The Who2 Blog

The Curious Birthday of Sarah Bernhardt

Our friends at Infoplease asked us to look into the exact birthdate of 19th-century superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Most everyone agrees she was born in 1844, but the exact date may be October 22, 23, or 25… or something else entirely. The tale is both lively and confusing.

First, a bit about The Divine Sarah, as she was known in her day. Cornelia Otis Skinner, in her 1967 book Madame Sarah, puts it this way:

I recently mentioned this name to a group of university drama students and was stunned to hear one of them ask, ‘Who was Sarah Bernhardt?’… My impulse was to cry out, ‘Who was Sarah Bernhardt!’ Who, in her prime was known as The Eighth Wonder of the World and even in her declining years as the greatest personality France had had since Joan of Arc? Who, in every civilized city of the globe, was received with more frenzied enthusiasm than kings and military heroes in her own day or Presleys and Beatles in ours? Who had emperors kneeling at her feet, crowned heads showering her with jewels and adoring mobs throwing their jackets on the ground for her to walk on?

Whew. Still, it seems more or less true. Bernhardt’s specialty was highly-charged melodramatic roles like La dame aux camélias (aka Camille) and La Tosca (later adapted as an opera by Puccini). Onstage her mesmerizing charisma sent audiences into hysterical ecstacies. Offstage she wore lavish furs, traveled the world in private railcars, made and spent millions of francs, took lover after lover, and generally blazed a chinchilla-lined trail for the outsized screen celebrities of the 20th century.

Bernhardt herself reached the early edges of Hollywood, appearing in a few short films before her death in 1923. By then she was regarded as a French national treasure — so much so, in fact, that a half-dozen Paris addresses already claimed to be the place of her birth.

In fact, there are questions about Bernhardt’s place of birth, her date of birth, her mother’s name, and her father’s identity.

In trying to iron out the date (at least), we’ve consulted a dozen books on Bernhardt, from her own 1907 autobiography Ma double vie (My Double Life) to the excellent and glossy 2005 book Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama by professors Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, which accompanied a major Bernhardt exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New York.

Here are the basics as we find them: Bernhardt’s mother was a Dutch woman of Jewish descent who made her way in Paris as a courtesan. Most agree that her name was Youle (or Julie) van Hard. She was by no means married to Sarah’s father; some say he was an accountant or law student named Édouard Bernhardt, other say he was a naval cadet (or officer) named Morel, and a hearty fringe group says it was an “uncle” named Edouard Bernhardt or Ker-Bernhardt, who later emigrated to Chile.

Of course, some also say her mother was really named Bernard to start with, or that she later changed her name from Van Hard to Bernard to Bernhardt.

If there was ever a birth certificate to clear all this up, it is nowhere to be found. Most scholars agree that it would have been destroyed along with other records of the day in the massive 1871 fire at the Paris Hotel de Ville (that is, City Hall).

Many biographers go by a somewhat-accepted tradition that she was born on October 23rd. Skinner says, “The locale may be disputed but two dates remain in common agreement, that of her birth and that of her death… For Sarah Bernhardt was born on October 23, 1844, and died March 26, 1923.”

In his 1942 book The Fabulous Life of Sarah Bernhardt (great title!), Louis Verneuil says Bernhardt was born on October 23, 1844 and calls it “a definite event which was registered legally at the time.”

But Verneuil doesn’t say how it was “legally registered” or where he comes by the information, and that’s the rub: Neither Verneuil, Skinner, nor anyone else we have read, is able to give any specific basis for October 23. The closest thing we found was Elaine Ashton’s 1989 book Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage, which suggests that the actress herself was responsible:

Bernhardt sometimes celebrated her birthday on 23 October, although 22 October 1844 is the birthdate officially recorded in the Dictionnaire de Biographie Francaise, where her parentage is cited as the out-of-wedlock union between the Jewish coutesan, Julia Bernardt (sic) and the naval officer, Paul Morel, a native of Le Havre.

If Bernhardt did like to celebrate her birthday on the 23rd, or any other day, she never put it in print herself. My Double Life (which, incidentally, can be found online at Google Book Search) skips her birth entirely, jumping right to the opening words “My mother was fond of travelling… she used to send my nurse clothing for herself and cakes for me.”

Drama queen that she was, Bernhardt was not particularly hung up on facts. It seems she told many different tales to journalists and penny biographers during her six-decade career.

Arthur William Row, who claims to have become Bernhardt’s press representative in 1916, described her attitude in his 1955 book Sarah the Divine: “Often when a weird story was brought to her notice, she would remark with the greatest insouciance, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that way at all!’ Then she would add even more lurid details and send the gossip away a bit dazed with the picture she drew.”

Row, for his part, comes out for October 22nd.

On the other hand, in The Art of High Drama Kenneth Silver notes that on the 1944 centennial of Bernhardt’s birth, “French national radio attached a plaque to the building at 3 rue de l’École de Médecine.” (Here’s the street view from Google Maps.) He translates it thusly:

25 October 1944
Here was born
Sarah Bernhardt
Glory of our Theater

As Silver points out, this would have gone up right after the Nazi occupation of Paris ended. Did French national radio have inside information on Bernhardt’s date of birth? Or did they just throw up any date while indulging in some national wartime pride?

To complicate matters a bit more, Professor Ockman, in the same book, describes finding an “unidentified newspaper clipping” in the Bibliothèque de la Comédie Francaise in Paris, which included a copy of a baptismal certificate saying Bernhardt was born on September 25th.

Your high-tech modern-day sources aren’t much help. Photos of her grave in Père Lachaise (same cemetery as Jim Morrison!) show simply the dates 1844 and 1923.

Most websites say October 22, 23 or 25 while showing no uncertainty about the date. But many of the more recent book biographies say frankly that there is ultimately no way to know the true details of Bernhardt’s birth.

And that leaves us… where?

Based on our own research, we feel comfortable with October of 1844 as Sarah Bernhardt’s month and year of birth. We don’t feel comfortable naming any individual date. The 23rd is the traditional front-runner, but we can find no specific support or evidence for that date. When you add in the uncertainty about her father and place of birth, naming any specific day seems more like a best guess than a reasoned conclusion.

Therefore: We have listed simply “October 1844” as her date of birth in our profile of Bernhardt. We also note in the profile that the 22nd, 23rd, and 25th are the dates most often given. And we thank Infoplease for a very interesting question.

A side note: Those interested in reading more about Bernhardt may enjoy The Divine Sarah by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale (1991, Alfred A. Knopf). Gerda Taranow’s 1972 book Sarah Bernhardt: The Art Within the Legend is a very lively study of Bernhardt’s acting talent and techniques.

And Robert Gottlieb, writing in The New York Review of Books this May, provides a fine overview of Bernhardt’s life and fame, plus a bibliography of over five dozen books to choose from.

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