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Sarah Bernhardt

Act II: A Star is Born

“When she was off the stage, she always seemed to be acting. She always seemed to be living when she was on it.” -- Gamaliel Bradford

Sarah would experience a slice of real life when she fell in love with a Belgian prince with the name Charles-Joseph-Eugene-Henri-Georges-Lamoral-Prince de Ligne, better known as Prince Henri de Ligne. She fell hard for the dashing young man and he seemed quite smitten with her until Sarah told him she was pregnant with his child. As he is reported to have replied to her: “My dear girl, you must realize that if you sit on a pile of thorns, you can never know which one has pricked you.” (p. 62-63) Sarah, in a situation many girls have experienced, returned to her mother’s care and gave birth on December 22, 1864 to a son named Maurice Bernhardt. Maurice would become, ultimately, the love of her life and the one person she could never refuse. Prince Henri only acknowledged Maurice as his son after Sarah became the celebrity she would become. Maurice chose to keep his mother’s name as he realized her importance in his life and her importance as a major star on the world stage. As the following story details, Maurice knew which parent had the credentials:

One afternoon Maurice saw his long-lost father off to Brussels. The Gare du Nord was packed, and Ligne, afraid he might miss his train, asked a station attendant to put him ahead of the crowd. By way of encouragement, he pressed a coin into his hand and muttered his princely name. As neither had any effect, Maurice stepped in. He was the son of Sarah Bernhardt, he announced. Couldn’t something be done? At the mention of the magic name, they were whisked through the throng and shown to the prince’s compartment. As father and son shook hands, Maurice could not resist a parting shot: “You see,” he said, “it’s not so bad to be a Bernhardt.” (p. 223)

Sarah, shortly after the birth of her son, began her stage career on a renewed footing, returning to the Comedie Francaise and starting a run of roles that would quickly gain her notice and eventual fame. Her most notable early roles included that of the wandering minstrel Zanetto in Francois Coppee’s Le Passant (1869), as the Queen in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas (1872), as the title role in Racine’s Phedre (1874) and as Dona Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1877). Sarah seemed to have been gifted with a rare sense of presence as all eyes would turn on her when she stepped on stage. She was known for her speaking style, as she was described as having a “golden voice.” The gawky child of her youth was now gone, replaced by a woman who knew how to command her audience with her appearance and her speech. Even in her later years when her physical condition prevented her from standing, her voice never failed her. Recordings she made of her performances still exist today, giving us a faint rendering of what made her so special to her audiences. Her voice and her presence would shortly move beyond the confines of the French theater to the European and American stages as she began to take tours that would generate record-breaking audiences that rivaled those that Jennie Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” had generated some thirty years before.

After a triumphant theater run in London, she broke her contract with the Comedie Francaise to become an independent performer. She would make the first of six tours to America, recounting many of her experiences in her autobiography My Double Life. After this first tour, she would return to England and Denmark for more sell-out performances. She would top off her road to renown by going on her Grand World Tour that lasted from February 1891 to September 1893. The publicity she generated was not only confined to the theater goers who paid to see her but also by those who had the opportunity to just look at her. She knew how to work the crowds and to identify with the common person. Along the way she was making connections with those who participated in the arts and became her fans as well.

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