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Jewish Lives Biography / Book on Sarah Bernhardt; Actress in Theatre & Film Preview
September 21, 2010
256 P., 5.5" x 6.25"

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

by Robert Gottlieb

Everything about Sarah Bernhardt is fascinating, from the obscurity surrounding her (illegitimate) birth to a career that gloriously redefined the nature of her art, to her turbulent—and notorious—romantic life, to the indomitable spirit that kept her performing until her late seventies. Even after her leg was amputated, Bernhardt performed under bombardment for soldiers in World War I and crisscrossed America on her ninth tour there, tirelessly working to promote the Allied cause. Beginning in 1880 with the first of these tours, “whatever the reaction to her acting and her morals,” Gottlieb tells us, “wherever she went she was first and foremost an Event, excitement about her arrival whipped up by an avalanche of publicity.”

In this brilliant biography, Gottlieb takes us into the world of the "Divine Sarah," not only her career in theater but the drama of her life. Her family situation is a fascination: her courtesan mother who never, Sarah believed, loved her; her absent and mysterious father; and most of all, her son, Maurice, whom she worshiped and raised as an aristocrat, in a style appropriate to his presumed father, the Prince de Ligne. (“All I expect from Maurice,” she said, “is to be well dressed.”) Only once in their long history together did they quarrel: over the Dreyfus Affair. Maurice was a right-wing snob; Sarah, always proud of her Jewish heritage, was a passionate Dreyfusard.

Though in her memoirs Bernhardt lavishly documented her childhood and rise to the pinnacle of French theater, Gottlieb maintains an affectionate skepticism about her self-dramatizing and contradictory accounts. His own account—the first English-language biography of Bernhardt in decades—brings us clear-sightedly into the singular world of this woman of relentless energy and willpower who slept in a coffin, traveled with lion cubs, wore a hat festooned with a stuffed bat, turned her theater into a working hospital during the Franco-Prussian war, slept with actors, playwrights, and kings (even her husband), and was an accomplished sculptor besides.

At the heart of Sarah are Bernhardt’s signature performances in such classic vehicles as La Dame aux Camellias (which she played more than three thousand times), Phèdre, La Tosca, and Hamlet. Gottlieb not only tracks her history as the most famous actress who ever lived but demonstrates the extraordinary transformation of a scandal-ridden daughter of a courtesan into a heroin, a national icon—a symbol of France.

Feature Review: 

“Robert Gottlieb is true to the mystery of his subject's self-invented life....Vintage Gottleib, full of humor and refreshingly free of hagiography.” --Los Angeles Times

"[A] sharp, efficient biography."Emma Brockes, New York Times Book Review

"Gottlieb sifts through the smouldering fiction in this hugely entertaining biography of the theatrical legend.” Victoria Segal, The Guardian

“Mr. Gottlieb's fluid style and lightly worn authority offer a lucid and essential modern guide to the making of celebrity, in an era before the noun existed.” Norman Lebrecht, Wall Street Journal

“Immensely entertaining.”Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek

“A fascinating look at Bernhardt's mythology and the stagecraft behind it. . . . What Sarah understood--as Gottlieb, a storied editor and publisher makes clear--was how the heightened drama of performance might be extended to her own life.”Vogue

“Robert Gottlieb is true to the mystery of his subject's self-invented life. He also does what few biographers of famous women seem able or willing to do: He focuses on her work. . . . Vintage Gottleib, full of humor and refreshingly free of hagiography.”Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“One ends this breathlessly readable and deeply intelligent book in as much awe of Sarah as people and audiences were in her own lifetime; it is that rarest of books, a serious biography that reads not only like a novel, but like a big, romantic, sprawling, over-the-top novel. Gottlieb has made of her story a wonderful book--one, which, to pay it its highest due, any editor, including himself (and me), would give his or her eye-teeth to have published!”Michael Korda, Daily Beast

“An elegant and engaging portrait worthy of Bernhardt. . . a terrific book.”Glenn C. Altschuler, Books We Like, NPR

“Avoiding pedantry on the one hand and prurience on the other, [Gottlieb] writes about Bernhardt with convincing respect and sympathy, tempered with quiet amusement at her oddities and excesses. . . . His conversational, urbane prose is accompanied by numerous illustrations, including a splendid gallery of full-page photos showing Bernhardt in 16 of her famous roles. Gottlieb's Sarah is a fine introduction to a fascinating woman, giving the reader a lively sense of why, so many decades after her death, the name of Sarah Bernhardt, above all others, still stands for actress.”Julius Novick, The Forward

“In 'Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt', Robert Gottlieb presents (his subject) appreciatively, in full color, in all her exuberance, extravagance, beauty, passion and talent. This is the first English-language biography in decades of the first internationally known stage star.”Sandee Brawarsky, New York Jewish Week

Robert Gottlieb

Robert Gottlieb
Mimi Gnoli

Robert Gottlieb is the author of the acclaimed Balanchine: The Ballet Maker. He writes for the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and other publications, and is dance critic for the New York Observer. His career in publishing—as editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker—is legendary.

Robert Gottlieb’s Sarah received Honorable Mention in the Biography/Autobiography category in 2010 at both the Los Angeles Book Festival and the New England Book Festival.

See the Charlie Rose interview Robert Gottlieb about his book SARAH: http://www.charlierose.com/view/content/11255

See a video of Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet:

For a list of Bernhardt’s plays as a producer, actor and writer CLICK HERE

For a list and description of Bernhardt’s films CLICK HERE

To read how the charming Bernhardt responded after receiving a medal from the Yale French Club in New Haven, (from Yale Monthly Report, February 1906, page 148) CLICK HERE