Legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt won the hearts of theatregœrs around the world but always remained faithful to Paris, the city of her birth and her very first triumphs. Jérôme Lechevalier O ne hundred years after her death, Sarah Bernhardt is still remembered as a star who was acclaimed all over the world: from Sydney to New York, and from Cairo de Rio de Janeiro. Along with her talent as a tragic actress and “golden voice” – as Victor Hugo termed it – Bernhardt also had a gift for staying in the limelight by masterfully finess ing newspapers, photographers and gossip col umnists. Throughout her life, pundits wondered if she really slept in a coffin or walked lioncubs on a leash, however, Bernhardt's story is first and foremost the tale of a Parisian who will forever be associated with her native City of Light. A rebellious youth Born in Paris in 1844, the young Bernhardt grew up in a convent near Versailles, and only went to live with her mother (a noted courtisane) at 265, Rue Saint-Honoré (1st arr.), when she was 14. To keep her from becoming a burden, her family wanted to marry her off, a prospect Bernhardt categorically refused. When her mother’s friend the Comte de Morny suggested she study theatre at the academy located at 2 bis, Rue du Conserva toire (9th arr.), it seemed like a good compromise. From 1860 to 1862, Bernhardt threw herself into drama and was finally accepted by the Comédie Française at 1, Place Colette (1st arr.(. But just a few months later, in 1863, she was abruptly dismissed

for having slapped an established actress who had violently pushed her little sister. Success at the Théâtre de l’Odéon To survive, Bernhardt adopted her mother’s pro fession and took on small roles at the Théâtre du Gymnase, 38, boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle (10th arr.), while living at 16, Rue Auber (9th arr.) in the Opéra district. In 1869, she had her first success at the Théâtre de l’Odéon (Place de l’Odéon, 6th arr.) when her performance as the cross-dresing trou- badour Zanetto was acclaimed for its grace and charm. But on September 10, misfortune struck in the form of a fire in which she lost all of her belongings. Soon after, the Odéon held a gala in Bernhardt's honour which raised enough for her to settle in a new building at 4, Rue de Rome (8th arr.(. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, theatres were closed and the actress organised an ambulance to treat the wounded at Odéon. Once peace was restored in 1872, she again triumphed at Théâtre de l’Odéon, this time in the role of Queen Doña Maria de Neubourg in Hugo’s Ruy Blas. The arts, luxury and eccentricity In the wake of this triumph, the Comédie-Française re-employed Bernhardt who soon became wealthy enough to build a Renaissance-style mansion on Rue Fortuny (17th arr.(. Filled with paintings of herself in various roles and exotic objects includ ing a skeleton named Lazare and collections of stuffed bats and tigers, the mansion was centred around a studio, where Bernhardt honed her tal ent for sculpture. One of her works, After the Storm was shown at the Palais de l’Industrie (8th arr.), now the Grand Palais. A carefree spirit, Bernhardt indulged her every whim, even hiring a balloon to fly over Paris during the 1878 World's Fair. The Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt Despite all her success, Bernhardt lived beyond her means, and in 1885 was forced to sell her mansion. In 1887, she moved to 56, Boulevard Pereire (17th arr.) where she re-created her fantastic universe with new acquisitions and possessions rescued from sale, including a painted ceiling by Georges Clairin L’Apothéose de la Cuisine (now housed in the restaurant L’Escargot, 38, Rue Montorgueil, 1st arr.(. She continued to perform on stage, despite a serious knee injury, and was the director of several

Paris theatres, including the Théâtre des Nations, 2, place du Châtelet – now the Théâtre de la Ville – which she renamed Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in 1899. In 1915, her right leg was amputated, but she continued to perform to the very end. On March 26, 1923, the theatre legend died at her home on Boulevard Pereire while in the midst of filming Sacha Guitry’s La Voyante. A huge crowd followed her funeral procession to Père Lachaise cemetery, where her grave can be found in the 44th sector.

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