The First Actress

A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt



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May 26, 2020 | ISBN 9780593210857

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About the Book

“This novel about Sarah Bernhardt, the iconic French actress, is both a riveting portrait of the artist as a passionate young woman and a luscious historical novel full of period detail.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of Mistress of the Ritz and The Aviator’s Wife

From her beginnings as the daughter of a courtesan to her extraordinary transformation into the most celebrated actress of her era, Sarah Bernhardt is brought to life by an internationally bestselling author praised for his historical novels featuring famous women.

Sarah’s highly dramatic life starts when she returns to Paris after her convent schooling and is confronted by her mother’s demand to follow in the family trade as a courtesan. To escape this fate, Sarah pursues a career onstage at the esteemed Comédie-Française, until her rebellious acting style leads to her scandalous dismissal. Only nineteen years old and unemployed, Sarah is forced to submit to her mother’s wishes. But her seductive ease as a courtesan comes to an abrupt end when she discovers she is pregnant. Unwilling to give up her child, Sarah defies social condemnation and is cast adrift, penniless and alone. 

With her striking beauty and innovative performances in a bohemian theater, Sarah catapults to unexpected success; suddenly, audiences clamor to see this controversial young actress. But her world is torn asunder by the brutal 1870 siege of Paris. Sarah refuses to abandon the ravaged city, nursing wounded soldiers and risking her life.

Her return to the Comédie and her tempestuous affair with her leading man plunge Sarah into a fierce quest for independence. Undeterred, she risks everything to become France’s most acclaimed actress, enthralling audiences with her shocking portrayals of female and male characters. Sarah’s daring talent and outrageous London engagement pave her path to worldwide celebrity, with sold-out tours in Europe and America. 

Told in her own voice, this is Sarah Bernhardt’s incandescent story—a fascinating, intimate account of a woman whose unrivaled talent and indomitable spirit has enshrined her in history as the Divine Sarah.
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Praise for The First Actress

“Sarah Bernhardt was a woman of fearless strength and awe-inspiring talent, both a living icon in her day and an unapologetic iconoclast. In his beautiful The First Actress, C. W. Gortner gives readers an intimate and rich portrait of Bernhardt’s stunning career and tumultuous personal life. The Divine Sarah was a singular leading lady ahead of her time, winning devotees and breaking rules in order to demand more for artists and for women.”—Allison Pataki, New York Times bestselling author of The Queen’s Fortune
“C. W. Gortner has made his mark illuminating the private lives and untold stories of the world’s greatest women. In The First Actress, he turns his talent to Sarah Bernhardt, the daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan who would rise over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to become an icon of stage and screen. Readers will revel in the gloriously heady mix of love and war, and art and society. Combining immaculate research with scintillating prose and an unforgettable cast of larger-than-life characters, The First Actress stands tall among Gortner’s remarkable body of work.”—Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris

“Gortner’s fluid first-person prose paints a vivid portrait in an immersive, hard-to-put-down drama. . . . Highly recommended.”Historical Novels Review (Editor’s Choice)
“A literal drama queen, the historical Bernhardt provides a great wealth of material—sleeping in a coffin, keeping pumas as pets, the circles in which she moved with the likes of Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde—for the creation of a colorful melodrama, equal parts flamboyancy and pathos. Since Bernhardt loved to extravagantly mythologize her own story, she would doubtless delight in Gortner’s first-person fictionalization of her extraordinary life.”Booklist
“A compelling portrait that will certainly whet readers’ appetites to learn more about this charismatic figure . . . 
recommended for fans of Melanie Benjamin and Allison Pataki.”Library Journal
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The First Actress

If great talent can rise from adversity, mine must have been forged in the cauldron of my childhood.

I was eight years old. The colors of my world were verdant and gray: windswept woodlands and mounds of ancient stones, washed by sea-lashed gusts across Brittany’s fields; the sounds were the clangor of sheep bells as herds were led to pasture and the clucking of chickens in coops by the straw-thatched cottage with its vine-trellised terrace, where I lived. A rustic world marked by the rise and fall of the sun, by dawn-to-dusk chores and sodden gauze dampening fresh goat cheese; the warmth of crusty bread, fresh from the oven; and the sting of wild green onions, crushed under my bare feet.

Until the day my mother returned.

“Sarah? Sarah, where are you?”

Her querulous voice reached me from across the vegetable garden. I was perched on the bough of the old fig tree, among abandoned squirrel nests. My dog, Pitou, lolled at the base of the tree, panting in the summer heat, but the woman calling for me didn’t seem to notice him, though to anyone else who knew me, he would have betrayed my whereabouts, as he was my loyal shadow.

Peering toward the terrace, I saw her like a distant figure in a painting, her white-gloved hand at her brow and her voice edged with impatience as she called out again.

“Sarah, where are you hiding? I haven’t this entire day to waste. Come out this instant.”

I knew who she was, though so much time had passed, I shouldn’t have. When I first saw her carriage pull up to the house, a rush of anger overcame me, sending me racing out the back gate to this tree, my secret place. The last time she’d visited was over three years past. Like now, she’d arrived unannounced, bearing chocolate bonbons and trinkets—a small, plump stranger with limpid blue eyes, in fancy ruffled skirts and a bonnet as wide as a platter, festooned with silk flowers. She’d stayed only long enough to sniff the air and issue her directives before disappearing again, back to wherever she came from. Seeing her again, after all this time, roused more than just anger in me; I didn’t want to acknowledge her, even if her reappearance gave me a stab of comfort that she’d not forgotten me.

Pitou clambered to his feet, wagging his tail. The woman’s irate calling of my name had alerted him. Fearing he’d give me away, I motioned at him to sit. As he dropped forlornly back onto his haunches, I looked again toward the house 

Nana Hubert emerged from the adjoining kitchen, wiping her doughy hands on her apron. As I saw my mother turn to her in consternation, Nana pointed directly at the tree and bellowed in her coarse Breton: “Milk Blossom! Come here and greet your mother.”

Exasperated, I slid from the branch, catching the edge of my dress on a twig. It ripped. Thinking about how Nana would have to mend it later and chide me as she invariably did, citing her time-worn litany that dresses didn’t grow like leaves on the trees I climbed, I padded unhappily to the terrace, Pitou at my heels.

As I approached, my mother scrutinized me.

Nana scowled. She wasn’t unkind; she loved me as well as she could, when she had the time, but time was something she sorely lacked, with her husband in his grave and all the goats and chickens and vegetables to tend. Yet only this morning, she’d given me a blue ribbon for my hair—“Blue looks so pretty with your white skin and red curls,” she said with one of her rare gap-toothed smiles—and as I now belatedly searched for it, I found the ribbon dangling from my disheveled braid. At least I hadn’t left it on the tree with my clogs.

Meeting my mother’s regard, I felt as soiled as my feet. She was . . . pristine. Immaculate. Like the statue of the Virgin in the town church, with the same marble pallor. I almost expected to see a single translucent tear on her cheek, like a drop of frozen sap.

“Well?” said Nana. “What do we say to Mademoiselle Bernhardt?”

I muttered, “Good day, mademoiselle.”

My mother smiled. Or did she? It was hard to tell. Her pink lips, so bud-like they resembled an unfurled rose, twitched but didn’t show any teeth. Still, I suspected her teeth must be as perfect as the rest of her, not like Nana’s, who was forever complaining about her rotten molars and how even biting into a chunk of bread hurt.

“She doesn’t recognize me.” My mother’s smooth forehead puckered. “And she’s so thin. Has she been ill?”

Nana harrumphed. “She’s not been sick a day in her life. You gave her over to me to suckle, Mademoiselle Bernhardt. And suckle she did. Like a starving runt. I’ve done as you asked. Nothing more, nothing less. She’s thin, yes, but she eats more than a mule.”

“And apparently bathes almost as often,” replied my mother.

Nana shrugged. “Children get dirty. Why waste water? She takes a bath once a week.”

“I see.” My mother regarded me as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do. “Does she speak any French?”

“When she has a mind to. We’ve not much occasion to use it here, as you can see. Cows don’t care if you milk them in French or Breton.” With a grimace, Nana said to me, “Say something to your mother in French.”

I didn’t want to say anything to her, in French or otherwise. Why should I indulge this woman’s peevish requests, when in less than an hour, she’d be on her way back to wherever she’d come from? But Nana gave me a stern nod and I found myself muttering, “Pitou est ma chien.”

“See?” Nana planted her hands on her wide hips. “She’s not stupid. Just stubborn. Girls like her need a firm hand.”

She’d started to trudge back into the house when my mother said, “It’s mon chien.” She let out a sigh. “Perhaps this isn’t the right time. I’m so occupied these days. . . . I can offer you more to keep her for another year—”

Nana came to a halt, glaring over her shoulder with a determination I knew all too well. “It is the right time for me. I’m getting old. I must sell this house and move into town with my son. You will take her today, as we agreed. Her bag is already packed.”

I stood frozen, my hand on Pitou’s ragged ears, hearing Nana’s words but not believing my own ears. After all this time, my mother had returned to take me away? Before I could stop myself, I burst out, “I can’t leave! What about my Pitou?”

My dog whimpered. My mother turned her blue eyes to me. I saw coldness surface in her gaze. “Your Pitou? Do you think I should take you and your cur with me to Paris?”


My heart started to pound. “But I . . . I can’t just leave him,” I said, even as my mother turned back to Nana. A pained look crossed my nursemaid’s face as my mother spoke to her in a low voice. Nana shook her head. “No,” I heard her say. “It’s impossible. My son’s house has no room for her. His wife is expecting a child, and I must attend to her. Either you take her with you today or off to the orphanage she goes. She’s not my responsibility anymore.”

Sudden tears scalded my eyes. Just as I felt a wail hurtling up my throat, Nana looked past my mother and said quietly to me, “Milk Blossom, you must go live with your maman now. I’ll see that Pitou finds a home, don’t you fret. Now, wash up and fetch your bag. Mademoiselle Bernhardt is waiting and it’s a long journey to Paris.”

I couldn’t move. This was my home, this cottage with its narrow smoke-stained rooms, thick with the smell of pottage and garlic, with my Nana and my Pitou. I didn’t want to go to Paris and live with this overdressed stranger. I didn’t know her at all.

“No,” I said loudly, and as Nana’s face darkened, I added, “I will not.”

Nana jabbed her hand at me. “Shall I fetch the switch?”

The thin hawthorn strip that could raise welts on my thighs—it was one of the few things I feared. Nana had used it only once, when I forgot to mind the fences and went tromping with Pitou over her coriander. Afterwards, I couldn’t sit down for a week.

“Go now,” Nana ordered. “Wash up and fetch your things.”

My mother stepped aside as I barreled past her into the house with Pitou. In my small room with its cot and sagging bureau, I found a cloth satchel stuffed with my few clothes and long-neglected cloth doll. Nana had set out my one nice dress on the cot. I only wore it on Sundays when we attended mass in town. I went still, staring at it. I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t leave my Pitou. I would run away, take my bag and him—

Nana’s sharp whistle from the terrace sent Pitou bounding back outside. As I cried out and dashed after him, I found my mother in the doorway, blocking my escape.

“Never mind washing up,” she said. “I cannot abide it here another instant.”

“Maman, please.” I struggled against a surge of panic. “Pitou. I can’t leave him here if Nana sells the house and—”

She lifted her hand, silencing me. “You will do as you are told."

About the Author

C. W. Gortner
C. W. Gortner holds an MFA in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California. He is the internationally acclaimed and bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel, The Queen’s Vow, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, The Last Queen, The Vatican Princess, and Marlene, among other books. He divides his time between Northern California and Antigua, Guatemala. To learn more about his work and to schedule a book group chat with him, please visit his website. More by C. W. Gortner
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