Partner Louise Abbema
Conservatoire de Paris, 209 Avenue Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris, Francia
Omni Parker House, 60 School St, Boston, MA 02108, Stati Uniti
The Savoy, Strand, London WC2R 0EU, Regno Unito
Musée Sarah Bernhardt, Belle-Île-en-Mer, Pointe des Poulains, 56360 Sauzon, Francia
Père Lachaise Cemetery, 16 Rue du Repos, 75020 Paris, Francia
Sarah Bernhardt (22 or 23 October 1844 – 26 March 1923) was a French stage actress who starred in some of the most popular French plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including La Dame Aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo, Fédora and La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, and L'Aiglon by Edmond Rostand. She also played male roles, including Shakespeare's Hamlet. Rostand called her "the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture", while Hugo praised her "golden voice". She made several theatrical tours around the world, and was one of the first prominent actresses to make sound recordings and to act in motion pictures.
Early in Bernhardt's career, she had an affair with a Belgian nobleman, Charles-Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral de Ligne (1837–1914), son of Eugène, 8th Prince of Ligne, with whom she bore her only child, Maurice Bernhardt (1864–1928). Maurice did not become an actor, but worked for most of his life as a manager and agent for various theaters and performers, frequently managing his mother's career in her later years, but rarely with great success. Maurice and his family were usually financially dependent, in full or in part, on his mother until her death. Maurice married a Polish princess, Maria Jablonowska, of the House of Jablonowski, with whom he had two daughters: Simone, who married Edgar Gross, son of a wealthy Philadelphia soap manufacturer; and Lysiana, who married the playwright Louis Verneuil.
From 1864 to 1866, after Bernhardt left the Comédie-Française, and after Maurice was born, she frequently had trouble finding roles. She often worked as a courtesan, taking wealthy and influential lovers. The French police of the Second Empire kept files on high-level courtesans, including Bernhardt; her file recorded the wide variety of names and titles of her patrons; they included the son of the Spanish banker and Marquis Alexandro-Maria de las Marismas del Guadalquivir, the industrialist Robert de Brimont, the banker Jacques Stern, and the wealthy Louis-Roger de Cahuzac. The list also included Khalil Bey, the Ambassador of the Ottoman Empire to the Second Empire, best known today as the man who commissioned Gustave Courbet to paint L'Origine du monde, a detailed painting of a woman's anatomy that was banned until 1995, but now on display at the Musee d'Orsay. Bernhardt received from him a diadem of pearls and diamonds. She also had affairs with many of her leading men, and with other men more directly useful to her career, including Arsène Houssaye, director of the Théâtre-Lyrique, and the editors of several major newspapers. Many of her early lovers continued to be her friends after the affairs ended.
During her time at the Odeon, she continued to see her old lovers, as well as new ones including French marshals François-Certain Canrobert and Achille Bazaine, a commander of the French army in the Crimean War and in Mexico; and Prince Napoleon, son of Joseph Bonaparte and cousin of French Emperor Louis-Napoleon. She also had a two-year-long affair with Charles Haas, son of a banker and one of the most celebrated Paris dandies in the Empire, the model for the character of Swann in the novels by Marcel Proust.
Bernhardt took as lovers many of the male leads of her plays, including Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen She possibly had an affair with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, who frequently attended her London and Paris performances and once, as a prank, played the part of cadaver in one of her plays. When he was King, he travelled on the royal yacht to visit her at her summer home on Belle-Île.
The Savoy, London
Her last serious love affair was with the Dutch-born actor Lou Tellegen, 37 years her junior, who became her co-star during her second American farewell tour (and eighth American tour) in 1910. He was a very handsome actor who had served as a model for sculpture Eternal Springtime by Rodin. He had little acting experience, but Bernhardt signed him as a leading man just before she departed on the tour, assigned him a compartment in her private railway car, and took him as her escort to all events, functions, and parties. He was not a particularly good actor, and had a strong Dutch accent, but he was successful in roles, such as Hippolyte in Phedre, where he could take off his shirt. At the end of the American tour they had a dispute and he remained in the United States while she returned to France. At first, he had a successful career in the United States, and married film actress Geraldine Farrar, but when they split up his career plummeted. He committed suicide in 1934.
Bernhardt's broad circle of friends included the writers Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, his son Alexandre Dumas, fils, Emile Zola, and the artist Gustave Doré. Her close friends included the painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma (1853–1927), a French impressionist painter, some nine years her junior. This relationship was so close, the two women were rumored to be lovers. In 1990, a painting by Abbéma, depicting the two on a boat ride on the lake in the bois de Boulogne, was donated to the Comédie-Française. The accompanying letter stated that the painting was "Peint par Louise Abbéma, le jour anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse" (loosely translated: "Painted by Louise Abbéma on the anniversary of their love affair") Clairin and Abbéma spent their holidays with Bernhardt and her family at her summer residence at Belle-Île, and remained close with Bernhardt until her death.
After her 1886–87 tour, Bernhardt recuperated on Belle-Île, a small island off the coast of Brittany, 10 miles south of the Quiberon peninsula. She purchased a ruined 17th-century fortress, located at the end of the island and approached by a drawbridge, and turned it into her vacation retreat. Between 1886 and 1922, she spent nearly every summer, the season when her theater was closed, on Belle-Île. She built bungalows for her son Maurice and her grandchildren, and bungalows with studios for her close friends, the painters Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma. She also took with her large collection of animals, including several dogs, two horses, a donkey, a hawk given to her by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis, an Andean wildcat, and a boa constrictor she had brought back from her tour of South America. She entertained many visitors at Belle-Île, including King Edward VII, who stopped by the island on a cruise aboard the royal yacht. Always wrapped in white scarves, she played tennis (under house rules that required that she be the winner) and cards, read plays, and created sculptures and ornaments in her studio. When the fishermen of the island suffered a bad season, she organized a benefit performance with leading actors to raise funds for them. She gradually enlarged the estate, purchasing a neighboring hotel and all the land with a view of the property, but in 1922, as her health declined, she abruptly sold it and never returned. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied the island, and in October 1944, before leaving the island, they dynamited most of the compound. All that remains is the original old fort, and a seat cut into the rock where Bernhardt awaited the boat that took her to the mainland.
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