Robert Gottlieb presents her appreciatively, in full color, in all her exuberance, extravagance, beauty, passion and talent. This is the first English-language biography in decades of the first internationally known stage star who, says the author, “wherever she went she was first and foremost an Event.”

Now, her name is a synonym for great actress. Gottlieb says she is the most famous of all Frenchwomen after Joan of Arc and the most famous 19th-century French personality after Napoleon.

On the stages of Paris, and later London and the U.S., she played characters whose lives were full of high romance, drama and tragedy, themes that played out in her invented life. She was born in 1843 or 1844 (the exact date isn’t known), the daughter of a Jewish courtesan who was largely absent from her early life and a father whose identity she wasn’t certain about. She was baptized at age 12 and thought of becoming a nun, but through a connection of her mother’s, she attended a prestigious acting school, the Conservatoire, and then joined the Comedie Française, the much-esteemed theater company.

After first approaching acting as a way out of a difficult domestic situation, she later directed her enormous will toward the goal of greatness. She broke rules, had a distinctive and exciting approach to theater, and scored many successes.

Bernhardt was both celebrated and complicated. Unmarried when she gave birth to her son Maurice, she had a lifelong “mutually adoring” relationship with him. When she married a Greek aristocrat, it was, in Gottlieb’s view, “the greatest mistake of Sarah’s life.” He was unfaithful, a spendthrift, a bigot and a drug addict who died young.

Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker and the author of a biography of Geroge Balanchine, tries to make sense of conflicting reports about her life. Her own memoir is unreliable. As he writes, “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?”

The book is the first in new series of biographies, Jewish Lives, published by Yale University Press in collaboration with the Leon D. Black Foundation. The next title — very different in focus — is Shmuel Feiner’s “Moses Mendelsohn: Sage of Modernity.” Upcoming titles include “Rashi” by Jack Miles, “Sigmund Freud” by Adam Phillips, “Emma Goldman” by Vivan Gornick, “Maimonides” by Moshe Halbertal, “Bob Dylan” by Ron Rosenbaum and “Rav Kook” by Yehuda Mirsky.

The series was conceived by financial executive Leon Black, in answer to a question posed by one of his sons about the meaning of Jewish identity.

“Our hope is to give readers a clear sense of the fullest range of how Jews have lived, and lived as Jews,” Steven J. Zipperstein of Stanford University says in an interview. He serves as series editor along with Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University. When asked about how the series is different from Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series — there’s some overlap in subjects — he explains that the Yale series is entirely biographical. “We see our books ideally as books designed for the fullest range of readers — we only turn to authors who are able to read the relevant language, use primary sources, and write for a wide audience.”

In a footnote, Gottlieb points out that Bernhardt’s Jewish identity paralleled that of Benjamin Disraeli. Both were converted to Christianity as children. And both considered themselves Jewish and asserted pride in that identity, even as it created difficulties for them. Through the first decades of her career, she was maligned as a Jew and hatefully caricatured but “eventually escaped the specifics of her personal history to become a national icon.” She didn’t pay much attention to religion, and to her, Judaism was a matter of race, not belief.

With insight, Gottlieb describes Bernhardt’s scandals as well as her signature performances in classic works like Phedra, L’Etranger, Hamlet and La Dame aux Camellias, which she played in more than three thousand times. He captures, between the lines, her singular spirit.

Thoroughly patriotic, Bernhardt set up her theater in Paris as a military hospital during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. “When she decided something needed to be done, she was happiest doing it herself. Nothing fazed her,” Gottlieb writes.

In 1880 she made her first trip to New York, after a triumphant tour in London. Henry James wrote about her London season, “She is too American not to succeed in America. The people who have brought to the highest development the arts and graces of publicity will recognize a kindred spirit in a figure so admirably adapted for conspicuity.”

“Sarah” is illustrated with theater photos of Bernhardt in full costume, along with family portraits. The actress dressed with great originality and enjoyed wearing heavily ornamented clothing; one of her signatures was a hat with a bat on top. The Czech designer Alphonse Mucha, who created art noveau posters of her and made many of her costumes, said, “One can say that rarely has someone’s soul been more faithfully exteriorized.”

Her final performance was in 1922, in Turin, Italy. Even a few months before her death, when she was ailing, she still spoke of touring, hoping to play America again. When she was no longer able to leave her home, she accepted a role in a film to be shot just outside, but she was unable to finish the film. Before she died in 1923, she spoke her last words while aware that crowds were gathering outside of her window, waiting for news: She told her on, “I’ll keep them dangling. They’ve tortured me all my life, now I’ll torture them.” For her funeral, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets. Her tombstone was marked only with her name; dates were added later. “All of France, all the world,” writes Gottlieb, knew who she was.”

Robert Gottlieb will appear in conversation with Judith Thurman, “The Life of Sarah Bernhardt” on Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m., at the 92nd Street Y. Tickets are $29.