Book Review: Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, By Robert Gottlieb


The eldest daughter of a mid-19th-century Jewish courtesan – and whose father might have been one of a number of men – Sarah Bernhardt might not have been thought to have the most promising start in life, but this Parisian-born “unwanted and unloved child” went on to become the most famous actress in history.

Gottlieb emphasises the murkiness of sources in this entertaining biography: we can’t be sure exactly when she was born, and Sarah herself loved to tell tales of her upbringing, embellishing and sentimentalising where she could. But she was clearly a remarkably strong individual, bringing up her illegitimate son herself, surviving a period almost on the streets after the Comédie Française sacked her (and when naked portraits of her were probably taken), to play the greatest of roles and mix with such authors as Victor Hugo. Her sisters didn’t fare so well, especially the youngest, who slipped into prostitution leading to a tragically early death.