Sarah Bernhardt (c. 22/23 October 1844 – 26 March 1923) was a French stage and early film actress, and has been referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known". Bernhardt made her fame on the stages of France in the 1870s, and was soon in demand in Europe and the Americas. She developed a reputation as a serious dramatic actress, earning the nickname "The Divine Sarah."
Bernhardt was born in Paris as Rosine Bernardt, the daughter of Julie Bernardt (1821, Amsterdam – 1876, Paris) and an unknown father. Julie was one of six children of a itinerant Jewish spectacle merchant, "vision specialist" and petty criminal, Moritz Baruch Bernardt, and Sara Hirsch (later known as Janetta Hartog; c. 1797–1829). Five weeks after his first wife's death in 1829, Julie's father remarried Sara Kinsbergen (1809–1878). He had abandoned his five daughters and one son with their stepmother by 1835. Julie together with her younger sister Rosine, left for Paris, where she made a living as a courtesan and was known by the name "Youle". Julie had five daughters, including a twin who died in infancy in 1843. Sarah Bernhardt changed her first name and added an "h" to her surname. Her birth records were lost in a fire in 1871. In order to prove French citizenship, necessary for Légion d'honneur eligibility, she created false birth records, in which she was the daughter of "Judith van Hard" and "Édouard Bernardt" from Le Havre, in later stories either a law student, accountant, naval cadet or naval officer.
When Sarah was young her mother sent her to Grandchamp, an Augustine convent school near Versailles. In 1860 she began attending the Conservatoire de Musique at Déclamation in Paris and eventually became a student at the Comédie Française where she would have her acting debut (August 11, 1862) in the title role of Racine's Iphigénie to lackluster reviews. Her time there was short lived, she was asked to resign after slapping another actress across the face for shoving her younger sister during a birthday celebration for Molière.
Much of the uncertainty about Bernhardt's life arises because of her tendency to exaggerate and distort. Alexandre Dumas, fils, described her as a notorious liar.