Bat hat, wooden leg, coffin bed: Sarah Bernhardt’s wild life offstage

French 19th-century stage legend Sarah Bernhardt, who died 100 years ago, was an institution in her country, who achieved superstardom playing tragic heroines in productions that toured the world.

Bat hat, wooden leg, coffin bed: Sarah Bernhardt's wild life offstage
The French actress Sarah Bernhardt in the role of the queen "Dona Maria de Neubourg" in "Ruy Blas", a play by Victor Hugo, in 1878, at the Comédie-Française. (Photo Credit: AFP)

As the centenary of her death on March 26, 1923, approaches, AFP recalls some of the most astonishing details of the life of an extravagant and talented performer and style icon, who was also known for her eccentric life offstage.

First global superstar

“She was the first global star…To match her today, you would have to combine Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce and Michael Jackson,” historian and private collector Pierre-Andre Helene told AFP.

As the face of France overseas, she became a living myth, captivating audiences from Europe, North and South America, Russia and Australia as Cleopatra, Cordelia or a cross-dressing Hamlet.

Men in New York would throw their coats to the ground in the hope she would walk on them, while in Australia, “there were scenes of hysteria with tens of thousands of women who wanted to see her, to touch  her,” Helene said. 

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A coffin for a bed

Bernhardt, famous as an actress for her death scenes, sometimes slept in a coffin in her bedroom, which she also took on tour.

A widely circulated photograph shows her lying in the satin coffin looking peaceful, eyes closed, draped with flowers.

A zoo for a home

She wore a stuffed bat on her hat, kept cheetahs, a tiger, lion cubs, a monkey and an alligator called Ali-Gaga that died of a milk and champagne overdose. She also owned a boa constrictor, which choked on a cushion.

Bubbly balloon ride

She got into trouble in 1878 for taking a hot-air balloon ride over Paris
during the Exposition Universelle, sipping champagne as she sailed over the
fairgrounds, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

Muse and lover to many

Bernhardt was the muse of several authors and playwrights, including Victor Hugo and Edmond de Rostand, who wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac”.

Her many reported dalliances included Napoleon III, Edward Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII, and the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, behind the famous Art Nouveau poster for Bernhardt’s production of “Gismonda”.

Turned theatre into hospital

During the siege of Paris in 1870 duing the Franco-German war, the deeply patriotic Bernhardt turned the Left Bank theatre, the Odeon, into a military hospital and personally tended to the wounded.

Incurable fabulist

Whether it was about her date or place of birth, the identity of her father, or the man who was the father of her son, Bernhardt was known for “obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies”, according to biographer Robert Gottlieb.

“Dull accuracy wasn’t Bernhardt’s strong point: She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything else than the best story? ” he wrote in “Sarah” (2010).

One leg 

In 1915, aged 71, Bernhardt had her right leg amputated above the knee, following a fall onstage after jumping off a parapet while playing Tosca.

After surgery she was carried about by two porters in a Louis XV-style sedan chair. Undaunted, she insisted on performing for French soldiers on the frontlines during World War I and in 1916 toured the United States for the last time, performing with a wooden leg.

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Prehistoric standing stones in western France destroyed during construction of DIY store

Thirty nine ancient standing stones at the Neolithic site of Carnac, in north-west France, have been destroyed during the construction of a Mr Bricolage DIY store, it has been revealed.

Prehistoric standing stones in western France destroyed during construction of DIY store

The huge site of Carnac, in Brittany, contains thousands of ancient standing stones, spread over 27 communes – it is one of the most import prehistoric sites in Europe. 

The “menhirs” – single standing stones – are part of one largest collections in the world – you may recognise them as the giant rocks carried by Obelix, in the classic “Asterix & Obelix” French comic series.

 Believed to have been erected during the Neolithic period, some stones are thousands of years old, having been placed there as early as 4,000 BC.

But there are now fewer stones than previously, after it was revealed that 39 of them have been destroyed during the construction of a new DIY store at the edge of the heritage area.

According to regional newspaper, Ouest-France, the DIY chain Mr Bricolage had been given a building permit to build a new store in the area, issued by the local town hall in August 2022. Construction is now underway.

The stones in question are in the town of Montaubin, not at the primary tourist locations of Ménec and Kermario – located a little over 1.5km away.

Nevertheless, historical associations and nearby residents, like Christian Obeltz, a researcher who runs the a “Sites & Monuments” website, have been incredulous about how building permission could have been given to a place listed as a heritage site to be preserved. 

The issue appears to be that certain stones were missed off recently updated planning maps, and the builders say they had no idea that the site was part of the heritage area.

According to Ouest France, in 2014, an archeological survey was carried out, which led to another planning permission being rejected, as work on the site could have affected “elements of archeological heritage”.

But Stéphane Doriel, who will be running the building operation, told Ouest France that they had not been warned by any government body or document about the presence of the menhirs.

“I’m not an archaeologist, I don’t know menhirs; low walls exist everywhere. If we’d known that, we’d obviously have done things differently”, Doriel told Ouest France. Doriel claimed that the previous permit was refused due to a wetland issue, not the stones. 

As seen in the image below, the area is surrounded by quite a lot of vegetation.

The town’s mayor, Olivier Lepick, also said he was unaware the site had been listed on the Heritage Atlas, even though he is reportedly the president of the group that applied for UNESCO status for the pre-historic sites. Lepick told Ouest France that effort had been made to comply with zoning rules and that there must have been an error with the updating of zoning plans, as the discoveries of new stones occurred in 2015. 

In France, zoning plans, or PLU, are quite strict about what can be built where, but there was a change to this process in December 2020. The PLU replaced its precursor, ‘Plan d’occupation des sols’ (POS), which was previous the urban zoning document used across France. 

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According to Lepick, the stones had been properly listed with the previous document, not the new one, and this is to blame for why planning permission had been awarded.

But Obeltz has another theory – he told Ouest France that “elected officials in the area and the département are in a hurry to build up anything [around the archeological area] because once it is classified with UNESCO, it won’t be possible anymore”. 

Obeltz is referring to the fact that in September 2023, there will be an application submitted to register the 397 megalithic sites, spread over 27 communes near Carnac, as a Unesco World Heritage site. If approved, building in the area will become more strictly regulated than it already is.

Visiting the Carnac stones

Most of the time, when tourists visit the stones they go to two sites: Ménec and Kermario, which extend around 6km. 

There are many theories and legends that have permeated Breton history as to why the stones were aligned in the order that they were placed in. One local legend says that they are the remains of a Roman army that was turned into rock. 

You can see a video overview of the site by Carnac’s tourism office below:

You can visit the stones for free from October to March, but between April and September, you must go via paid tour guide. With several hiking trails around the site, there are plenty of paths to explore. Tours are also available in English, German and Spanish.

There is also a nearby museum about the site called the “Maison des Megaliths“, which is open and accessible year round. You can find more information about planning your trip to see the stones here.