As the centenary of her death on March 26, 1923, approaches, AFP recalls some of the most astonishing details of the life of an extravagant and talented performer and style icon, who was also known for her eccentric life offstage.
First global superstar
“She was the first global star…To match her today, you would have to combine Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce and Michael Jackson,” historian and private collector Pierre-Andre Helene told AFP.
As the face of France overseas, she became a living myth, captivating audiences from Europe, North and South America, Russia and Australia as Cleopatra, Cordelia or a cross-dressing Hamlet.
Men in New York would throw their coats to the ground in the hope she would walk on them, while in Australia, “there were scenes of hysteria with tens of thousands of women who wanted to see her, to touch her,” Helene said.
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A coffin for a bed
Bernhardt, famous as an actress for her death scenes, sometimes slept in a coffin in her bedroom, which she also took on tour.
A widely circulated photograph shows her lying in the satin coffin looking peaceful, eyes closed, draped with flowers.
A zoo for a home
She wore a stuffed bat on her hat, kept cheetahs, a tiger, lion cubs, a monkey and an alligator called Ali-Gaga that died of a milk and champagne overdose. She also owned a boa constrictor, which choked on a cushion.
Bubbly balloon ride
She got into trouble in 1878 for taking a hot-air balloon ride over Paris
during the Exposition Universelle, sipping champagne as she sailed over the
fairgrounds, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
Muse and lover to many
Bernhardt was the muse of several authors and playwrights, including Victor Hugo and Edmond de Rostand, who wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac”.
Her many reported dalliances included Napoleon III, Edward Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII, and the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, behind the famous Art Nouveau poster for Bernhardt’s production of “Gismonda”.
Turned theatre into hospital
During the siege of Paris in 1870 duing the Franco-German war, the deeply patriotic Bernhardt turned the Left Bank theatre, the Odeon, into a military hospital and personally tended to the wounded.
Whether it was about her date or place of birth, the identity of her father, or the man who was the father of her son, Bernhardt was known for “obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies”, according to biographer Robert Gottlieb.
“Dull accuracy wasn’t Bernhardt’s strong point: She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything else than the best story? ” he wrote in “Sarah” (2010).
In 1915, aged 71, Bernhardt had her right leg amputated above the knee, following a fall onstage after jumping off a parapet while playing Tosca.
After surgery she was carried about by two porters in a Louis XV-style sedan chair. Undaunted, she insisted on performing for French soldiers on the frontlines during World War I and in 1916 toured the United States for the last time, performing with a wooden leg.