Pioneering French stage star Sarah Bernhardt was one of the world’s most famous women by the time of her death in 1923 – a status she owed not just to acting talent but her modern instinct for self-publicising and using the press to brand her image.
A century later, a museum in Paris has opened an exhibition on the eccentric, scandalous performer known as “La Divine”, whom many consider the world’s first celebrity.
At the Petit Palais, the public is now discovering the madcap jigsaw puzzle of Gothic stories, costumes, recordings, films, photos, jewels, sculptures, and personal objects gathered together for the first time, which made Bernhardt an object of fascination from Berlin to London and New York.
“By self-publicising, she paved the way for many, including Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Beyonce.”
The show marking the centenary of her death brings together around 400 exhibits that delve well beyond her life on stage.
It begins with the dawn of her career – a handwritten log in the official Parisian Register of Courtesans from the 1860s with a photograph of her and descriptions of the activities of this young “courtesan”. Bernhardt was after all born into her life’s first role: her mother was also a courtesan, and the mistress of Napoleon III’s half-brother.
The Theatre Sarah Bernhardt at Chatelet has since been renamed the Theatre de la Ville, while all that remains in the building bearing her name is a cafe-restaurant.
She was one of France’s most prolific gender-benders, famously quoted as saying that she needed to play male characters to feel less restricted. A photo in the exhibition shows her in a man’s costume, playing Hamlet in a French version of the play.
“She said that roles given to women were not interesting enough and she could not demonstrate all of her talent playing them, so she played many male roles. She was ahead of her time,” Ms Cantarutti said, adding that Bernhardt was bisexual and was often photographed wearing trousers – when it was illegal for a woman to do so – decades before stars such as Marlene Dietrich.
She was an early influencer, dazzling Oscar Wilde, who wrote the play Salome in French for her and called her “the incomparable one”.
Her intuition for using emerging media and staging stories for the press was key to her particular mystique.
She made a name for herself during the Universal Exhibition of 1878, escaping in a hot air balloon over the Tuileries garden, where she sliced the neck off a bottle of champagne with a sword and tasted foie gras, she said, to escape the bad smell of Paris.
However, not everything was rosy – she suffered from having one lung, one kidney and later in life only one leg, but was never downtrodden.
“That photo went everywhere; it became very famous. She also had a hat made of bats,” Ms Cantarutti said.
The Gothic then became her brand when she acquired a pet baby alligator at home, whom she named Ali Gaga. Ali Gaga died of liver failure because Bernhardt nourished it only on champagne, according to Ms Cantarutti.
Bernhardt later went on to take the United States by storm. She was greeted as a celebrity there during her 1912-13 American tour, even though few could understand anything from her French language performances.
The tour was hot on the heels of the success of her groundbreaking 1912 silent movie Queen Elizabeth. The man who secured the US rights to broadcast it during her tour, Adolph Zukor, became so rich that he used the profits from the film to found the Paramount Pictures movie studio – then the Famous Players Film company – according to the museum.
In her autobiography My Double Life, Bernhardt said: “It seemed to me now that I was born to be a sculptor and I had begun to see my theatre in an ill light.”
“Despite it all” was her mantra and the phrase she identified with, the exhibition says.
“Despite the difficulties in her life, starting as a courtesan, trying to break out in a man’s world. Despite all that, and then being an amputee, she continued on,” Ms Cantarutti said.
– Sarah Bernhardt: And The Woman Created The Star runs at the Petit Palais in Paris until August 27.