Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sarah Bernardt Dies in Paris -- March 26, 2023

Alaska Daily Empire, 27-March-1923

 One Hundred years ago today, on 26-March-1923 actress Sarah Bernhardt, considered by many at the time to be the greatest actress in the world, died at the age of 78 or so after a long career in the theater. She appeared in her first film in 1900 and her last in 1923, the year she died. 


Greatest Actress of World
Dies, Clasped in Son’s Arms

PARIS, March 27, -- "Divine" Sarah Bernhardt died at 7:59 o'clock last night, expiring in the arms of her son Maurice, who entered the room at that moment.

It seemed as if the great actress’ strength remained until her son, who hurried to the room, could clasp his mother in his arms and gently hold her to his breast so she could breath her last.

Shortly after 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon, a priest arrived at the Divine Sarah's apartments to administer the extreme unction.

Father Riesler, who administered the sacrament, said the Divine Sarah was sufficiently conscious to show by her movements of her hands that she understood the ceremony.

The end finally came In the evening at about the hour the world's famous actress was making her first entrance in the make believe drama of life which she had for scores of years portrayed. instead of an entrance into life, she silently, peacefully glided into that peaceful land beyond life, a death scene which she had never enacted upon life's stage.

World's Greatest Actress

Madam Sarah Bernhardt, who at 70 years of life seemed still a girl, was known to every land as "the world's greatest actress." What dissent there might have been to this estimate, and however far her detractors ventured In their attempts to minimize her right to that distinction, the numberless admirers of the "Divine Sarah" remained convinced that never before had the stage produced an actress capable of soaring to such heights in the realm of emotional drama.

The work of Mme. Bernhardt was best where a theme afforded the greatest opportunity for a display of her powerful emotions. At the height of her career this form of acting, used principally on love, hate and jealousy, held the predominant place now dedicated to character delineations, and Bernhardt never was surpassed, her critics say, in this emotional school. Hundreds of parts she either rewrote or created to suit herself, seldom being content to act them as interpreted by others.

Three Generations

Three generations have praised and even worshipped the art of Bernhardt, and hundreds upon thousands of people around the world have thronged to see and marvel at her acting without understanding the French language, which she invarilably employed upon the stage. Once, in Rio de Janeiro, she was called before the curtain more than 100 times by a wildly enthusiastic audlcnee, and many times. In other parts of the world, she was obliged to answer scores of curtain calls at a single performance.

The long llfestory of Bernhardt is almost legendary. Closely woven with dramatic Incident, off as well as on the stage, It was set down by herelf in a lengthy volume published many years ago and, as one of her critics has said, "through the pages of the book peers the face of a woman, a little tired, weary of her own reputation, and blessed with nnre than her share of tho vanities of the sex." As she and others have told the story. It is summed up here:
The date of her birth, the record of which was destroyed in the flames of the Commune in Paris, was comnonly accepted as October 22. 1845. Her mother was Dutch and Jewish, and her natural father a French official.

Goes to Convent

As a child Bernhardt spen much of her time with relatives in Paris, and at the age of 12 was sent to the Grand Champ Convent, Versailles, where she made her debut in a little miracle play given by the children Even at ibis early age. the pale and sickly child is said to have displayed the fits of temper which were characteristic of her stage career.

After a year or two at the convent, she conceived a passionate desire to become a nun. To this her mother recorded unqualified opposition, and suggested a theatrical career instead.

"She's too thin to be an actress," said her god-mother. "Let her be a nun."

"I won't be an actress," little Sarah categorically exclaimed. "Rachel is an actress. She came in the convent and walked around the garden, then she had to sit down because she couldn't get her breath. They fetched her something to bring her around. Buit she was so pale, oh, so pale. I was very sorry for her, un;l the nuns told me that what she was doing was killing her, for she was actress, and so I won't be an actress, I won't."

Fate Steps In

But fate had determined otherwise, and at the ago of 11 Bernhardt was sent to a conservatory. At the end of the first year she won second prize for tragedy. A subscription among the players at the Comedie Francaise enabled her to spend another year at the conservatory, and upon the completion of this she carried off second prize for comedy. Her first public appearance was at the Comedie Francaise in August, 1862. She took a minor part without any marked success.

Five years later she emerged from laborious obscurity with her first definite success as Cordelia in a French translation of "King Lear" at the Odeon, then as Queen in Victor Hugo's "Ruy Blas," and above all, as Zanzett in Francois Coppee's "Le Passant," which she played in 1869.

Is War Nurse

Then came the Franco-Prussian war. Bernhardt increased her popularity by becoming a war nurse. In 1871 she was made a life member of the Comedie Francaise. She clashed repeatedly with M. Perrin, the manager, over the roles she should take, and once in a fit of pique fled from the theater and decided to give up the stage. She plunged into sculpture. Her first piece, "After the Storm" -- finished some years later -- won a place in the Salon. She returned to M. Perrin only to break with him again, incurring a forfeit of 4,000 pounds, which she paid.

She invaded England, receiving a tremendous ovation, then toured Denmark and Russia. Next she came to America, where her success was instantaneous. She toured the United States and Canada eight times in some 35 years, and appeared several times in the larger cities of South America.

Breaking with the theatrical syndicates, which denied her the use of their theaters when she refused to come to their terms, she was compelled to appear on one of her American tours in tents, convention halls and armories. She vowed never to appear in a theater again, but on subsequent visits she came to terms with the syndicates.

Loses Right Leg

The great actress was a grandmother when she last appeared in America, and had suffered amputation of her right leg. Upon her arrival in New York, October, 1916 it was evident to the group of friends and admirers who gathered to welcome her that she walked with extreme difficulty.

While playing in New England she contracted a severe cold which promped her to take, a trip South for her health. A few works later she underwent an operation for infection of the kidney, and although more than 70 years of age. she enjoyed complete recovery and remained in America for several months.

The injury to her knee which compelled the amputation of her leg in 1915 was attributed to many different causes. For years before the amputation the plays in which she appeared were altered to hide the fact that she was able to walk only with great difficulty. The operation was performed in Paris, and upon her recovery she reappeared on the stage to receive the greatest ovation of her career. Her manager announced that henceforth site would interpret only motionless roles.

In Recent World War

During tho World War Bernhardt made several trips to the french front and gave a number of performances for the soldiers. This, she declared, was the "incomparable event" of her life.

The memoirs of Bernhardt sedulously avoid any mention of her marital experience, and only in the middle of the bulky volume does she mention casually the existence of a son. One of her critics declared that "she never seemed to find the man who could master her."

"There was in her," he continued, "the making of a super-woman, and although she met Victor Hugo and the greyest intellectual potentate of her time, the super-man, who alone could hold her, never entered her life."

Years ago a Jealous rival of her theatrical career published a satire entitled "The Story of Sarah Barnum," in which the love-affairs of the actress, real and alleged, were shamelessly laid bare. Bernhardt resorted to the horsewhip to punish the author.

In 1882 the actress; was married to Jacques Damala, a handsome Greek, who hail made a name in the theatrical world through his work in "The Ironmaster." He later took a minor part In one of her plays, but after a year on tour they separated. Later she took him back to her home and nursed him through a fatal siege of consumption.

Mme. Bernhardt's natural son, Maurice, showed no inclination to follow the profession of his mother, and after spending a short time in the French army, he married a Russian Princess. She died after bearing him a daughter, and Maurice Bernhardt took a Parisienne as his second wife.

Physical Description

A physical description of Bernhardt is difficult. In her youth she undoubtedly was what might be called beautiful, although from the French standpoint her slimness was against her. The greatest interest in the actress, aside from her art, was the tenacity with which she clung to her girlish appearance. At 75 she might have passed for a woman of 30, so well had the features of her younger days been preserved.

Bernhardt seems to have had no disillusions about her personal appearance. By themselves her features -- high cheek bones, aquiline nose, and lips parted above an almost masculine chin -- were not pleasing, but taken together they comprised the harmony of expression which gave her the title of "the divine Sarah." She admitted on one occasion that the effect of her long white face rmerging from a long black sheath was by no means pleasant. "In this rig I look like an ant," she said.

Bernhardt was the most famous for her death scenes, but it is doubtful if her breathless, spellbound perhaps, audiences ever knew that many of them were played while the actress was suffering almost unbearable agonies from her various physical ailments, of which she never was heard to complain.

Omaha Bee, 30-March-1923

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