Sharon Marcus: Sarah Bernhardt, the Godmother of Modern Celebrity Culture

Celebrity is probably as old as language itself. It’s easy to imagine prehistoric humans using speech to gossip about people they had never met in person but could talk about as if they had. Recent history, however, tends to contrast celebrity to fame. Fame is supposedly worthy and lasting, celebrity is allegedly baseless and ephemeral. Fame derives from worthy public achievements, celebrity focuses on trivial private scandals. In cultures that value men over women—which is most of them – fame comes to seem masculine, celebrity feminine.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century England, France, and the United States were no strangers to strict gender oppositions. Yet those eras also made celebrity and fame inseparable. Newspapers treated daily events as the stuff of history. Engravings, lithographs, and photographs encouraged millions to identify public men as well as women with their looks. Lord Byron became as famous for his long, flowing hair as for his poetic genius. Abraham Lincoln as known for his distinctive height, beard, and profile as well as for his eloquence and leadership.  

One woman, Sarah Bernhardt, cannily took the measure of this new media environment and used her insights to become a global star. No mere product of modern celebrity culture, Bernhardt also helped to produce it. With a genius for acting matched by a flair for self-promotion, Bernhardt became as well known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson in theirs.

Born in Paris in 1844 to a Dutch Jewish courtesan, Bernhardt won admission at age sixteen to the prestigious Paris dramatic conservatory, and soon after secured a place in France’s revered national theater troupe, the Théâtre Français. In the late 1860s and 1870s, Bernhardt became a celebrity throughout France, thanks to electrifying stage performances as a young male troubadour, a blind grandmother in ancient Rome, a biracial woman avenging her enslaved mother, and a classic turn as Racine’s Phèdre.

Bernhardt’s fame became global when, in June 1879, she traveled to London and thousands of fans – male and female, young and old, aristocratic and middle class – contracted a serious case of Bernhardt mania. An agent convinced her to spend the next year and a half touring North America. There, her acclaimed performances made her reputation and fortune and enabled her have a long career as an independent performer, director, and manager. In 1923, a million mourners witnessed Bernhardt’s Parisian funeral procession. For weeks after her death, her name and image dominated international newspaper headlines and magazine covers.

One part Meryl Streep, one part Miley Cyrus, Bernhardt owed her enormous success both to her formidable acting talent and to the offstage publicity tactics that she devised to capture and hold the attention of the Parisian public. On the one hand, her flair for marketing made her a talented impresario. She arranged to be photographed in her own bedroom, sleeping in a coffin. She sat for dozens of photographs and paintings and invited journalists to her home for interviews. Most importantly, she never hesitated to send letters to editors protesting her press coverage. In 1878, she responded to one newspaper’s speculations about her true hair color by dryly observing, “I regret that I cannot prove that I am a natural blonde.”

On the other hand, even as newspapers and magazines reported on Bernhardt’s exotic pets and outlandish dresses, they also hailed her as a genius, one of the world’s greatest artists. A French theater journal, summing up the star’s achievements after her death, described her as “a queen and priestess before whom frontiers did not exist…. her prestige was such, universally, that a sort of international religion arose around her.” Other French journalists vaunted her merits as a “powerful ambassador” who had extended their nation’s prestige by “incarnating French thought” abroad, naming her the best-known French person in the world since Napoleon.

Today, we might be tempted to choose between viewing Bernhardt either as a central figure in the history of great acting or as the forebear of everything that is wrong with celebrity culture. But forcing that choice misses the point of Bernhardt’s achievement, which was to make her excellence inseparable from her exploits. Her lesson to us today is that we do not have to decide whether celebrity is serious or silly, well-deserved or worthless, masculine or feminine: inevitably and interestingly, it is always and has always been both.

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is a founding editor of Public Books and the author of the award-winning Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England(Princeton) and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London. Twitter @MarcusSharon