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Acclaimed French actor, Sarah Bernhardt (circa 1844-1923), was in foster care for four years from the age of three. 

Henriette Rosine Bernard was born in Paris ‘illegitimately’ to sixteen-year-old Dutch-Jewish Youle Bernard (or Judith), a courtesan. The details of the father are unknown. By the time she was three, Sarah was in foster care. She was sent to live in a small peasant home in a small village in Brittany, in northwest France, approximately 456 km from Paris.

In foster care, Sarah learned to speak Breton rather than French.  

Youle almost never came to see her. Sarah was essentially a foster child (Gottlieb, 9). 

Two years later, Youle could afford to have the household moved to Neuilly, much closer to Paris, although it appears she only saw her daughter once in two years. 

At the age of seven, Sarah was barely literate and so her mother arranged for her to go to “Mme Fressard’s fashionable boarding school in the suburb of Auteuil,” where she stayed for two years. Youle rarely visited. 

From Mme Fressard’s Sarah was sent to the “equally fashionable Grandchamps convent school in Versailles” at the age of nine for six years. 

The years at the convent accomplished what they had been meant to accomplish. “The little Jewish girl” had learned the manners and speech of upper-class Paris… This time when Youle collected her and took her back to Paris it was for the last time…” (Gottlieb, 17).

Shortly after moving in with her mother, Sarah began training to be an actor at the Conservatoire de Musique et Declamation in Paris for two years, followed by taking up a position with the Comedie-Francaise. She became a sensation in 1874 and by 1878, was a star whose “every activity was news”. 

Once she was an established box-office star, Sarah dressed as dramatically offstage as she did onstage. Often she created a look all her own: men’s white trousers and a flowing white scarf. Her attire was a transgression of female propriety and raised questions about her sexuality (Somerville p. 107). 

In 1880, Bernhardt established her own company and purchased French theatres which she used to produce and direct modern plays. She toured internationally, including to Australia in 1891 where she “acted in a total of twelve plays to rave reviews” (National Portrait Gallery).

During her time in Australia, Bernhardt’s two dogs, Star and Chouette, were quarantined on Rodd Island, a small island in Iron Cove Bay on the Parramatta River in Sydney. The island was being used at the time by scientists working for Pasteur Institute and it was Louis Pasteur’s nephew, French microbiologist, Adrien Loir, who cared for the dogs and became a close friend of Bernhardt’s.

Bernhardt was amongst the earliest actors to try out motion pictures, playing Hamlet in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. She starred in Camille (1911), an adaption of an Alexandre Dumas novel, and the film in which she played Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth (1912), was one of the first films released in the United States.

Sarah Bernhardt, the “Divine Sarah”, had a successful career spanning more than sixty years. 

She was the Eighth Wonder of the World. In fact, Bernhardt was the world’s first superstar, model and archetype for the movie actors whose stars began to rise at the time of her death. Many would look at the life and work of Sarah Bernhardt – her entrepreneurial zeal, her carefully orchestrated self-presentation and her expert use of developing mass media – as a paradigm for their own careers (Somerville, 108).

Sarah Bernhardt continued acting after her right leg was amputated – at her request – in 1915, including playing the role of a young man dying in Daniel (1920), a “testimony to Bernhardt’s refusal to accept invisibility even when she was aged and infirm” (Women Film Pioneers).


“Bernhardt, Sarah.” Dictionary of Sydney.

Duckett, Victoria. “Sarah Bernhardt.” Women Film Pioneers Project. 

Gottlieb, Robert. Sarah. The Life of Sarah Bernhardt. Yale University Press, 2010. 

“Legendary Lover’s Secret Island Romance.” City of Canada Bay Heritage Society, 2018. 

O’Grady, Megan. “Notorious.” Vogue, vol. 200, no.9 (2010): 590. 

“Sarah Bernhardt 1844-1923.” National Portrait Gallery.

Shapira, Elana. “Sarah Bernhardt October 23, 1844-March 26, 1923.” Jewish Women’s Archive, 2021.

Somerville, Kristine. “The Magnificent Lunatic: The Life and Work of Sarah Bernhardt.” The Missouri Review, vol.34, no.4 (2011): 97-108. 

Image available here.