Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, By Robert Gottlieb - Reviews - Books - The Independent

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
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week