The 19th Century Queen of Celebrity Culture

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The 19th Century Queen of Celebrity Culture

To hear tell of Instagram influencers, you’d think the art of attracting—and more importantly, holding—public attention were something new. But there isn’t a trick in the book that famed 19th-century actor Sarah Bernhardt couldn’t have taught any YouTuber out there.

In her new book, The Drama of Celebrity, Columbia University English professor Sharon Marcus takes a new look at a defining concept of our time. She explains it as fundamentally a kind of meta-theater: “Celebrity is this alchemy of interactions between publics, media, and the stars themselves, and you can’t really predict who’s going to be a star, who’s going to stay a star—and that itself I came to realize is part of why we’re interested in celebrities,” Marcus explained to me. “We’re not just interested in celebrities because we like knowing about who’s divorcing whom and whether someone got rid of her baby bump quickly. We’re also interested in how our own interest is going to pan out.”

“There’s an unpredictable gaming element to it, and we’re one of the players, but we’re not the only player,” she added. That’s what makes it compelling, of course.

Celebrity is also much older than the Hollywood studio system that looms so large in our understanding of the concept, Marcus reminds her reader; “The decline of the film studios in the 1960s, the breakdown of broadcast television that began in the 1980s, and the rise of the Internet since the 1990s have returned celebrity culture to its more anarchic 19th-century roots.” That makes Bernhardt, one of the most famous women of her age, a fascinating case study. For her book, Marcus combed through French newspapers, unflattering caricatures, and crumbling scrapbooks from the fans of the era—fandom isn’t new under the sun, either—to look at the ways that Bernhardt appealed to her audiences, the way her audiences responded, and where the nascent mass media fit in.

I spoke to Marcus about her work; Instagrammers faking their luxury vacations have absolutely nothing on Sarah Bernhardt posing for pictures sleeping in her coffin.

JEZEBEL: What makes Sarah Bernhardt such a good case study for how celebrity works?

SHARON MARCUS: She had an incredibly long career, so by studying her, I was able to trace celebrity culture from the 1860s to the 1920s. She was born in 1844 and starts acting very young; she dies in 1923 and is working almost until she dies.

She coincided with crucial media innovations that helped modern celebrity culture take off, like a cheap daily newspaper culture where many, many people are reading. Starting in the 1830s, newspapers are doing a volume business and they need to please people. As a result, they start covering a lot more crime, scandal, and celebrity. She also coincides with the invention of photography and with photographs becoming cheap and easily available. She coincides with the invention of the phonograph, the sound recording, and her voice was prized. She coincides with the rise of the telegraph cable, where news could travel around the world more quickly, so she becomes a global star because it was literally the case that she could get married in 1882 in England and the news would have traveled to Tennessee and Brazil within a week. A week may seem slow to us, but before that, news like that would take so long it wasn’t really news.

She not only was herself a celebrity figure who was known for her acting talents and for her distinctive looks, but she was also one of the first people to deliberately give out news of her private life, because she understood how celebrity culture worked. The reason that she became such an important figure for the history of celebrity was that she was both an object and an agent of celebrity culture. She understood that she needed to have her photograph taken and think cannily about what her photographs looked like in order to become a star. She understood she needed to engage with the press about how they covered her if she was going to maintain her celebrity. She would let herself be caricatured, because I think she instinctively understood that negative was as important as positive publicity. She befriended many newspaper editors so she always had access to at least a few papers that would give a positive spin to any controversies she was in.


When she didn’t like how she was covered, she would take advantage of press laws that would allow people to challenge inaccurate coverage by sending a letter to the editor and demanding that it be published. And in those letters, what she frequently did was not only challenge the facts that were inaccurate, but directly addressed the public. She would say it’s up to the public to decide how they feel, and she was an actor who appeared live before the public every night. She knew how to connect with the public and elicit their interest and also cater to the public’s sense of power. As soon as the public is told, it’s up to you to decide, they immediately feel more positively to the person who’s saying, well, you decide.

She also understood that it’s important to court controversy and not just be bland and well-behaved. She was never afraid to advertise the ways that she was unconventional. She, for example, had a child without being married. Most actresses who did that tried to keep it very much on the down-low and hush it up. Sarah Bernhardt brought her son with her on tour when she went to England and would have herself announced at parties as “Miss Bernhardt” to underscore that she wasn’t married. There were quite a few clergymen in the United States, when she first toured in 1880 and in 1881, who would give sermons denouncing her. She was never afraid to be unconventional and she was defiant and courted controversy, was instead of saying something like, well, who among us has not sinned? I’m not perfect, she doubled down and said, well, I’m sure if a clergyman had been the father of my child, the baby would have been strangled at birth.

What’s so interesting is I found that quote in a newspaper article where some ordinary member of the public wrote to a newspaper that had said something critical of Sarah Bernhardt and said, you know, she seems very able to stand up for herself, look at what she said about this clergyman. She knew how to say things that would circulate. You could say she understood the art of the meme well before “meme” was a term in circulation. Rather than back down from controversy, she would often go on the attack but also assert a different set of values. What she was saying was: look, clergymen are hypocritical. Lots of people have sex. Lots of people have sex outside of marriage. And I’m not going to be ashamed about it and I’m not going to hide it and I’m not going to let a clergyman shame me, especially when clergymen themselves are so guilty of fathering illegitimate children.

I think my favorite thing about her letters to the editor is that they remind me so much of how celebrities will do something and then release a comment on Instagram via the notes app.

Right! I think she also understood that the newspapers are feeding off of her, that by publishing controversial stories about her, they were selling papers, they were increasing their audience because people have always liked reading news about celebrities. I’ve found many comments from 19th-century newspaper editors saying, well, you have to give the people what they want, and people are interested in people that they’ve heard of. She was hijacking the newspaper. Unlike Instagram, where you have your own account and you can post things on your own account, a newspaper is really monopolized by a very small number of people. I can’t just get a letter in the New York Times. But she was really canny, because she got herself into the very exclusive, limited pages of the newspaper, and she understood the law. It’s important to note that in France, freedom of the press was much more limited than it was in the United States and in England, and one of the ways it was limited was that when the press criticized individuals, those individuals had a right to reply, and Sarah Bernhardt availed herself of that right to reply whenever she could.

She was hijacking the newspaper.

You mentioned Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton as two big celebrity figures that are top of mind for people. In the book, you talk a lot about the very specific criticism of Bernhardt’s body. That’s a through-line from the beginning of celebrity culture all the way through up to the current moment—the intense investment in criticism of women celebrities’ bodies specifically. What’s going on there?

I don’t think that’s a story about celebrity, I think that’s a story about gender and the way women are identified with our bodies and our bodies are not really our own. Our bodies are colonized by whatever at any given moment the culture—in the 19th century very much driven by men—thinks they should look like. What was so fascinating doing this research was seeing how hostile the 1870s journalists, almost all men, were to Sarah Bernhardt for being too thin. As someone living in the 21st century, it was just astonishing. I can’t remember a time when women weren’t supposed to be thin, especially women who demand to be looked at, which as an actress Sarah Bernhardt did. She wasn’t playing bit parts. She was playing romantic leads. She was playing women who are sexually desirable, and yet she didn’t have the body type that was considered sexually desirable. Male journalists were so angry at her and so cruel in their mockery of her.

What I love about her was that she didn’t care. Not only did she not care, once again she doubled down. She would wear tight dresses that showed how skinny she was instead of trying to pad herself to make herself look more plump. Some people think that she changed the style and that she made being thin more fashionable, but that’s actually completely inaccurate. It was really only in the 1920s that being thin became more desirable, and if anybody changed that it was probably Chanel, not Bernhardt. But Bernhardt was really tough and brave and demonstrated an indifference to what men thought of how she looked, which of course made them even more hostile. It was very clear to me in reading the coverage that even the theater critics who recognized that she was a good actress were still a little disturbed by the fact that she didn’t look like she was supposed to. Her face didn’t quite look like a typically beautiful woman, her body certainly didn’t.

Fast forward 150 years and there’s still relentless shaming of women for not adhering to one specific ideal type. Now, the type has changed. But what’s remained constant is the idea that if a woman is going to be in the public eye, she should be attractive in a one size fits all way and it’s whatever at that moment the culture says is the ideal type of female beauty.


It’s interesting how you’ll see somebody like Bernhardt, instead of gaining weight or whatever, instead of knuckling under to the rule, she engages with it—and it makes her more famous. She recognizes that if she’s going to be stuck with this, she can parlay it into more space in the newspapers. That’s interesting, that she uses what people throw at her in order to build up the image of Sarah Bernhardt.

Yes. I think she also parlayed her ability to travel into a greater freedom. Because it is noticeable that she was French, and that the French press was most hostile to her difference. And then, when she went to England, they still made jokes about her being skinny, but they were much more willing to accept her as a kind of unusual-looking beauty. I think it’s because she wasn’t English, and so they didn’t expect for her to look normal, anyway. She should look different and exotic, and they didn’t have this really developed idea of what a French woman should look like. If she’d been an Englishwoman who was being really defiant, unconventional, didn’t look look like other Englishwomen, I don’t think the English would have been as receptive. Similarly, in the United States, they were just tickled by this Frenchwoman who was so unusual-looking. She realized pretty early on that one way to get free of some of these constraints and also to pick up on your point to leverage eccentricity, to leverage abnormality, is to be an international figure because when you are a foreigner you’re expected to be unusual. You’re expected to push people’s buttons. You’re expected to be weird and to just not seem familiar.

And then the French press, at that point, she’s over in England, don’t they become more possessive of her in a way?

Absolutely. The French did not like that she was becoming so famous outside of France. They didn’t like that she was taking her energies and her talents outside of France. Initially, they feel betrayed that she left the French national theater. They feel betrayed that she’s becoming so popular among people that they don’t think are as good a judges of good acting as they are, and there’s a crest of bad press around Bernhardt when she returns from her international tours between 1880 and 1882. But then over time, by the 1890s and certainly by World War I, the French begin to realize that the people around the world know about France because they know about Sarah Bernhardt, and that she’s going around the world performing French plays exclusively in the French language and that she’s the greatest ambassador they have. They start to see her when she’s older as a revered symbol of the nation. But that takes a couple of decades to happen.

When you asked about why Sarah Bernhardt is so important for the history of celebrity and why she’s such a good through-line, I should say that she’s also one of the first celebrities to deliberately create a private persona for public consumption. There were celebrities whose private lives were exposed, but they were not so in control of the process. And like Byron, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they felt after they exposed themselves like they wished they hadn’t, or they wanted to be less well-known. There was too much scandal. What Bernhardt did was instead of exposing her real self in public, she created a persona that people would think was her real self that she displayed in public. The best example of that is when she had herself photographed sleeping in her bedroom in a coffin.

She might have been one of the first stars to have herself photographed in her bedroom, and she probably remains one of the only stars to have herself photographed asleep. There couldn’t be a better way of saying, look, you’re getting a glimpse of me that is extremely intimate. Who else would see me asleep… except the millions of people who can now see this photograph! There’s something obviously staged about the photograph—it’s not as though someone snuck into her bedroom and took a picture of her unawares. Even when asleep and prone in a coffin, she’s advertising that she’s in control.

She’s also one of the first celebrities to deliberately create a private persona for public consumption.

She was very deft at making her private self available for the public, which is one of the definitions of modern celebrity. There’s always been famous people, but the way in which we know who they are both offstage and onstage, that’s much more typical of modern celebrity.

I love the detail about the coffin because it reminds me so much of something like MTV Cribs where you know that a lot of times it’s a fake bedroom. This idea of like, here’s my very intimate personal space—actually I sleep down the hall but don’t worry about it—is such a common thing now.

Yes! Well, I mean, celebrities have to find ways to maintain a true private life or they’ll go crazy. It’s unbearable. Successful celebrities are the ones who channel their ability at acting and speaking and connecting with the public to create a persona that’s not completely fake, but it’s not their true inner self. They preserve that by creating this private persona for public consumption.

Nested identities!

Yes, and conversely, a celebrity who isn’t willing to share a version of their private self is not going to become a celebrity. Not in this day and age. We have come to demand that from celebrities. So you can have people who are very respected for what they do as actors, like Meryl Streep or Al Pacino, those are people who we’ve never learned a lot about their private lives, and as a result they are not people that we would first and foremost think of as celebrities. And I think that’s fine, that’s what they wanted and they’ve both been able to have amazing acting careers without having to turn themselves into celebrities.

It’s interesting how some people are drawn to the idea of being a celebrity and some people aren’t. There are people who just want to be an actor, and then people who also want to be an actor in this larger drama.

I think today it’s probably the case that if you’re willing to be a celebrity you will have more opportunity, because you’ll be better known, you’ll probably have more money, with that money you might be able to start a production company or start a foundation. In Sarah Bernhardt’s day, it was even more the case, especially for women, but also for men. I’m thinking specifically about actors, but this would have been true for any kind of celebrity. It would have been true for athletes, it would have been true for politicians, it would have been good for clergymen, for monarchs. If you became a celebrity and you were able to manage that meta-drama of celebrity well, you would be able to do things you couldn’t otherwise.

Because Bernhardt became a celebrity, she was able to have autonomy as an actor that she just would not have had if she had remained a respected actor, but not a public figure whose name alone could guarantee large numbers of ticket sales and sales of newspapers and sales of photographs. If she had not become a celebrity, she would have not been able to choose her own roles.

The irony is that people think celebrities are just pawns, when in fact it’s by becoming a celebrity that performers in particular stop being pawns. If you are not a famous performer, you just have to take whatever work you’re offered and do whatever you’re told and you don’t have a lot of freedom. If you become a celebrity, most performers who become celebrities have then decided on the direction their careers will take, they often are then able to become producers, who can select other actors, they can have roles written for them, and as we’ve seen much more in the 20th and 21st centuries, they can also decide to become social influencers, for better and for worse.

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