Bat hat, wooden leg, coffin bed: Sarah Bernhardt’s wild life offstage

French 19th-century stage legend Sarah Bernhardt, who died 100 years ago, was an institution in her country, who achieved superstardom playing tragic heroines in productions that toured the world.

Bat hat, wooden leg, coffin bed: Sarah Bernhardt's wild life offstage
The French actress Sarah Bernhardt in the role of the queen "Dona Maria de Neubourg" in "Ruy Blas", a play by Victor Hugo, in 1878, at the Comédie-Française. (Photo Credit: AFP)

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. 

READ MORE: Out of the shadows: Women in the French Resistance

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.

Incurable fabulist

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).

One leg 

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Unknown US WW1 soldier buried in France 105 years after death

An unidentified US World War I soldier whose remains were accidentally uncovered in northern France last year was buried with full military honours on Wednesday, in the first such ceremony for 35 years.

Unknown US WW1 soldier buried in France 105 years after death

Hundreds of thousands of troops — many undiscovered or unidentified — are buried across northern France, the epicentre of brutal trench warfare that defined the 1914-1918 conflict’s western European front.

The unknown US soldier is believed to have been killed in July 1918 and was identified as American by equipment found alongside a few bones that were the only remains of his body.

He was buried on Wednesday at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, around 113 kilometres northeast of Paris, which holds the graves of more than 6,000 other US soldiers killed in a 1918 offensive against German forces.

French, US and German army units attended the ceremony, during which the soldier was awarded a medal by American army chief of staff James McConville.

The cemetery’s superintendent Hubert Caloud said it was the first time since 1988 that a US serviceman had been buried at an American World War I battle commission monument in France.

READ MORE: Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

“For 105 years, this guy was all alone. To have people leave work and be here is very meaningful,” Caloud said.

“We are very content he is buried with his fellow soldiers.”

Families of other, recently identified soldiers have been able to choose burial sites, usually in the United States. But Caloud’s organisation had to decide on the ceremony for the unknown soldier, he added.

Bones belonging to troops killed during the war are regularly unearthed. US and Canadian World War I soldiers are being buried at two sites in northern France this week.

Hundreds of new remains are expected to be found as excavation work to dredge a new canal in the region continues.

A new cemetery to hold the influx of freshly discovered remains is being built in the village of Loos-en-Gohelle with a capacity for 1,200 graves.