The Macabre Eccentricities of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt

Public Ledger [TN] 13 Nov. 1873
An 1873 blurb in the Public Ledger about curiosities piqued my interest in actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was sometimes referred to as “The Divine Sarah.” The article claimed that she was in possession of a letter-box that had been fashioned from a human skull. “The jaw moves by means of steel springs, and the teeth can be seen gleaming as white as snow. This ghastly bibelot is called Sophie, and its mouth forms the receptacle of M’lle Bernhardt’s letters, cards, etc.

 If you’re looking for biographical information on Sarah, there is no shortage of it out there. Born in France in 1844, she was considered to be one of the world’s greatest dramatic actresses of her time, and her eccentricities surely fueled her notoriety. Some of those “quirks” (as reported in the historic newspapers) are the focus of this post.
Omaha Daily Bee 26 Feb. 1905

A 1905 spread in the Omaha Daily Bee called, “The Seven Fears of Sarah Bernhardt” asserted that Bernhardt was in the process of overcoming or had already banished the major dreads that had haunted her throughout her life:
The fear of being buried alive.
The fear that she would become thin again.
The fear that her son would cease to love her.
The fear that she would die rich, for she has always thought it a sin to have too much money and she has religiously squandered her money on this account.
The fear that she would lose her fascinating and almost uncanny beauty.
The fear that Victorien Sardou would think some other actress as great as she.
The fear that she would grow old on stage.

Sarah was known to have slept in a coffin for a period, a practice which was explained as a method for her to get over her fear of premature burial. “So Sarah bought her coffin and for weeks she amused herself fitting it up. She lined it with costly laces and satin and spent a small fortune decorating it on the outside. When she had tired of her toy she would climb inside and rest. Here she would lie with roses and palms around her and here she would take a nap. Many nights she slept there all night and describing it, she said: ‘I never slept so soundly in my life.‘”

The Columbus Journal [Nebraska] 26 Feb. 1879

In 1879, fellow actress Mary Anderson touched on the subject of Sarah’s coffin as well as some other peculiarities about the star.
“…she slept in a coffin continually for three years. She does not do so now. I asked her why she gave up the habit. She said she had grown tired of it, as the coffin was uncomfortable. She said she also wished to familiarize herself with the thought of death. I saw her boudoir. The carpet was of black velvet, with flowers in silver, the furniture covered with black velvet, and the walls curiously decorated in the same fashion. A skeleton of a man who she said had died of love in Mantua hung before the mirror, with finger pointing at its own reflection. In large bowls about the room rose leaves were heaped, the fragrance that arose being overpowering. I could not remain in the room, it was so suggestive of horrible thoughts.

While Mary Anderson thought Sarah’s interior decorating skills were macabre, I think they sounded divine.

Medford Mail Tribune [OR]  22 Feb. 1915

In 1915, Sarah’s right leg was amputated above the knee after she’d spent several years dealing with the pain from an injury received on stage. (This is a very interesting article on Sarah’s leg, which was “found” in 2009 in Bordeaux University’s medical school.)

Omaha Daily Bee 16 May 1915

The same year of the surgery, the Omaha Daily Bee ran an article about Bernhardt, including an assertion by poet Edmond Rostand that she’d elected to undergo the amputation out of empathy for the soldiers who were being killed and mutilated during the war.

Omaha Daily Bee 16 May 1915

The Omaha Daily Bee also printed a composite image of what Sarah’s prosthetic leg might have looked like and a skull gifted to her by Victor Hugo.

Goodwin’s Weely 10 Aug. 1918

While Sarah didn’t die until 1923 from uremic poisoning, she had her tomb built many years before her demise in Paris’ Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Reports of the tomb existed as early as 1889.

The Carbon Advocate [PA] 14 Dec. 1889
Willmar Tribune [Minn.] 4 Feb. 1903
No, the ‘Divine Sarah’ isn’t dead, but she is getting old and she knows that the visit of the Grim Reaper must be an occurence of the not distant future.
New York Tribune 14 Oct. 1906
The Iola Register [Kansas] 15 Nov. 1901

Sarah allegedly made an annual visit to the tomb to adorn it with a wreath. I suppose that if I spent the money to erect such a monument, I would probably visit it too, if nothing else to reflect on life…and death, of course.


  1. One more detail about Sarah that isn't quite as macabre, but still pretty good: She once played Judas. Who was the hero of the play. Who was also Mary Magdalene's lover until Mary cheated on Judas with Jesus. Which inspired Judas to betray Jesus to the Romans.

    Yeah, that play went over about as well in 1910 as you'd think.

Comments are closed.