The Life of Sarah Bernhardt in Paris

In the footsteps of Sarah Bernhardt

Who answered this when they asked her if she was Christian?

Sarah Bernhardt Life Jewish Icon in France

I am Roman Catholic and a member of the Great Jewish Race and I am waiting until Christians become better

A woman nicknamed “Les Monstres Sacrés” or the Sacred Monsters by her poet friend Jean Cocteau, a name he invented especially for her. 

Sarah Bernhardt life in Paris

Sacré Sarah Bernhardt : Only the extravagant and talented actrice Sarah Bernhardt could be admired by saying such things… 

Sarah Bernhardt who triumphed in “La Dame aux Camélias” and Phèdre was admired, loved and adored by the public and by her pairs.

That is why I want to tell you about this incredible actress who was world-famous and was considered a superstar all over the world in her time.

flora at sarah bernhardt exhibit petit palais

The life of Sarah Bernhardt in a nutshell.

Sarah Bernhardt was born in 1844. 

Her mother was Jewish and single but her father was a wealthy young man. They never married and her father remained in the background.

In exchange for financial help from her father, Sarah was baptized and educated in catholic schools.

One of the lovers of Sarah’s mother, the Duke de Morny was a cousin of the French Emperor Napoleon III. 

Through his relations, Sarah Bernhardt became an actress at the age of 17.

antisemitism Sarah Bernhardt caricature (1)

Sarah was slim, with delicate features, a pale skin, almond shaped eyes and curly red hair. In those days being slim was not a beauty feature and nobody would have imagined that one day Sarah Bernhardt would become an international superstar like Madonna or Lady Gaga today.

When she was 20 years old, Sarah Bernhardt became a single mother herself. 

She had a son, Maurice, with a Belgium Prince. They never married and Sarah raised her son alone.

She continued her acting career, working for different theaters and slowly rose to become a star.

Sarah Bernhardt was a muse for several play writers, like Victor Hugo and Edmond de Rostand ( who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac )

She played in several of their plays.

Sarah Bernhardt performed all over the world and made numerous tours in the United States where she was acclaimed and admired.

During most of her life she lived in Paris, but Sarah Bernhardt spent her summers on the Island Belle-Ilse -en Mer, in front of the coast of Brittany. 

Sarah Bernardt established an impressive collection of living wild animals, like an alligator called Ali-Gaga, a puma, a monkey and even a boa constrictor. As Sarah was extravagant, she liked to give her alligator champagne and one day, as the alligator was drunk, it swallowed her dogs. 

The alligator died of milk and Champagne overdose.

Her boa constrictor died suffocating after swallowing a cushion on her sofa. 

Sarah Bernhardt had a very active love life, she had numerous lovers but married only once.

Sarah’s son, Maurice, gave her two granddaughters that she helped to raise after their mother died.

Sarah Bernhardt was the first woman in the world to become the director of a theater, called of course “ le Théâtre Sarah Bernard “. 

In 1914  one of Sarah’s legs had to be amputated after an accident. The leg is still preserved in formaldehyde… 

Sarah Bernardt continued to act with a wooden leg until her death.

During WWI, she was touring the United States and actively pushed the US government to take part in the war. As the US did so, Sarah Bernardt credited herself with this decision.

Sarah Bernardt was famous for her tragic roles and in order to prepare herself she would sleep in a satin lined coffin. 

Sarah Bernhardt sleeps in coffin

When she died in 1923,  Sarah Bernardt was the first woman ever in France to be honored with a public funeral procession through Paris that crossed all of Paris, from her house near the Parc Monceau, passing by her theater at Chatelet square and ending at the cemetery of Père Lachaise where she was buried. 

COPYRIGHT Sarah Bernard Grave at pere lachaise

All of Paris was out in the streets to pay their last tribute to Sarah Bernardt, the “Sacred Monster “.


Sarah Bernhard and theater


Sarah Bernardt started her career at the most prestigious theater in France, “La Comédie Française.” 

She was only just starting her job, when she was fired. During a party, she slapped a leading actor in the face. Sarah Bernhardt had brought her little sister to the party, who by accident stepped on the dress of this leading actress who pushed Sarah’s little sister aggressively. Sarah punched the actrice, and that was the end of Sarah’s short career at La Comédie Francaise.

This whole event could have been a theater performance by itself….

Nobody could have imagined that one day this skinny young Sarah would beg to come back to “ La Comedie Francaise” because of her talent and prestige.

After this dispute, Sarah Bernhardt traveled a bit, had a son and started to work as an actress in a theater called “ Le Gymnase” . The comical plays performed in Le Gymnase were called “ Pieces de boulevards “ as this theater was located along one of the boulevards of Paris.

As she was more at ease with classical performances, Sarah Bernardt switched to another theater. L’Odeon. In this theater Sarah was very happy  playing important roles of contemporary writers like Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Edmond de Rostand.

She successfully played the roles of young men, even when she was in her 40-s and 50-s.

Sarah Bernhardt became known for her beautiful voice and her expressive gestures.

During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 the  Odeon theater became a temporary hospital for the French soldiers thanks to Sarah Bernhardt.

In 1880, at the peak of her career, she started her first international tour to the United Nations. Many other international tours followed. Sarah Bernhard had now become an international star.

In 1899 Sarah Bernhardt signed a 25 year lease with the theater on Place de Chatelet. She became the first female director of a theater ever. 

Sarah continued to play, while directing the theater with an iron fist. The theater changed name and became Le Théatre Sarah Bernhardt. 

During WWII, the Germans changed the name of the theater because Sarah Bernhardt was Jewish. Today the theater is called Sarah Bernhardt again.

In this theater Sarah played another role as a young man ( being over 50 by now ) and also played Hamlet.

After Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, her son Maurice became the director until his own death in 1928.

When she was on her deathbed she insisted on following the plays performed via the theatrophone, a special telephone connected to the stage.

Sarah Bernhardt theater

Sarah Bernhardt’s funeral was grand. Her coffin, accompanied by hundreds of police men, crossed all of Paris on a beautifully decorated carriage, followed by her son, her secretary and other young men who shared her life, as well as thousands of admirers.


Sarah Bernhardt and the whale in the United States

Sarah Bernhardt theater life

When in 1880 Sarah Bernhardt arrived in New York after 12 days at sea, she was welcomed with the Marseillaise and by lots of journalists.

Sarah Bernhardt toured the United States in a luxurious Pullman train carriage, with 42 suitcases for her costumes and a large staff accompanying her.

Sarah stayed 27 weeks and gave 256 performances. 

When Sarah Bernhardt played , it was always in French. The American spectators were given booklets with the translation of the play so that they could follow. It happened that the wrong booklet was handed out with a different play, but the spectators didn’t notice it because they were captivated by the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, her voice and the emotions on her face.

Sarah Bernhardt brought her own tent, in which she performed, having it built and taken down in the different towns she performed in. Each play would draw 5000 spectators.

The first time she arrived in the States, a man called John P. Smith, approached her and asked her to come “ and stand on the whale “. Sarah Bernhardt had no idea what he was talking about, but decided to check it out.

She was brought to the harbor, where a captured whale was kept motionless and imprisoned in the water. Sarah Bernhardt was proposed to stand on the back of the whale and to take one of its baleens. She did so reluctantly, as she was aware of the suffering of the animal. She was photographed while doing so.

From then on, the now dead whale was carried on a giant carriage filled with ice and its owner followed her for the rest of her tour through the United States. John P. Smith advertised by inviting people to come and watch the whale “ admired and patronized by Sarah Bernhard”. He made a small fortune and Sarah Bernhardt and John P. Smith actually became friends.


Sarah Bernhard and Rachel

Rachel portrait

Sarah Bernhardt and Rachel, both worldwide famous actresses, both French and Jewish, had a very different path.

Rachel Felix was born 20 years before Sarah Bernhardt. Rachel came from a traditional poor Jewish background. Being extremely talented, she joined “ La Comedie Francaise “ at the age of 17, like Sarah Bernhardt.

Like Sarah Bernhardt, Rachel was “ petite” but had a very strong presence on stage and played only classic tragedy.  Sarah Bernhardt had one son, Rachel had  two sons. Both women never married the fathers of their sons. And both women had many influential lovers.

Both were smart business women and knew how to negotiate contracts.

While studying theater the two women had the same teachers.

Rachel was received by the king of Germany in 1850. To show his admiration he had a statue made of her that was exposed in the garden of his palace. The statue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1935. 

Rachel statue

We already know how the name of the theatre of Sarah Bernhardt in Paris was changed by the Nazis.

Unlike Sarah Bernhardt, Rachel died very young of tuberculosis, at the age of 36.

Also Rachel remained faithful to her jewishness. Many of her friends and lovers tried to convince her to convert to christianity, but she refused until her last breath.

Rachel has always been an example for Sarah Bernhard.


A visit in the footsteps of Sarah Bernhardt

When I take you through Paris, we can pass by all the theaters where Sarah Bernhardt performed: L’Odeon, Le Gymnase, La Gaité Lyrique, La Comédie Française, Théatre Sarah Bernard…

These theaters are all located in fascinating neighborhoods, like the Latin Quarter, the Palais Royal, les Grands Boulevards, Les Halles and Le Temple. 

Each theater has a lot of history. 

The Odeon was built in the early 1880-s and still carries the scars of the bombing during WW II. The Theatre Sarah Bernard burned during the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and was immediately rebuilt. 

The Comedie Française was the name of the theater company of Molière, the most famous playwright who performed  for King Louis 14th, the Sun King. And La Gaité Lyrique that looks like an Italian palace and was used for rehearsals by Sarah Bernhardt.

We can also visit the area of the Parc Monceau where Sarah Bernhardt built her house. We can walk by the beautiful neighborhood where many important Jewish families lived. The Camonodos lived a few doors aways. 

The Rothschilds of France have been a support for her career.

We will visit Sarah Bernhard’s tomb and the tomb of Rachel in the incredible cemetery of Pere Lachaise with Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust

Sarah Bernhardt tomb in Pere Lachaise

Belle Ile en Mer: Sarah’s Fortress

If you plan a road trip through France with a Driver from Paris, you might want to include the Island of Belle Ile en Mer

On this beautiful island, you can visit the fortress that Sarah Bernhardt changed into her vacation house. 

visit fortress Belle Ile Island of Sarah Bernhardt


She spent her summers here with her grandchildren and friends, discussing life and politics lying on armchairs in what she called the Sanatorium. While you hike you will discover the benches Sarah Bernhardt had built all over the island, so she could sit and enjoy the view from everywhere. Or you could play tennis, like Sarah Bernhardt did: you demand that all the balls are sent straight into your racket.

Sarah Bernhardt Belle Ile En Mer

I told you, she was a “ Monstre Sacré” !

Sarah Bernhardt life

Sarah Bernhard Tour in Paris

I hope you enjoyed the article. Send me a message with your thoughts on my contact page.

If you need a tailor-made tour in Paris, let me know as well by email.

Flora Goldenberg

Guide Conférencière in Paris

Tour guide in Paris

flora at petit palais Sarah Bernhardt