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March 26: The Divine Sarah

March 25, 2013

492px-Sarah_Bernhardt-Nadar_2Sarah Bernhardt, the world's most famous actress before Hollywood films entranced the planet, died on this date in 1923 at age 78. Bernhardt was the Paris-born daughter of a courtesan and attended a convent school before becoming a student at the Comédie Française, where she had her acting debut. She, too, was headed to courtesanship until she secured a contract at the Théâtre de L’Odéon in 1866, at age 22, where her fame as a performer was launched. During the Franco-Prussian war, Bernardt converted the Odéon into a makeshift hospital, where she helped to nurse wounded soldiers. By the mid-1870s, Bernhardt was performing on stages all over Europe and had taken over the Théâtre de la Renaissance, which she ran as star, director, and producer until 1899. That year she established the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, where she would soon play the title role in a four-hour adaptation of Hamlet. Bernhardt was also a serious sculptor and painter. While once stating, "Me pray? Never! I'm an atheist," she was baptized a Catholic. Her acting career, which continued even after the amputation of one lower leg, eventually encompassed some seventy roles that brought her to the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, and the Middle East. To see her as Hamlet in 1899, click below.

“I am a daughter of the great Jewish race, and my somewhat uncultivated language is the outcome of our enforced wanderings.” —Sarah Bernhardt