Yale £18.99

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, By Robert Gottlieb

This new life of a proto- celebrity describes a work ethic that puts modern wannabes in the shade

There are few traces now of the glory that was Sarah Bernhardt. From her Parisian debut in 1860 at the age of 16 to her death in 1923, she amazed audiences with her "golden voice" and innovative, daringly direct acting. She lived long enough for her bold gestural style to be captured on film – despair or amazement registered by raising both arms above her head. The central section of this book reproduces many wonderful photographs of her heyday, in Phèdre, Théodora and as Hamlet(!). But today the magic can only be guessed at; we need Robert Gottlieb's sensitive study to understand a little of what so enraptured her fans.

Bernhardt raises problems for biographers. We might expect an actress not to be entirely frank about her birth date, but there are other questions. Who was her father? Who was her son's father? To what extent did she support herself through prostitution in the early years? In her memoirs, anecdotes were embroidered, rows with other figures of the stage were related in a way highly flattering to Bernhardt, and Gottlieb picks his way through the muddle fastidiously.

This "illegitimate daughter of a Jewish courtesan", as Gottlieb puts it, studied her craft obsessively. But the most striking thing about her to begin with was "her thinness – it was her defining feature, derided and caricatured everywhere for at least a quarter of a century". This is another puzzle – she is no waif, judging from the photographs. But in an era of very well-rounded females, she seemed startlingly gaunt. Her rival, Eleonora Duse, looks a lump in comparison.

The odd-looking girl with a prominent nose was no instant star. It was sheer hard work, together with her promotable personality, that made her the darling of Paris and the world. On her many tours of America, audiences flocked to hear her recite in French, so magical was "her brilliant vocal articulation [and] her genius for poetry".

Gottlieb notes the anti-Semitic abuse she sometimes received, and her support for the disgraced Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus that caused a breach with her beloved son. Sarah was baptised Catholic, but was as proud to be racially Jewish as she was patriotically French. She may have touched up her life story to be more thrilling than it was, but with her personal motto, "Quand même" – rather like the modern "Whatever!" – she was not interested in ingratiating herself.

This is a brisk life, so Bernhardt's marriage seems to last about five minutes. (It may indeed have seemed so to her.) The horrible Aristides Damala was wittily christened by the press "La Damala des Camélias" after Bernhardt's famous role, and died at 34, worn out by drug abuse. More significant are the actress's lovers, numbering in scores and including most of her leading men and many significant figures of her day – although she reportedly had to have a mysterious operation to enable her to achieve orgasm.

In an era of fragile X-Factor contestants and stars such as Amy Winehouse, whose collapses are more fascinating than their talent, to read of Bernhardt is to be taken back into a world of iron will, discipline and professionalism. In 1915, a young French actress accompanied Bernhardt to the front line to entertain the troops. "It was upsetting, and a bit sad," she reported. "The great, the radiant Sarah! A little heap of cinders." But then: "the little heap of cinders never stopped emitting sparks... beneath the painted and tinselled decrepitude of the old actress there burns an inextinguishable sun".

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee