Sarah Bernhardt was born in 1844 in Paris, the daughter of a young Jewish woman and an unknown father. Her mother had managed a successful career as a courtesan, an occupation which provided for the family financially, drew artistic and aristocratic gentlemen to the home, and exemplified a life-style of colorful amorality. Even as a child, what would be called Sarah’s “little personality” was clearly in evidence: attention-seeking behavior, wild rages, excessive energy, concentrated self-absorption, and unbridled ambition. By the time she enrolled in Paris’s famous Conservatory of Music and Drama, she was seriously in need of both money and direction. The theater, with its easy morality yet demanding responsibilities, was the ideal place to channel her energies and focus her ambitions.
Theatrical success did not come easily to Bernhardt, and real domestic tranquility never came. Her private life, inextricably entwined with her public life, was every bit as colorful, provocative, and tempestuous as the romantic roles and productions she created. She was always surrounded by a loyal coterie of lovers, admirers, and friends, many famous in their own rights. They enhanced her career, and she theirs. They nourished and sustained her, and she returned the favor. By the time she was fifty-two years old, she had created 112 roles and thirty-eight new characters, made and spent millions, traveled the world, and loved countless men. She was the first truly international, larger-than-life superstar.
Simply chronicling the complex life of Sarah Bernhardt would be a demanding task. Doing so in a way that illuminates her character and charisma presents a more daunting challenge. Gold and Fitzdale have met the challenge admirably. The reader will heartily agree with the words called out by an unknown actress as the Divine Sarah was laid to rest, “Immortals do not die.”