The Consummate Showwoman

November 11, 2010 | By

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Sarah Bernhardt flirted with the novelist Alexandre Dumas, posed for the painter Alphonse Mucha, had an affair with Victor Hugo, and was, in the late 19th century, the most famous actress in the world.

Bernhardt was a character in her own right too. For several years, she slept in a coffin, claiming that it helped her identify with her tragic roles. She was also proudly Jewish, despite living in a time and a country (France) where the general populace harbored significant anti-Semitism.

Though her Jewishness could have been a reason for people to hate or fear her, Bernhardt used that exoticness as part of her personal style, a 19th-century Madonna or Lady Gaga. She became part of a social class of people on the outskirts of society–political radicals, avant-garde artists, homosexuals. “She never dressed like anyone else,” writes Robert Gottlieb in the new book Sarah, “and since she didn’t behave like anyone else either, she fascinated her entire world.”

It’s hard to find much information about Sarah Bernhardt, or to be sure that what we do read is true–she was a famous liar with a tendency to rewrite her own history. But Gottlieb, former editor of the New Yorker, has made a masterful effort to discover the true Bernhardt. Part biography, part meditation on her life,Sarah is as rich an appreciation as one could expect for the singular Ms. Bernhardt.

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