Sarah Bernhardt,(1844-1923), French actress, one of the most famous in the history of the theater, known by an adoring public as ``the Divine Sarah.'' She was born Rosine Bernard in Paris on Oct. 23, 1844, an illegitimate child of mixed French-Dutch parentage and of partly Jewish descent. At the age of 13 she entered the drama school of the Paris Conservatoire. Her debut at the Theatre Francais (later the Comedie Francaise) on Sept. 1, 1862, in Racine's Iphigenie en Aulide, was greeted with only mild interest. She soon quarreled with the Comedie and left it for an unsuccessful attempt at burlesque.
Bernhardt's reputation was established in 1869 by her appearance as Zanetto, the wandering minstrel in Francois Coppee's Le Passant, and affirmed in 1872 by her triumph as the Queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas. Soon after this she returned to the Comedie Francaise, where she won further acclaim for her performances in Racine's Phedre and Hugo's Hernani. Bernhardt's position as the greatest actress and one of the most magnetic personalities of her time was by now secure. She was eulogized for her voix d'or (golden voice) and for the scope and emotional power of her acting. In 1880, after a triumphant season in London, she broke her contract with the Comedie Francaise and embarked upon an independent career with the first of six tours of America, returning to Europe for triumphs in England and Denmark. Her repertoire included La Dame aux Camelias by the younger Alexandre Dumas and Frou-frou by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy. She became manager of the Theatre de la Renaissance, which she opened with a performance of Jules Lemaitre's Les Rois. In 1898 she sold her lease of this theater and bought the Theatre des Nations, which she renamed the Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt.The opening play, a revival of Victorien Sardou's La Tosca, was followed by a production in French of Hamlet. Max Beerbohm, in a review, captured the essential incongruity of Bernhardt in the title role by labeling her ``Hamlet, Princess of Denmark.'' Undaunted by her critics, she promptly ventured on the title role in Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon. The hero of this play is Napoleon's son, who is kept in semi-captivity after the fall of the empire. Despite the seeming audacity of a middle- aged woman playing a boy's part, L'Aiglon was one of the greatest financial successes ever achieved in Paris. In 1905, while performing in Rio de Janeiro, she suffered an injury to her right leg. By 1911 she was unable to walk unsupported, and in 1915 the leg was amputated.
Despite the handicap of an artificial leg, she continued her acting career, even performing at the front during World War I. In 1914 she became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Her last stage appearance was in La Gloire (1922) by Maurice Rostand. She died in Paris on Mar. 26, 1923.Bernhardt was the first great actress to appear in films, starring in La Reine Elizabeth and La Dame aux Camelias in 1911. Bernhardt' s artistic gifts included sculpture and writing; she published several plays and her memoirs, Ma Double Vie (1907).