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A photo-illustration of Sarah Bernhardt surrounded by reporters. Christina Animashaun/Vox

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The first modern celebrity was born 175 years ago

How Sarah Bernhardt mastered her craft, dominated the media, and wrote the playbook for the famous people who came after her.

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Priests gave sermons denouncing her. Monarchs gave her jewelry. Stalkers threatened to throw acid on her while she performed. Men ended up in asylums, convinced she had promised to marry them. Fans serenaded her under hotel windows, made shrines to her in their tiny lodgings, and held vigils outside her Paris apartment while she lay dying. The press reported on her every move: her weight, her earnings, her pets, her hobbies. When she didn’t like what they wrote, she sued them or demanded that editors publish letters presenting her side of the story.

She was Sarah Bernhardt, born in Paris in 1844, as well-known in her lifetime as Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, or Lady Gaga in theirs. Today it may seem inconceivable that a stage actor could attain this level of fame, but in the 19th century — before film, before radio, before the internet — theater was the only game in town. Rich and poor alike attended live performances several times a week. London, New York, and Paris drew up to 18 million theatergoers a year. Small towns had theaters too, and the biggest stars traveled to them; one of Bernhardt’s many US tours included a stop in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Today, an Italian rapper can have 3 million Twitter followers and still be someone most people have never heard of. Sarah Bernhardt, by contrast, was a household name around the world, even among those who never actually saw her perform. Tens of millions of people read about her in the cheap newspapers published in morning and evening editions to keep up with information flowing rapidly through newly installed telegraph cables. Even more saw her photographs reproduced in magazines and displayed in shop windows. Anyone who wanted their own image of her could order several cheaply through the mail.

Sarah Bernhardt poses next to a bust of herself sculpted by Mathieu-Meusnier in 1869.
Melandri/Getty Images

Because almost everyone had read about Bernhardt or seen a picture of her, thousands of people flocked to see her when she came to town. And she came to almost every town, using new forms of transportation born, like she was, in the middle of the 19th century. Steamships took her to Australia and the Americas for tours that often lasted a year; railways took her to dozens of towns in each country she visited. In her 60s and 70s, Bernhardt performed in arenas, music halls, and circus tents, drawing the same kinds of loyal fans that aging rockers like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen do today. When she died in 1923, the news made headlines around the world, generating enough obituaries and tributes to fill oversize scrapbooks, the analog precursors of today’s Tumblr sites.

Today, Bernhardt is no longer a household name. But after spending a decade researching how media, stars, and the public have interacted over the past 200 years, I have come to see her as the godmother of modern celebrity. Famous people have always existed, but Bernhardt made celebrity modern by understanding that stars exercise power in relation to equally powerful publics and media.

Bernhardt became a superstar by flaunting her agency — her intelligence, her ambition, her artistic vision, her independence — and by using that agency to cow journalists and wow the public. When Muhammad Ali told journalists to eat their words after winning a bout they thought he would lose; when Marilyn Monroe defeated a studio head by making headlines performing for 100,000 US troops; when Rihanna sent Snapchat stock prices diving with a single Instagram story — they were all, likely without knowing it, following a playbook Bernhardt invented.

Offstage and on, Bernhardt demonstrated the star’s power over herself, over her audiences, over the media, and over a society whose norms she openly defied.

A forceful — and memorable — onstage presence

In interviews and autobiographies, Bernhardt presented herself as combative and strong-willed, declaring, “My life has been a struggle — a struggle to have my own way where I felt I was in the right.” Journalists compared her to Napoleon and President Ulysses S. Grant. Like those male leaders, she possessed a solid sense of self and an open determination to have her own way.

From a young age, Bernhardt sought artistic independence. After a lucrative tour of the United States and Canada, she returned to France in 1881 wealthy enough to become her own boss. For the rest of her life, she leased her own theaters, hired all her fellow actors, and chose her own roles, often commissioning plays written expressly for her, in which she incarnated women as imperious as she was: Theodora, Cleopatra, Tosca.

Never content to play only to type, Bernhardt challenged herself well into old age. She played Hamlet in 1900, when she was close to 60. After an onstage injury led to a leg amputation in 1915, Bernhardt made a point of proving that it would not slow her down. When a New York theater manager wrote asking if he could put her leg on display, she wryly asked, “Which one?” While still a recent amputee, Bernhardt performed at the front for the French troops fighting in World War I and tackled a new role as a woman who kills her unfaithful lover, then herself, with what some critics described as a hatpin, others as a needle — all while reclining on a couch, clad in a kimono.

Bernhardt’s power over herself gave her power over theatergoers. Theater connoisseurs praised the superlative control the actor exercised over her face, voice, and body. In seconds, she could shift her features from sorrow to wonder to rage. At will, she could modulate the speed, force, and pitch of her distinctive voice, which some described as silver, others as golden. She became known for acting with her entire body, which she twisted, torqued, and spiraled in all directions.

Bernhardt as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Bernhardt’s ability to manage her own physical instrument mesmerized spectators. Reviewers described her as convulsing audiences, administering jolts, chills, even electric shocks. One woman, after seeing Bernhardt perform, wrote in her diary, “I did not know what beauty of movement was till I saw Sarah, it is overwhelming, bewildering.”

To be sure, Bernhardt had her naysayers. Playwright and theater critic George Bernard Shaw, who prided himself on being a contrarian, found her too showy. But even Bernhardt’s detractors agreed that audiences loved surrendering to her forceful presence, and Bernhardt was happy to present herself as dominating them. Asked how she handled unsympathetic theatergoers, she replied, “It is then a battle between me and them, and I always win.”

Dominating the media, from newspapers to silent films

Like many of the later stars who followed in her path, Bernhardt leveraged new platforms and technologies. From the 1860s on, she was a mainstay of the cutting-edge media of her day: the mass press. She paid close attention to her coverage and seized occasions to talk back to journalists. In 1878, she responded to a newspaper’s speculations about her true hair color by commenting, “I regret that I cannot prove that I am a natural blonde.” When she didn’t like how articles presented her, she dashed off testy letters and telegrams telling her side of the story. If editors didn’t print them, she threatened to sue.

Most editors were happy to accommodate Bernhardt even without the threat of a court case. To stay solvent, commercial newspapers and magazines had to give the people what they wanted, and the people wanted Bernhardt. Stories about the star guaranteed sales. When she took a short trip over Paris in a hot air balloon, the press wrote about it for days. When she refused to join a Prussian diplomat in a toast that she felt insulted France, journalists throughout Europe made hay of the incident for weeks. And when the 38-year-old star married a 27-year-old man in 1882, the news traveled almost instantly from London to Rio de Janeiro to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Bernhardt’s embrace of new media was not limited to print. In the 1860s, just as a newfangled method of producing likenesses began to gain popularity, the young Bernhardt sat for her first photograph. In the 1870s, she had herself captured on camera in her bedroom, sleeping in a coffin. For decades after, she made sure to call on leading photographers in every major city she visited. In 1881, she trekked to New Jersey to have inventor Thomas Edison record her voice on one of his early phonograph machines. In the early 20th century, she embraced yet another new medium by making dozens of silent films.

Bernhardt had herself photographed resting in a coffin.
Ullstein bild/Getty Images

Throughout her life, Bernhardt ignored 19th-century conventions that idealized women who were deferential, passive, and chaste. She challenged older colleagues, theater directors, and playwrights, and had a child without being married. Other female actors tried to downplay their children’s illegitimacy; Bernhardt asserted her status as a single mother. She gave her son her last name, took him on tour with her, and demanded to be announced as “Miss Bernhardt” when she brought him to parties. Her marriage presented a rare chance to adhere to convention, but she quickly defied that expectation by announcing that she and her new husband would live in separate but adjoining homes so that she could maintain her independence.

Smashing expectations for how women were supposed to look

Bernhardt’s fans loved her feistiness, embracing the star for behavior few would have accepted in a sister, wife, or daughter. When a US minister denounced Bernhardt for having a child out of wedlock, she shot back, “Had my child been a clergyman’s probably he would have been strangled at birth.” An 1880 letter to the editor about the incident noted, with some satisfaction, “It is quite evident that Sarah Bernhardt is able to take care of herself.”

Bernhardt asserted her power over beauty standards by presenting herself as glamorous and sexy even though she was not conventionally attractive. After being criticized, like Barbra Streisand a century later, for having a prominent nose, Bernhardt chose to have painters depict her in profile. She refused to straighten her unfashionably frizzy hair. And she made a show of having a body type rare among performers of the day: She was noticeably slender in an era when thin was decidedly not in.

At a time when men demanded that female performers be curvy and voluptuous, a thin woman parading herself onstage was an affront. Cartoonists mockingly portrayed Bernhardt as a broomstick. Columnists joked that she was too small-breasted to need to get anything off her chest. Her response: to play up her unusual body type by wearing tight dresses that accentuated her skinniness.

No mere product of modern celebrity culture, Sarah Bernhardt also helped produce it. She made celebrity modern by embracing its outsize agency. John Lennon may not have been able to identify Bernhardt in a lineup, but when he declared the Beatles bigger than Jesus, he was reproducing the bold defiance and gleeful appetite for fame that she first made popular. Her spiritual progeny include Madonna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Cardi B, and any celebrity with the audacity to flaunt their consummate ability to influence the media and charm the public.

The actress lounging in her saloon.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. A founding editor of Public Books, she is the author of The Drama of Celebrity (2019), available as a hardcover, e-book, and audiobook from Princeton University Press.

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