Beyond the Sea

Sarah Bernhardt, a Scandalous French Superstar in America

Having completed nine tours of the United States during her long career, actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was probably the most famous French woman in America at the time. When she was not traveling across the New World, U.S. correspondents in Europe would meticulously report on the global idol’s every movement. An exhibition in Paris called Sarah Bernhardt : Et la femme créa la star, is currently celebrating the thespian, who passed away a century ago this year.
Sarah Bernhardt photographed at her home by Nadar, Paris, ca. 1890. © Paris Musées, Petit Palais

On October 15, 1880, Sarah Bernhardt and her team set sail from Le Havre for a first seven-month tour of the United States. She was just 35 years old. No matter her talent for reciting lines, how could a woman her age have signed such a contract? (The French and international press both confirmed that the deal would earn her a fortune.) Surely America, which was yet to open its own conservatory, did not have such a love for French theater? After all, very few U.S. audience members could even speak the language! With this in mind, many asked whether the great Sarah was going to perform in English – to which she replied: “I prefer to play in good French rather than in bad English.” To help audiences along, genius impresario Henry Abbey translated and printed out the script. From October 27, 1880, to May 3, 1881, the French idol gave 156 performances to millions of Americans, with tickets going for the princely sum of 25 dollars apiece. But if not for their love of French tragedies, why did they all flock to see her? The answer can be summed up in one word: scandal!

A Rebel Mademoiselle

In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt already had a sterling career to her name and was seen as an emancipated woman who needed no introduction. After graduating second in her class from the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Paris, the young woman had been hired by the Comédie-Française. This was probably partly thanks to the Duc de Morny, an admirer and protector of Sarah’s mother, a courtesan whose work had allowed her to mix in the highest circles of power. Sarah Bernhardt initially carved out a niche performing in Molière’s The School for Wives, but it was a firm slap – given to one of the theater’s longstanding members – that really made her reputation and led to her dismissal. Victor Hugo, who had been wooing her for some time, gave her a first break by asking her to play Doña Maria, the queen in his Ruy Blas, at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. The play was such a success that the Comédie-Française invited her back in 1874, eight years after kicking her out. Nicknamed “the golden voice” by the author of Les Misérables, Sarah Bernhardt went from strength to strength, performing in such hits as The Marriage of Figaro, Phèdre, and Hernani. This winning streak continued until 1880, when the actress reneged on her contract in the middle of the lackluster play L’Aventurière, blaming the manager for the production’s terrible reception. “It’s my first failure at the Comédie,” she wrote him in a letter. “It is also my last.”

Sarah Bernhardt as Doña Maria in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, 1872. © Bibliothèque nationale de France
Sarah Bernhardt “asleep” in her coffin, ca. 1880. © Achille Mélandri/Ville de Paris/Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand/Paris Musées, Petit Palais

However, theater contract law is made of sterner stuff than feelings. In July 1880, the rebellious actress was obliged to pay the Comédie-Française 100,000 francs in compensation. Henry Abbey’s suggestion of an American tour therefore came at just the right moment. While waiting for her departure date, Sarah Bernhardt used London audiences to test her repertoire, which included Hernani, Phèdre, and The Sphinx, along with two original creations, Adrienne Lecouvreur and Frou-Frou. Once again, she was an instant hit, and Oscar Wilde even nicknamed her “the divine Sarah.” It must be said that her agent also had a knack for getting people talking about her. He shared photos of the star lying in a coffin, and claimed that this was how she usually slept! Sarah Bernhardt often played lovestruck characters on stage, while real-life rumors of affairs with the rich and powerful abounded. And much like Cleopatra, she traveled with an absurd collection of animals featuring a parrot, a monkey, a leopard, and several chameleons. This – and more – was what America was about to discover.

The Bernhardt Method

Covered by reporters of the time, Sarah Bernhardt’s life was synonymous both with scandal and talent. She gladly talked about raising her 16-year-old son alone, and prudish America was quick to judge her presumed low morals. Preachers hurried to warn their congregations that this half-angel, half-demon was sure to threaten their virtuous souls. And while the New York scene gave her a hero’s welcome (she spent a month there and gave 27 performances in seven different roles), high society never opened its doors. The same thing happened in Boston, particularly as she decided to pose for a photo on the back of a dead whale, which was considered far too macabre.

The actress’s Jewish roots were another regular cause for complaint. “This gifted daughter of Judah, who has a special talent for getting herself puffed, insisted on high pay and public honors,” exclaimed The Chicago Tribune. Many others criticized the actress for negotiating overly favorable conditions for her tour. What’s more, the general extravagance – 50 cities visited! – was accused of endangering the entire entertainment industry. This explains why several theater directors refused to host her. Faced with these obstacles in Texas, Sarah Bernhardt ended up performing in a 5,000-person tent in a field, in a saloon, and even in an ice rink. Unperturbed by this additional pressure, the actress declared: “I gave one of the best performances in my history at Dallas a few nights ago. I admire your people down here and would exert myself as much in Texas as I would anywhere on earth.”

On March 26, 1906, Sarah Bernhardt performed The Lady of the Camellias in a 5,000-person circus tent in Dallas. © Library of Congress

To silence those accusing her of being greedy, she donated the profits from her performances to charities helping the San Francisco earthquake victims or groups fighting antisemitism in Russia. She also proved her mettle when the Catholic bishop of Montreal gave an incendiary speech about her just before she arrived. Responding in the press, she declared: “My dear colleague, why attack me so violently? Actors ought not to be so hard on one another.” In the end, the French actress’s keen mind broke down any cultural resistance. At her final performances of The Lady of the Camellias in New York City in May 1881, she was met with rapturous applause only reserved for the greats: 17 encores after the third act, and 29 after the fifth! “She was seen and she conquered,” gushed the press. This was the result of the Bernhardt Method, a mixture of devastating charm and unlimited talent.

A Woman with a Cause

On her ninth and final tour of the United States, Sarah Bernhardt showed the American public that she was a brave and committed woman. During the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, she had organized a mobile military hospital at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. At the height of the Dreyfus Affair, she had stood side by side with Emile Zola to defend the accused officer. And in World War I, despite having had her right leg amputated in 1915, the actress made it to the front with other celebrities to support the troops and boost morale. The following year, in 1916, she set out for a last 18-month tour of the United States in an attempt to raise awareness about the war in Europe. And why not? For someone with the power to make crowds cry, even when speaking in a foreign language, anything was possible! At the age of 72, seven years before she died, the most international of French icons declared: “My star is still in the ascendant, and while it is high in the heavens I have nothing to fear. I feel young, and take joy in living, for my spirit is young and will never die.”

Sarah Bernhardt : Et la femme créa la star, until August 27, 2023, at the Petit Palais, in Paris.

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.