George Stimpson

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Who was known as "the Divine Sarah"?

Sarah Bernhardt (the stage name of Rosine Bernard), famous French actress, is known as "the Divine Sarah." This title is believed to have been bestowed upon her by Oscar Wilde after she played the part of the queen in Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas in London in 1879. Wilde later wrote to François Elie Jules Lemaître, French author and critic: "Were I a king I would give half of my kingdom, the half of my scepter, the half of my crown, to know that divine Sarah, and I would make her known all over the world." The phrase may have been suggested by a more euphonious one in Shakespeare. In Othello, Act II, scene I, the Moor speaks of his wife as "the divine Desdemona." Sarah Bernhardt's name did become "known all over the world." She became the most famous actress of her day and earned about nine million dollars during her stage career. She is supposed to have been born in Paris about 1844. Although of Jewish or part Jewish descent, she was baptized a Christian when a child and was educated in a convent. There is a [page 55] curious local tradition that she was born and spent her childhood in the village of Rochester, Cedar County, Iowa. At one period of her life she attracted considerable attention and received honorable men­tion for her work as an amateur sculptor. On the stage she played men's as well as women's parts. She even played the part of Hamlet in Shakespeare's tragedy of that name. She visited America many times. While in the United States in 1913 she had an accident that developed blood poisoning and necessitated the amputation of a leg in 1915. She learned to walk on an artificial leg and continued her stage career until a short time before her death in 1923. Her last appearance on the American stage was in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1918, when she played in a benefit performance for the Fourth Liberty Loan. Sarah Bernhardt was married only once. Through her marriage to an actor named Jacques Damala she became a Greek citizen. Her only child was a natural son of Prince Henry de Ligne. His name was Maurice Bernhardt and for a time he managed a Paris theater bearing his mother's name.