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Who is Sarah Benhardt?

Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in her first film.
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  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2014
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Sarah Bernhardt was a French actress of the late 19th century. Nicknamed "The Divine Sarah," she was feted throughout Europe and the United States. Sarah Bernhardt was one of the most famous actresses of her day, beloved by playwrights and theatergoers alike.

Sarah Bernhardt was born Henriette Rosine Bernard in Paris on 23 October 1844, the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch-born Jewish courtesan. Sarah Bernhardt later became a courtesan herself, as well as an actress, and studied her craft at the Comedie Francaise. In the 1870s, Bernhardt developed her stage career and was soon in demand all over Europe and the United States.

Sarah Bernhardt was known for her eccentric habits. She kept a menagerie of exotic pets, including leopards and alligators, and purportedly slept in a coffin lined with love letters she had received. In addition to acting, she coached younger actresses, wrote her own books and plays, sculpted, painted, and modeled for artist Antonio de La Gandara. She served as an inspiration for Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha. She also produced voice recordings of some of her most famous roles, including Racine's Phaedre.

As a courtesan, Sarah Bernhardt was involved with a number of prominent men, including artist Gustave Dore and King Edward VII of the United Kingdom. She married Greek actor Aristides Damala in 1882, but his morphine addiction soon destroyed the marriage, and he died in 1889. Prior to the marriage, Sarah Bernhardt had a son, Maurice, in 1864.

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In the early 20th century, Sarah Bernhardt starred in ten silent films, including two biographical pictures. In her first film, released in 1900, she played Hamlet and recorded an accompanying sound reel. In 1914, she was received into the French Legion of Honor.

Sarah Bernhardt lost her right leg in 1915 as the result of an accident, but she continued acting until her death, using a prosthetic limb on the stage and allowing her home to be converted into a movie set when a stroke left her confined to the home. Sarah Bernhardt died in her son's arms on 26 March 1923, four days after completing her last film. She is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

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