Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sarah Bernhardt

French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1944-1923) was mentioned yesterday as an early example of celebrity eccentricity. The "Divine Sarah" became famous for her stage performances - particularly her death scenes (although this one in her film debut in 1900 is said to be rather restrained). She was known to embellish the truth when talking about her own life, but her peculiarities have been documented by many biographers. She was entranced by skulls and bats. She loved wild animals and at one time had a pet lion and 6 chameleons. Early in her career, she purchased and began sleeping in a coffin to better understand her tragic roles. In fact, she preferred roles in which the character dies at the end. (When she played one such role before a boisterous American audience, she said, "If they don't keep quiet, I'll die in the second act.") She played both male and female parts, and was in fact openly bisexual. She acted without a prosthetic limb after her leg was amputated in 1915 (and refused an offer of $10,000 to exhibit the severed limb as a medical curiosity). She loved chairs and filled every house she ever lived in with them. She married Greek actor Aristides "Jacques" Damala (1855-1889), and after his early death always signed her name as "Sarah Bernhardt, Veuve [Widow] Damala." Bernhardt was recorded by Thomas Edison, photographed by Nadar, and friends (and sometimes lovers) with the luminaries of her day. She wrongly believed she would die young, but attained the age of 88. She died of uremia and is buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

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