The Divine Sarah

Bewitching her admirers around the world, Sarah Bernhardt dazzled audiences as she pioneered the cult of celebrity

It was the kind of surreal mob scene New York reserves for showbiz celebs. Everyone was shouting to her, reaching for her. One woman tried to snip a lock of her hair. A hysterical girl brandished an autograph book, realized her pen was out of ink, then plunged her teeth into her own wrist and dipped the pen in blood. The year was 1880 and the star was actress Sarah Bernhardt, arguably the first international entertainment icon.

Born in 1844 Paris to a high-flying courtesan, Sarah was a sickly but headstrong girl, avowing early on, "I'll do whatever I want all my life!" When one of her mother's wealthy lovers got her a seat at the renowned Comédie Française, she found her niche. She would become the last of the great Romantic actresses—and she would do everything her way.

Not long after getting fired from the August Comédie Française (for slapping a leading lady), she landed in Brussels, where she had an affair with a prince, got pregnant and later gave birth to a son. But her work at Paris' Théatre de l'Odéon would soon bring Paris to its feet. After her performance in a Victor Hugo play, crowds unhitched the horses from her carriage and pulled it through the streets, shouting "Make way for our Sarah!"

Within a short time, the world would bow to her too. As a young woman she could transform herself into an 80-year-old crone, and at 56, she could convincingly play Napoleon's 20-year-old consumptive son, dying "as angels would die if they were allowed to," said one critic. Her renowned talent would prompt Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph to place an antique cameo necklace around her neck and Spain's King Alfonso XII to give her a diamond brooch. And when she curtsied to Czar Alexander III, he pleaded, "No, Madame, it is I who must bow to you," and he did so before his entire court.

During her 62-year career, she played some 70 roles in more than 125 productions. Bernhardt remained active even after her leg was amputated above the knee at age 71. She carried on until she collapsed while shooting a film on location in her Paris town house in the spring of 1923. All of Paris and much of the world mourned when she died on March 26 at age 78.

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