The world has had more than its fair share of high profile, controversial celebrities. Name off the first ones that come to mind. Now dig a little deeper and name some more. They were amateurs. Every last one of them lives in the shadow of Sarah Bernhardt. From obscure beginnings as the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish courtesan, “the divine Sarah” first took the spotlight for herself by slapping the holy hell out of the ranking diva of the stage, becoming both the foremost actress of her age and the most mythologized celebrity in both public and private. The myths begin with her, for Sarah never once backed down from a good story, especially if she remained the center of attention.
And that’s part of the problem. Adored by Victor Hugo, worshiped on a pedestal by Marcel Proust, Alphonse Mucha, and Oscar Wilde, and reviled by George Bernard Shaw, accounts of her person and her prowess are mixed, contradictory, and often counter-factual. The primary sources for her biography run from friends and lovers, to enemies, and ultimately to Sarah herself, who published her *ahem* autobiography while still at the top of her game. Of course, it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. This same woman commandeered her own theater, converting it to a military hospital during the 1870 siege of Paris. During World War I, she had her leg amputated to end her suffering of an old knee injury… and then entertained the troops in their camps because she would not be slowed down by such a trifle. In Shakespeare’s time, the female roles were performed by men. As one of the first prominent actresses to transition from the serious stage to the mocked fledgling novelty of the motion picture, Sarah claimed the title role of Hamlet for herself, single-handedly elevating cinema at its most crucial period of development as an art form… or so she would tell you. Keep in mind, this is the stage legend who toured with her own coffin, accessorized with a dead bat, left a trail of lovers in her wake of drama, and was accompanied by her own illegitimate son and a pet alligator named Ali-Gaga. The latter’s death is attributed to over-indulgence… of milk and champagne.
You think we’ve cornered the market on fake news in the modern world? It takes a special kind of researcher to wade into the world of Sarah Bernhardt, where fact and fiction mingle together like watercolors. As one who has a fascination with the Belle Époque and many of the artistic names associated with it, there are few who dominate my imagination like Sarah for just that reason. She was an indomitable spitfire: fearless, ruthless when she needed to be, endlessly charming, devoted to her loved ones, and overly dramatic in ways that don’t even seem probable. The line between reality and fantasy was casually erased in her footsteps. For his installment of the Jewish Lives series, Robert Gottlieb has not only done the impossible in separating fact from myth, he did so with an unparalleled even hand and a snarky backbite worthy of the divine Sarah herself. What’s more, he did so without destroying the legend she left behind or undermining her humanity. In the vulnerability of seeing who she truly was, we love her more… and sometimes we want to slap her on account. Rest assured she’d slap right back.
Fact is stranger than fiction. If we take this to be an axiom, there are certain names in history that will forever be placed in the halls of undisputed awesome. Sarah’s name is emblazoned on that roster somewhere near the top of the list. The very idea that this book needed to be written in the first place demonstrates why. She’s an endlessly fascinating creature of contradiction.