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
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album