Sarah Bernhardt captured by Felix Nadar, 1864 (Public domain)
Felix Nadar: Sarah Bernhardt in 1864
Performances onstage and off made her a household name

How late-19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt pioneered celebrity as we know it

As highlighted in new book ‘The Drama of Celebrity,’ the French-Jewish actress inspired coverage from criticism to caricature, some of it racist, sexist and anti-Semitic

Main image by Felix Nadar: Sarah Bernhardt in 1864

As actress Sarah Bernhardt reveled in her late-19th century fame, her unconventional offstage behavior — from sleeping in a coffin to riding in a hot air balloon — both intrigued and scandalized society.

The French-Jewish actress became a household name for her femme-fatale roles such as Cleopatra, as well as for her overall unsurpassed talent. But Bernhardt’s fame transcended performance. Fans avidly collected her memorabilia, such as publicity photographs and product endorsements. And she inspired voluminous commentary in the media — from positive coverage to criticism and caricature, some of it racist, sexist and anti-Semitic.

These developments converged to make Bernhardt a pioneer of modern celebrity. If not the first, Bernhardt was among the earliest — and certainly the most influential — celebs. Her status persists even until today, claims a recently-published book, “The Drama of Celebrity,” by Columbia University professor Sharon Marcus.

“[Bernhardt was] my through line to understand the history of celebrity through the lens of theater, which no other scholar has ever done,” Marcus told The Times of Israel.

Sharon Marcus, author of ‘The Drama of Celebrity.’ (Nicoletta Barolini)

A cultural historian who is trained in literature, Marcus examines the celebrity story from what she calls “the point of view of its origins in theater.”

She follows the narrative into the Hollywood era and today’s social media scene, featuring a constellation of modern stars including Muhammad Ali, Lady Gaga, and even a certain tweet-friendly US president.

Each chapter of the book makes connections with Bernhardt, described in the introduction as “a pathbreaker who established a template for modern stardom that remains in effect,” and who “became as well known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson in theirs.”

“No one,” Marcus writes, “shaped modern celebrity culture more than this book’s central figure.”

Sarah Bernhardt in character onstage, circa 1880. (The Hampden-Booth Theatre Library of The Players Foundation for Theatre Education)

The book stems from a visit to the Jewish Museum’s 2005-06 exhibit “Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama,” which switched Marcus’s focus away from her original subject, Oscar Wilde. To research the book, Marcus delved into archives in France’s Bibliotheque Nationale and the Victoria & Albert Museum in the United Kingdom, and read every play Bernhardt acted in over the first 25 years of her career.

Marcus didn’t just want opinions on Bernhardt from the celebrity herself, those who knew her well, or drama columnists. Marcus sees celebrity as a triangular relationship between the actual celebrities, the media, and public. Seeking audience perspective on Bernhardt, she made a serendipitous discovery while at an academic conference. A library at The Ohio State University had over 100 uncatalogued scrapbooks that “ordinary” Americans had compiled about their beloved star.

Marcus explored other scrapbook collections at college libraries in venues such as New York and Boston. Collectively they were “so revelatory, to see what audiences cared about when they’d get home, how involved people were in theater at the time,” she said.

Marcus came to view the scrapbooks as part of a trajectory of fandom.

Sarah Bernhardt in 1921. (AP Photo)

“Now we can see everybody involved, all over the internet,” Marcus said, where previously, such audience interest was out of sight and hence considered nonexistent. But, she added, “everything on the internet today existed before.”

If there’s an origin story to celebrity, it might begin in 1844, when Bernhardt was born to a Dutch Jewish courtesan mother in Paris. According to the book, Bernhardt was “baptized Christian and educated at a convent, but open about her Jewish origins.” Displaying early talent, she received classical training at the French Conservatory in Paris, which at the time “was the leading theater capital in the world, with the strongest theatrical tradition in Europe, of any European country,” Marcus said.

Training with the same teacher who mentored another great French Jewish theatrical star — Rachel Felix, known by her first name, Rachel — Bernhardt went on to perform for the prestigious Comedie Francaise. Marcus describes her as part of “a tradition that was very long and venerable, with the passing down of one great actor’s techniques to another,” with actors also being taught to “individuate themselves, be different.”

She tenaciously exerted more control, taking roles that often highlighted her acting ability rather than attractiveness

Bernhardt absorbed these lessons well.

“Initially [her roles were] all over the map,” Marcus said. “Ingenues, villains, sweet romantic leads, tragic leads.” But, she continued, Bernhardt “tenaciously exerted more control, [taking roles that] often highlighted her acting ability rather than attractiveness.”

Photograph of Sarah Bernhardt as Camille in ‘La Traviata’, taken by Napoleon Sarony in 1880. This became known as one of her most famous roles. (Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library, Harvard University)

By the time Bernhardt became a star, in 1880, “she was able to select her own roles,” Marcus said, “a type of persona, a femme fatale, that was very strong-willed, very sexual, filled with desire, determined to have her own way, who sometimes suffered from it, or would sometimes make others suffer terribly,” such as Cleopatra.

Even at Bernhardt’s apex, there was “some variety” in her roles, Marcus said. In a play about imperial Rome, she eschewed playing a vestal virgin for the role of her blind grandmother who kills her with a dagger to spare her from torture.

“What comes through the most is her incredible technical control,” Marcus said, “her facial expressions, her voice, the full range of her body. It was quite extraordinary,” whereas “a lot of the male and female actors were quite stiff” in Bernhardt’s day. People who saw Bernhardt onstage, Marcus said, reported being “hypnotized and mesmerized” by “electrifying and thrilling” performances.

Marcus says that Bernhardt had celebrity predecessors going back centuries, but these forerunners lacked advantages of democracy and technology that transformed celebrity into a global phenomenon.

Melandri, photograph of Sarah Bernhardt sculpting, circa 1876. (Courtesy of Marcus)

“Were there famous people before the 18th and 19th centuries?” she asked. “Absolutely. In Greece, they were athletes and playwrights. In the Middle Ages, they were saints.”

But before the advent of print, there were only two ways to become a celebrity, she said — local word of mouth, or state-driven means.

“Julius Caesar, he controlled the state, what people can and can’t say,” explained Marcus. “It was not as driven by the public, one of the three parts of the triangle. For modern celebrity, they start to become equal.”

Similarly, she said, Bernhardt’s career “coincided with the age of photography. She took advantage of photography as a medium,” resulting in the production of “a lot of images” of the star that were “shared with millions.”

Although increasing amounts of attention were being given to celebrities, not all of this was positive.

Sarah Bernhardt in 1921. (AP Photo)

Some of the negative coverage of Bernhardt was based on her off-stage unconventionality, such as media criticism of her balloon ride over Paris. Other coverage disparaged her appearance, claiming that she was too thin, or her having a child without marrying.

If a woman like that travels to other countries, she’s seen as exotic, foreign, less threatening

There was a sexist aspect to this criticism, Marcus explains, more so in Bernhardt’s native France than internationally: “It tends to be the case that if a woman remains independent… goes against the norm of a deferential, quiet, sweet lady, [in her] own home country, there is more reaction. If a woman like that travels to other countries, she’s seen as exotic, foreign, less threatening.”

There was also anti-Semitic mockery.

Marcus said that in 1880, when Bernhardt was a superstar, there was a notable increase in anti-Semitism in France. “There were new concerns over the fact that her mother was Jewish, that she had Jewish origins. Caricaturists exaggerated her curly hair, her profile, her nose, claiming that she was venal, greedy, cared about money — anti-Semitic stereotypes of that time and our own.”

In the 19th century, Marcus said, “there was very little inhibition about the use of racist stereotypes to mock celebrities.” She said she was more surprised by the extent to which 19th-century caricaturists wanted to racialize Bernhardt’s fandom.

Sarah Bernhardt captured by Felix Nadar, 1864 (Public domain)

“They depicted fans out of control,” Marcus said. “A number of French cartoons wanted to mock Sarah Bernhardt for being a big success in the US [and claimed] her biggest fans were Native Americans.” Their subtext, Marcus said, was that “she was not a true artist, she appealed only to savages — a reductive view of Native Americans as savages.”

“There was a relentless need to belittle her fame,” Marcus said.

Surveying celebrity today, Marcus sees dismaying similarities in how famous women are treated relative to male stars.

There was a relentless need to belittle her fame

“For people with a negative view of celebrity, I say, ‘What do you think of when you hear the term celebrity?’” Marcus said. “For them, it’s young women, whose primary fan base is young women, usually pursuing something seen as more feminine — makeup, clothes. When people say, ‘Some celebrities are deserving,’ [those celebrities are] always a man, admired by other men and usually other women. There’s a gender bias.”

Despite persistent sexism, Marcus is pleased that the celebrity demimonde has gotten more diverse since Bernhardt’s day.

“It’s a phenomenon of the last 10 or 20 [years],” Marcus said. “It has a lot to do with the growth of the internet. People can speak out more.”

Today there are fan bases for celebrities that cross lines of religion, race, gender, and sexuality. Celebrities from disadvantaged groups such as African-Americans, gays and Jews have been able to “rise to the top, the pinnacle of wealth and status,” Marcus said, adding that while this might not “redistribute income or solve nature’s injustices,” it can make members of disadvantaged groups “truly visible. It can lead to change.”

Consider how the book depicts Bernhardt’s image after her death in 1923. Her funeral procession was followed by tens of thousands of mourning fans, and journalists in her homeland described her as “incarnating French thought,” a sentiment echoed 21 years later in 1944.

During World War II, the Nazi occupiers of Paris had torn down Bernhardt’s statue and removed her name from her theater. But following liberation, Parisians celebrated the centennial of the birth of a celebrity like no other, with the program noting that “because so many times across the world … French thought has been named Sarah Bernhardt, we celebrate that name tonight.”

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