When Sarah Bernhardt had herself photographed at 35 in her coffin, she was already well on her way to becoming the best-known person of her era. By the time the legendary French actress truly died more than four decades later, she had performed on stages all over the world, including four "farewell" tours of America, made eight films and endorsed face cream, cars and Bronx real estate. Incomparably famous for the 60 years she was on stage and screen, she saw life as one long photo op and enthusiastically pioneered the cult of celebrity.
Bernhardt was born in 1844, the daughter and niece of courtesans. Her illegitimate son Maurice was said to have been fathered by the Belgian Prince De Ligne. Among her infamous possessions were not just her coffin but a human skull inscribed by Victor Hugo, as well as a rug made of a bear she may or may not have shot in the Andes. During the Franco-Prussian War, she turned her Odeon Theatre in Paris into a makeshift hospital for wounded soldiers.
She was no less distinctive onstage. In their 1991 book, "The Divine Sarah," biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale note, among other things, that she was the only actress in history "to triumph as both Ophelia and Hamlet." She traveled the U.S. in her own train, "Le Sarah Bernhardt," and her vaudeville tours landed her on programs with the likes of W.C. Fields and Jack Benny. The amputation of her right leg in 1915 hardly slowed her down, and when she died in 1923, she was still performing and, in fact, working on her eighth film, "La Voyante" (The Fortune-Teller).