Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Divine Sarah

Sarah Bernhardt, 1891. 

The New York Review of Books called Sarah Bernhardt “the most famous actress the world has ever known.” Born in Paris in 1844, her mother was a courtesan, her father unknown. Sarah studied acting at France’s best state theater and soon surpassed her teachers. Her incredible talent earned her the nickname “the Divine Sarah.” She appeared in some of the very first silent films, including one about her daily life at home (the world’s first ‘reality’ show?). She was friends with Victor Hugo, inspired the work of Alphonse Mucha, and may have had an affair with King Edward VII. She added to her legend by sleeping in a coffin (to connect with the tragic characters she played on stage) and selling pictures. In her later years, she injured her leg and had to have it amputated after gangrene set in; she performed onstage with a prosthetic. Sarah died in 1923. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Crawfordsville Depot, circa late 1890s
At the height of her fame, Sarah Bernhardt visited America. On the way from Chicago to Louisville, Sarah’s train stopped briefly in Crawfordsville on October 18, 1891. Reclining in a chair by an open window in the grandest of her five train cars, Sarah’s “celebrated shape” was wrapped in a white robe. She slept for the duration of the stop (about half an hour) and the large crowd that gathered to stare at her was most impressed by the “mellifluous sing-song sound proceeding at regular intervals from her nasal organ.” 
In short, the divine Sarah snored.

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