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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".