Sarah Bernhardt, the “Divine Sarah,” was the first international superstar. Born in Paris in 1844 to a Jewish high-class courtesan, she was raised by a hired nurse and never knew her father. Sarah originally got into acting at age 16 at the suggestion of her mother’s lover the Duke of Morny, the illegitimate half-brother of Emperor Napoleon III. He took her to her first play, during which she was so overcome with emotion that she began to sob loudly, disturbing the rest of the audience. Morny arranged an audition for her at the prestigious Paris Conservatory. The judges were initially skeptical of the skinny 16 year old with no acting experience, but her fervent recitation of a classic fable impressed them and she was invited to be a student.
After two years of training, Sarah embarked on a wildly successful 60-year career as an actress, singer, and master of Shakespearean performance. She starred in 125 theater productions all over the world, playing female and male roles, including the most popular French plays of the time. Sarah was especially celebrated for her interpretation of classic Shakespeare roles, from Cordelia in King Lear to Hamlet.
As Sarah became more famous, the media referred to her with anti-Semitic language and mocked her manner of speaking. She responded proudly, “I am a daughter of the great Jewish race, and my somewhat uncultivated language is the outcome of our enforced wanderings.”
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, and Sarah converted the popular Odeon theater in Paris into a hospital for wounded soldiers. She raised money for beds and supplies from her many wealthy friends, and worked hands-on as a nurse, assisting in operations and amputations.
Advancing age did not slow Sarah down. Her performance at age 45 of 19 year old Joan of Arc was a critical and commercial success. During World War I, she visited French soldiers at the front and made propaganda films to support the war effort – the first prominent stage actress to appear on film.
Sarah had severe leg pain for many years, possibly due to an onstage fall, but performed even while the pain was excruciating. In 1915 the leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated. After recovering from the surgery, the 70 year old diva went right back to her busy performance schedule.
Sarah continued performing until her health declined in 1922, and she passed away on March 21, 1923. 30,000 people followed her casket to the cemetery.
Sarah was a proud public Jew at a time when many Jews were changing their names and hiding their identities. She was a bold performer who played Hamlet better than any man and refused to let age or disability cramp her style. For these reasons and more, we honor Sarah Bernhardt as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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