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The tumultuous life of the legendary French star Sarah Bernhardt--the world's first modern actress and international celebrity--dazzles in this stunning novel for readers of Love and Ruin and Mistress of the Ritz. From her beginnings as the daughter of a high-class courtesan to her extraordinary transformation into the most celebrated actress of her era, Sarah Bernhardt is The tumultuous life of the legendary French star Sarah Bernhardt--the world's first modern actress and international celebrity--dazzles in this stunning novel for readers of Love and Ruin and Mistress of the Ritz. From her beginnings as the daughter of a high-class 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. Her highly dramatic professional life begins when Sarah's mother pulls her out of convent school to set Sarah up in her own trade as a sexual companion to a rich elderly gentleman. Despite her desire to pursue a career in stage acting, her mother cuts her off and Sarah has no choice but to comply. Pregnant and unmarried at sixteen, she is expected to give up her baby to the nuns, but she refuses to let him go. A natural talent and darkly beautiful, Sarah gets a few theatrical roles, thanks to her bold, innovative acting style that attracts both admiration and scorn. Audiences want to see this controversial young actress, and amazingly, she is hired by the famed Comédie Française--only to have her life torn asunder in the savagery of the 1870 Siege of Paris. Amidst the ruins of the city, Sarah nurses wounded soldiers while falling passionately in love with her leading man. Rising to the height of her fame as the toast of Paris, shocking audiences with her uninhibited acting style and portrayal of male characters, Sarah becomes world famous, touring America and Europe to sold-out crowds. Told in her own voice, this is Sarah Bernhardt's incandescent story--a fascinating, intimate account of a woman whose wholly original talent and indomitable spirit has enshrined her in history as the Divine Sarah.


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The tumultuous life of the legendary French star Sarah Bernhardt--the world's first modern actress and international celebrity--dazzles in this stunning novel for readers of Love and Ruin and Mistress of the Ritz. From her beginnings as the daughter of a high-class courtesan to her extraordinary transformation into the most celebrated actress of her era, Sarah Bernhardt is The tumultuous life of the legendary French star Sarah Bernhardt--the world's first modern actress and international celebrity--dazzles in this stunning novel for readers of Love and Ruin and Mistress of the Ritz. From her beginnings as the daughter of a high-class 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. Her highly dramatic professional life begins when Sarah's mother pulls her out of convent school to set Sarah up in her own trade as a sexual companion to a rich elderly gentleman. Despite her desire to pursue a career in stage acting, her mother cuts her off and Sarah has no choice but to comply. Pregnant and unmarried at sixteen, she is expected to give up her baby to the nuns, but she refuses to let him go. A natural talent and darkly beautiful, Sarah gets a few theatrical roles, thanks to her bold, innovative acting style that attracts both admiration and scorn. Audiences want to see this controversial young actress, and amazingly, she is hired by the famed Comédie Française--only to have her life torn asunder in the savagery of the 1870 Siege of Paris. Amidst the ruins of the city, Sarah nurses wounded soldiers while falling passionately in love with her leading man. Rising to the height of her fame as the toast of Paris, shocking audiences with her uninhibited acting style and portrayal of male characters, Sarah becomes world famous, touring America and Europe to sold-out crowds. Told in her own voice, this is Sarah Bernhardt's incandescent story--a fascinating, intimate account of a woman whose wholly original talent and indomitable spirit has enshrined her in history as the Divine Sarah.

30 review for The First Actress

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader

    Worthy of every star! Thank you, Random House, for the gifted ARC. I also purchased a finished copy for my favorites shelf. My friends who love historical fiction, this one’s for you. This book, The First Actress? It’s hist fic gold. I can’t tell you how emotional I felt when I finished this book. I was dreading the ending for a couple days, even when I was less than halfway through. I did not want to step out of Sarah’s world. C.W. Gortner is a gifted storyteller. You know how sometimes when you Worthy of every star! Thank you, Random House, for the gifted ARC. I also purchased a finished copy for my favorites shelf. My friends who love historical fiction, this one’s for you. This book, The First Actress? It’s hist fic gold. I can’t tell you how emotional I felt when I finished this book. I was dreading the ending for a couple days, even when I was less than halfway through. I did not want to step out of Sarah’s world. C.W. Gortner is a gifted storyteller. You know how sometimes when you read hist fic, there can be drier parts, or characters you like more, or sometimes you just feel the books are too long? I could have read 400 more pages about Sarah Bernhardt’s life if Gortner was telling the story. I absolutely loved Sarah Bernhardt. She was fighting for women before women’s activism had a name. She had a child out of wedlock and kept him, as taboo as it was at the time, and not only did she parent him, she adored him. She was quirky, passionate, loud, brash, and she LIVED. The daughter of a courtesan who entertained men in her salon, and sent away to be raised by a stranger and later to a convent for school, Sarah blazed her own trail and lit her own fire when nothing was going well around her. I don’t think I’ve done this book a bit of justice with my words, but I hope you know it gets my highest recommendation. I’ve read other books by C.W. Gortner and loved them but now I have to make sure I read them all. This type of storytelling is exactly why I treasure historical fiction. Many of my reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com and instagram: www.instagram.com/tarheelreader

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette (Again)

    Sarah Bernhardt. Quelle femme sauvage! I knew very little about her, and almost nothing about France during the era in which she lived. I was captivated by every page of this novel. Sarah lived a fascinating, unconventional life, cultivating friendships (and sometimes a little more) with famous men like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, and Prince Bertie of Wales. Gortner brings it all to life here---childhood, love, hate, war, death, intrigue, sex, and of course, theater. An exquisitel Sarah Bernhardt. Quelle femme sauvage! I knew very little about her, and almost nothing about France during the era in which she lived. I was captivated by every page of this novel. Sarah lived a fascinating, unconventional life, cultivating friendships (and sometimes a little more) with famous men like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, and Prince Bertie of Wales. Gortner brings it all to life here---childhood, love, hate, war, death, intrigue, sex, and of course, theater. An exquisitely enjoyable reading experience. I will post a more thorough review closer to the publication date in May. Thank you ever so much to Ballantine Books and Net Galley for allowing me to read an advance copy.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    Absolutely fantastic! Love her, or hate her, Sarah Bernhardt was definitely a woman before her time. Spoiled, defiant, and utterly unapologetic in her quest for fame she was her own worst enemy and not an easy character to like. However, something about her tenaciousness made it very difficult not to root for her. Gortner has done an amazing job of bringing her to brilliant 3-dimensional life. Highly recommend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Krista

    Rating: 5 dramatic stars I am a bit of a Historical Fiction junkie, and this author, C. W. Gortner, is one of my top go-to authors in this genre. Once again, he has written a book that was compelling and full of historical tidbits that I had no idea about before reading this book. This book is about the French stage actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). She scrapped her way to the premier actress slot in multiple acting companies by modernizing the way actors presented material to their audiences Rating: 5 dramatic stars I am a bit of a Historical Fiction junkie, and this author, C. W. Gortner, is one of my top go-to authors in this genre. Once again, he has written a book that was compelling and full of historical tidbits that I had no idea about before reading this book. This book is about the French stage actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). She scrapped her way to the premier actress slot in multiple acting companies by modernizing the way actors presented material to their audiences. This book encompasses most of Mademoiselle Bernhardt’s life. She certainly led an unconventional life. She followed her own path and fought to change how the moribund classical theater operated in France. She was the daughter of or a Parisian courtesan. She even was a courtesan herself for a time when she was young. Her son Maurice was a product of that time, and in defiance of her mother, she retained custody of Maurice and raised him as a single mother. One of the things that I learned about in the book was the Siege of Paris (1870-1871). The siege was part of the Franco-Prussian War. The siege by the Prussians decimated Paris and its population. Sarah was instrumental in converting the Odeon Theater (the theater she was starring at before the siege) into a hospital for soldiers wounded in the battles outside the city. This was a very grim time where food and heating shortages were very real. It sounded quite a bit like sieges of other cities, Leningrad for instance, during WWII. After the siege ended, Sarah continued to forge her own path in the world. She eventually started touring the world, and formed her own theater company. As the book’s Afterword explained, she was always on the cutting edge of technology and was involved in making sound recording, and films as both these forms of communication were emerging. She was a pioneer in so many ways. It is sometimes hard for me to give works of Historical Fiction a five-star rating. Great writing in this genre does not employ any whiz-bang plot twists, or fantastical visions. I think that those elements can drive up the ratings in other book genres. Good Historical Fiction has to work within the confines of history. It attempts to bring the subject to life within historical strictures. How well the author accomplishes that is the basis for my review ratings for Historical Fiction. Mr. Gortner nailed it! This was an engaging book in which I learned true historical facts about Sarah Bernhardt, and the era in which she lived. I would heartily recommend this for readers who enjoy Historical Fiction, and for readers who would like to learn more about Paris, and theaters in the mid to late 1800’s. ‘Thank-You’ to NetGalley; the publisher, Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine Books; and the author, C. W. Gortner, for providing a free e-ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Annette

    Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was a French stage actress and the world’s first modern actress and international celebrity. She did what she set out to do. She made a name for herself. After sold-out performances, she emerges as “a passionate revelation.” This story vividly explores her character. A ferocious woman with unparalleled determination. She is the epitome of what freedom means. She goes through her lows and highs, but she always remembers what fits her spirited character the most – freedo Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was a French stage actress and the world’s first modern actress and international celebrity. She did what she set out to do. She made a name for herself. After sold-out performances, she emerges as “a passionate revelation.” This story vividly explores her character. A ferocious woman with unparalleled determination. She is the epitome of what freedom means. She goes through her lows and highs, but she always remembers what fits her spirited character the most – freedom from any constrictions, freedom to be able to express her artistry the way she feels it. In 1853, Sarah’s mother is forced to bring her daughter back to Paris. She is a high-class courtesan. She is cold and has no interest in raising her daughter. Thus, her younger sister, aunt Rosine assumes charge of Sarah. Her education continues at convent, where to her surprise she finds unconditional love and befriends a girl of “uncertain provenance,” like her. There, at eleven years old, she is preparing for her first role for the upcoming annual Nativity play. “That applause … it was like music to me.” After her education at convent comes to an end, she wants to be independent. She doesn’t want to marry. What else is there for a woman of her time? Especially, with such temper. Performing on stage opens the door for her to be independent. She is accepted to “the most prestigious training academy for the dramatic arts.” And with a contract at Comedie comes a warning. “If you fail here, there are no second chances. Music halls or back-alley cabarets are all you can look forward to – if that. (…) Performing must be your entire life.” Her career takes a bit different path from her preferred one. But her innovation leads her to even better greatness. Only to have it torn by the Prussian invasion of Paris. Sarah is a very strong headed woman. She is so opposite of her mother. She vows to never follow her mother’s path, even if she sidesteps her preferred path. Every time an obstacle comes her way, she gets much stronger and even more driven. You can feel the fire that drives her. She is fervently tuned to her cause, giving her strength to propel herself forward. The character of Alexander Dumas, a celebrated writer, is also very touching. When she is in dire need, his support is unmatched. The writing is incredible. The heroine is so fleshed-out, full of emotions. She is so real. You can feel her pain and her joy. Whatever she does passion shines through it. The story is intensely imagined. The trials and triumphs of the heroine are heartfelt, making the story highly engrossing. Loved the talented prose injected with humor: “…class, which was taught by an effeminate remnant of the Second Empire, replete with the lace-trimmed sleeve cuffs and rouged lips.” Source: ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Faith

    French actress Sarah Bernhardt had a complicated life. She was the oldest child of a courtesan who was not really suited to motherhood. Sarah became an acclaimed actress, part-time courtesan, painter and sculptor. She had many patrons and lovers but never seemed to care about any of them. Her sole marriage is covered briefly in an Afterword to this book. Her devotion to her son and 2 younger sisters was consistent throughout her life. The book also covers the way in which Sarah revolutionized th French actress Sarah Bernhardt had a complicated life. She was the oldest child of a courtesan who was not really suited to motherhood. Sarah became an acclaimed actress, part-time courtesan, painter and sculptor. She had many patrons and lovers but never seemed to care about any of them. Her sole marriage is covered briefly in an Afterword to this book. Her devotion to her son and 2 younger sisters was consistent throughout her life. The book also covers the way in which Sarah revolutionized theater with a more naturalistic approach to acting. In addition, she turned a theater in Paris into an infirmary during the Franco-Prussian war. Unfortunately, the book didn’t succeed in making me care about the details of Sarah’s life. I was most interested in the acting part, but that is really hard to convey in writing. You need to see or at least hear the actor. I also didn’t particularly like Sarah, who was a drama queen both on and off the stage. If I truly wanted to learn about Sarah I’d read a biography, but I don’t feel compelled to seek one out. 3.5 stars I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    THE FIRST ACTRESS BY C.W. GORTNER This was very interesting to me because although I have always known of Sarah Bernhardt I didn't have a comprehensive understanding of what a true trail blazer she was in the ways she influenced and changed how acting was done. This book was written in the first person and made me feel like I knew Sarah intimately. I never knew what a hard life that she lived and I have grown to love and appreciate Sarah. She was very controversial in her lifetime for always livin THE FIRST ACTRESS BY C.W. GORTNER This was very interesting to me because although I have always known of Sarah Bernhardt I didn't have a comprehensive understanding of what a true trail blazer she was in the ways she influenced and changed how acting was done. This book was written in the first person and made me feel like I knew Sarah intimately. I never knew what a hard life that she lived and I have grown to love and appreciate Sarah. She was very controversial in her lifetime for always living her life authentically on her own terms. Modern acting today really owes Sarah recognition for her efforts in going against tradition to bringing emotion and the way actors interact towards each other rather than saying their lines towards their audience. Sarah never knew her father and her date of birth isn't known because the records housing those details have been destroyed in a fire. Her mother's name was Julie and she was very cruel to Sarah. Her mother was a courtesan in France and she wanted to marry off Sarah to a man Julie picked out. Sarah attended a convent and although she was Jewish she converted to catholic religion probably because of the years she spent with the nuns in the convent. In the convent Sarah received a good education although she was versed only in speaking french in her early formative years. Sarah knew she was born to be an actress so she clashed with her mother's plans for her prearranged marriage. She attended France's acting school. After attending her training she had an iron will not to follow in her mother's footsteps to become a courtesan or get married to a man her mother chose for her. Sarah was close with her maternal Aunt Rosine but she was also a courtesan. Madame G. as she was endearing to be called by Sarah was more of a mother to Sarah as she was kinder and became a life long helper in Sarah's own household. In order to attain her dowry for the much needed money Sarah needed to support herself before she became an actress, she made a deal with her mother to attend the opera and attract a male to pay for Sarah to have a sexual relationship with. In that capacity, to raise the funds needed for Sarah to pay for her own apartment she agreed to have sex with an aristocrat with whom she became pregnant with her only child she named Maurice. Sarah went against everybody's wishes to abort her baby. When she approached the aristocrat who was the father of her unborn child he didn't want to take responsibility and he refused to give Sarah any money to raise the child. They made an agreement to never bring up the subject again. Even though he was rich and could afford to help finance Sarah's much needed financial support. Her mother Julie had two more daughter's who were also illegitimate. The second daughter was Julie's golden child who followed in Julie and Rosine's footsteps to become a courtesan. Julie's youngest daughter was treated as unwanted and Sarah and Madame G. took care of her and loved her. Sarah started out as a struggling actress that got lesser roles despite her training and talent. She first worked for the Comedie until she was fired because of an altercation with the older and more established actress Nathalie. Sarah then went to a more notorious playhouse where she acted in roles that held little passion for her. She then went back to the more higher regarded theater the Comedie where she became well known for her outstanding roles. I felt badly for Sarah because she was treated with scorn and jealousies from her fellow female actresses. Sarah was a kind person and I was so moved by how her son Maurice was her most beloved relationship and she didn't act at all like her own mother who had rejected Sarah and thought her efforts and deep passion for acting was foolish. This work of historical fiction was inspired by a more scholarly author who used many non-fiction books to depict a real life fleshed out human being that Sarah Bernhardt embodied. I think he stuck to factual aspects as much as possible. My experience of reading this volume of Sarah's life was to grow to love her just as I suspect C.W. Gortner did. He crafted a narrative that was always sympathetic to Sarah no matter how unconventional her actions were in the world during the time that she lived. She met Oscar Wilde and she called him her poet. He accompanied her during her performances in England for royalty. This work about Sarah Bernhardt's many amazing accomplishments felt more academic than other historical fiction novels I have read. It almost had a biographical feel to it even though Sarah's voice told her story herself. I really think the author did a fantastic job of recreating a woman who never felt an ounce of self pity. She modernized acting and her fame grew against all of the obstacles a woman faced during the time period she lived. I highly recommend reading this outstanding narrative to those who enjoy the genre of historical fiction with a biographical feel. You will learn and expand your mind even if you aren't interested in the origins of actors and operas. Thank you to Net Galley, the scholarly writer C.W. Gortner and Ballantine Publishing for generously providing me with my ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review. The pleasure was all mine and all opinion's are my own. Publication Date: May 26, 2020 #TheFirstActress #CWGortner #BallantineBooksPublishing #NetGalley

  8. 5 out of 5

    Susan Johnson

    3.5 stars The entire time I read this I couldn't stop thinking of the Michael Jordan documentary, "The Last Dance". It is apparent to me that to be at the very top of your profession you have to be so focused that nothing else matters- family, friends, other people. You expect everybody to be as disciplined as you are and are disappointed when they are not. You may be the very best at what you do but you pay a stiff price. Sarah Bernhardt was not a nice person. I would not have liked to be aroun 3.5 stars The entire time I read this I couldn't stop thinking of the Michael Jordan documentary, "The Last Dance". It is apparent to me that to be at the very top of your profession you have to be so focused that nothing else matters- family, friends, other people. You expect everybody to be as disciplined as you are and are disappointed when they are not. You may be the very best at what you do but you pay a stiff price. Sarah Bernhardt was not a nice person. I would not have liked to be around her. She had an extremely rough upbringing but didn't seem to learn a thing from it. She wasn't nice to anyone around her although the author tries to paint a picture of a few people she was nice to. I don't buy it. Her sister she was supposedly devoted to was quite ill and she sent for the doctor twice. When the doctor said she needed a spa for breathing, Sarah never managed to arrange it. Her care was left to a devoted friend. Sarah had no time for it. She was too busy being the best actress alive. The book dragged in spots for me. The discussion of roles was especially tiresome for me as I have not seen them so the very detailed discussion wasn't that interesting to me but overall this was a very thorough look at her life and I learned a great deal. It was so fascinating to see the price of fame and what the "stars" sacrifice to get to the top. Thanks to Net Galley for a copy of this ARC in exchange for a fair review.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Shannon

    This ended up being completely different from the book I thought it would be. First of all, it's not much about Sarah being an actress at all. In fact, there is very little mention (some, but not enough for me) of her becoming a successful actress for the first half of the book, which leads me into my second issue. The book starts way too early. I really despise books where the main character is a child for a large percent of the book and this was no exception. I don't think there was anything t This ended up being completely different from the book I thought it would be. First of all, it's not much about Sarah being an actress at all. In fact, there is very little mention (some, but not enough for me) of her becoming a successful actress for the first half of the book, which leads me into my second issue. The book starts way too early. I really despise books where the main character is a child for a large percent of the book and this was no exception. I don't think there was anything that happened in the first 20 years of Sarah's life that we needed to see. The book easily could have started when she was already an adult and the few little nuggets of important information in her early life could have been given to us in another way. There was so much focus on Sarah hating her mother for her profession but then Sarah turns right around and does that exact same thing for the rest of her life. I don't see why we needed to read all about that early hatred. It didn't add anything to the novel. Really if this book just had a different title, I think I would have liked it better. It's so little about Sarah acting. It's much more about all the other (often fairly interesting) things she did with her life. I was most interested in her crazy fashion choices and how she shaped the fashion world, etc, but I would have never known that was in this book by the cover, title, or description I read. There is much more to Sarah than just being an actress, which makes for an interesting novel at times, but it's not at all what I thought this book would be. Both a good and a bad thing. I wished for more info about her acting career, especially in the first 70% of the book, but I also think if this were marketed more as a tale of an exceptional, modern woman living in the mid/late nineteenth century that it would find more readers and leave more readers happy. Instead, I really missed out on the acting stuff for much of the book because that's what I expected. I would have given this book four stars if it started with Sarah as a teen or young adult and went further into her life. It seemed to end right when things were starting to get interesting and included a lot of uninteresting stuff at the beginning. If you're reading this book currently and are finding yourself bored by the first 35% or so, feel free to skim for a little while. It really does get better once Sarah starts succeeding at acting. TL;DR: This is really a story about a unique woman living in Paris during the Second and Third Republics. She lived a crazy, interesting life which involved acting but didn't always revolve around acting. If you're interested in late nineteenth century Paris, this book is for you. If you are super interested in the history of acting, it's probably not what you're looking for. I received this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    The daughter of a cold and calculating courtesan, Gortner depicts Sarah Bernhardt’s struggle to become an actress of great acclaim and focuses mainly on the first thirty odd years of her life. Independent, fierce, and loyal, Bernhardt is also shrill, strident, petty and petulant. In order to further herself in the theater, she had friendships and the occasional romp in the sack with several famous men of the era. Her passion for life, her art, and her success are vividly portrayed.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mercedes Rochelle

    Up until now, I never knew more about Sarah Bernhardt than her name and profession, but I recognized her portrait on the cover at first glance. This was an engrossing novel about an illegitimate daughter of a courtesan who saw her as little more than a liability. Sarah reciprocated her mother’s feelings, and throughout her life their awkward relationship made a huge impact on how she saw—and rebelled against—the world. On occasion, when her financial situation demanded it, she was obliged to fol Up until now, I never knew more about Sarah Bernhardt than her name and profession, but I recognized her portrait on the cover at first glance. This was an engrossing novel about an illegitimate daughter of a courtesan who saw her as little more than a liability. Sarah reciprocated her mother’s feelings, and throughout her life their awkward relationship made a huge impact on how she saw—and rebelled against—the world. On occasion, when her financial situation demanded it, she was obliged to follow in her mother’s footsteps, though she was soon to learn how fickle her wealthy suitors could be. And when she chose to keep the inevitable child, she had to raise the boy herself; by now her family included two other bastard sisters as well. It was a struggle, but once she chose her acting career, nothing was going to stop her. Talented enough to get away with breaking all the rules, Sarah took plenty of unorthodox detours that would have proved disastrous for less talented actresses. But due to her beauty and spunk, she was helped along the way by some of France’s great writers, including Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. The establishment looked down their noses at her, but nobody could deny that the audiences loved her. Highly recommended.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Diane Standish

    Thanks to Net Galley for the ARC of this magnificent novel. I'm not sure the life of Sarah Bernhardt can be completely captured in one simple book, but the author does a fantastic job of creating an indelible portrait of this amazing woman. Bernhardt was a woman ahead of her time, a woman who knew what she wanted and let nothing and no one stop her from achieving her goals. Her early life as the daughter of a courtesan in Paris may have relegated her to a similar life, but her stubbornness and g Thanks to Net Galley for the ARC of this magnificent novel. I'm not sure the life of Sarah Bernhardt can be completely captured in one simple book, but the author does a fantastic job of creating an indelible portrait of this amazing woman. Bernhardt was a woman ahead of her time, a woman who knew what she wanted and let nothing and no one stop her from achieving her goals. Her early life as the daughter of a courtesan in Paris may have relegated her to a similar life, but her stubbornness and gifts took her to the pinnacle of fame during the late 1800's. She was touted a the "Divine Sarah " in England, America and her beloved France. The author brilliantly brings Sarah to life in the pages of this book. Though fiction, much of what is written here is based in historical fact. I highly recommend this book. I have loved every book I have read by CW Gortner.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte Guzman

    First of all thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this book. This is the 3rd book by this author and loved it. He is fast becoming one of my favorite authors in this genre of historical fiction. Sarah Bernhardt was a trail blazer for women in the late 1800's and was doing things in acting that no one else did at the time. She was breaking barriers in acting and for women. I loved her character and all the other characters she came in contact with in her life. Highly recommended First of all thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read and review this book. This is the 3rd book by this author and loved it. He is fast becoming one of my favorite authors in this genre of historical fiction. Sarah Bernhardt was a trail blazer for women in the late 1800's and was doing things in acting that no one else did at the time. She was breaking barriers in acting and for women. I loved her character and all the other characters she came in contact with in her life. Highly recommended.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Deanna Lynn Sletten

    The First Actress is an interesting novel written from Sarah Bernhardt’s perspective taking the reader on a journey from the famous actress’s childhood through adulthood. Born the daughter of a courtesan and raised in a convent, Bernhardt’s life is quite an interesting one, especially when you consider the time period. Becoming an actress was considered to be a profession lower than that of a prostitute. But the young woman worked hard and persevered, with many roadblocks along the way. Written The First Actress is an interesting novel written from Sarah Bernhardt’s perspective taking the reader on a journey from the famous actress’s childhood through adulthood. Born the daughter of a courtesan and raised in a convent, Bernhardt’s life is quite an interesting one, especially when you consider the time period. Becoming an actress was considered to be a profession lower than that of a prostitute. But the young woman worked hard and persevered, with many roadblocks along the way. Written to keep you reading, I found this novel intriguing. A wonderful choice for book clubs or lovers of historical fiction.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Maria11

    Good at first then was drawn out. I think the story started too early in her life. I would read and read and think I was almost done and only be 30% done. I did find Sarah’s life quite interesting. Her relationship with her mother was something else. It is also very dismal that women had only one choice for their futures: to be a whore one way or another. Sarah’s mom sure gave her that reality. It was also sad that women are so awful to each other over petty jealousies. I have to say Sarah was a Good at first then was drawn out. I think the story started too early in her life. I would read and read and think I was almost done and only be 30% done. I did find Sarah’s life quite interesting. Her relationship with her mother was something else. It is also very dismal that women had only one choice for their futures: to be a whore one way or another. Sarah’s mom sure gave her that reality. It was also sad that women are so awful to each other over petty jealousies. I have to say Sarah was a very interesting woman and I hope she found happiness at sometime in her life she just seemed to get it and then it was taken away. Women with drive and ambition always seem lonely in the end, because they know no other way but forward. Received an ARC from the publisher for an honest review.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Dawn Michelle

    5.24.2020 DNF Stopped at 20% ZERO STARS I tried. I read until 20% [my typical cut off point] and just had to be done. I had read this author's previous book about the Romanov Tsarina and loves it and had high hopes for this one. It was not to be. This one was slightly [or more] boring, telling the same story over and over [and not getting anywhere with it], and not very creatively at that. It just seemed we were hashing out the same story over and over, just at different times in Sarah's life - sam 5.24.2020 DNF Stopped at 20% ZERO STARS I tried. I read until 20% [my typical cut off point] and just had to be done. I had read this author's previous book about the Romanov Tsarina and loves it and had high hopes for this one. It was not to be. This one was slightly [or more] boring, telling the same story over and over [and not getting anywhere with it], and not very creatively at that. It just seemed we were hashing out the same story over and over, just at different times in Sarah's life - same story, different times, different people. It was also trite and exhausting and well, just...meh. I was highly disappointed. I know very little about Sarah Bernhardt and after just 20% of this book, I am still in the same place I was when I started. Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group/Ballantine Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sheri

    Oh my, what a book! Sarah Bernhardt was quite the woman. When I began to start reading this, I knew very little about her, but the same cannot be said now! She lived an extremely unconventional, fascinating, often bawdy life and became friends and lovers with some of the most famous men of the day: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Oscar Wilde (quelle surprise there) and even the Prince of Wales! The author does a fantastic job giving her characters deep, rich details and traveling us back in time so Oh my, what a book! Sarah Bernhardt was quite the woman. When I began to start reading this, I knew very little about her, but the same cannot be said now! She lived an extremely unconventional, fascinating, often bawdy life and became friends and lovers with some of the most famous men of the day: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Oscar Wilde (quelle surprise there) and even the Prince of Wales! The author does a fantastic job giving her characters deep, rich details and traveling us back in time so that you can actually smell and taste the sights. So much to experience: love, hate, death, war, sex, theater and intrigue. What a fantastic, thoroughly enjoyable book. Bravo! I would like to thank C.W. Gortner, Ballantine Books and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    C.W. Gortner has written another excellent novel, this time the story of the first internationally famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Born the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, and against all odds, she came to be the most iconic of French actresses. She survived war, revolution, prejudice, an indifferent mother at best, and the theater system of the time to become the most innovative actress of her time. Along the way, she became acquainted with Alexander Dumas, Oscar Wilde, and more, and eve C.W. Gortner has written another excellent novel, this time the story of the first internationally famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Born the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, and against all odds, she came to be the most iconic of French actresses. She survived war, revolution, prejudice, an indifferent mother at best, and the theater system of the time to become the most innovative actress of her time. Along the way, she became acquainted with Alexander Dumas, Oscar Wilde, and more, and eventually toured England and America with huge success. Sarah was always determined to live life on her own terms, and the First Actress is a fascinating recounting of her life, her triumphs and heartbreaks, and an excellent look at Paris during that time period. Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine Books for the e-arc. Highly recommend!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Alina

    Sarah Bernhardt - an actress, theater star, courtesan, humanitarian, single mother, sister, friend. She is one of a kind. A person who played so many different roles on and off the stage. Sarah has lived a very full life. A daughter of a famous courtesan and wealthy french nobleman, Jewish by birth, Christian by choice. Her adamant and bold attitude lured me into the pages of her life story. From a very early age, young Sarah showed her strong willpower and determination, she set goals and achiev Sarah Bernhardt - an actress, theater star, courtesan, humanitarian, single mother, sister, friend. She is one of a kind. A person who played so many different roles on and off the stage. Sarah has lived a very full life. A daughter of a famous courtesan and wealthy french nobleman, Jewish by birth, Christian by choice. Her adamant and bold attitude lured me into the pages of her life story. From a very early age, young Sarah showed her strong willpower and determination, she set goals and achieved it, and stood up to her oppressors. Sarah was never afraid to take on serious responsibilities, help friends and family in need. Sarah Bernard built her name using her talent and ambition. Sarah's story is fascinating. A bastard who not only became a famous actress but was able to portray both male and female roles, started in theater proceeded into the film world, and became the highest paying actress of her time. I am very happy that I came across this wonderful novel, thank you NetGalley and Ballentine Books Publisher for a free and advanced copy of the novel and an author for a wonderful life story of Sarah Bernard.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Cristie Underwood

    Sarah Bernhardt was determined to be famous and the author did a brilliant job of conveying the spoiled and unapologetic sides of this woman that you somehow want to see find happiness and fame as you read. The balancing act of hating and rooting for the Sarah was brilliantly written.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Adrienne

    Captivating! Gortner at his best. He shows the Divine Sarah Bernhardt as the exciting, interesting, unconventional extraordinary, talented artist who was more than a century ahead of her time as far as how a performance artist should execute their craft. I happily devoured this succulent book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alan Braswell

    Author C. W. Gortner has written several novels on strong women from the famous, Coco Chanel, and now in the; First Actress, he has written one on a woman that the majority in the mainstream has never heard of: Sarah Bernhardt. First Actress is a highly fictionalized first person account of the one who captured her native France but also the United States with her acting ability. Born in 1844 the illegitimate daughter of one Julie Bernard. Sarah had a passion for the stage early on when she pla Author C. W. Gortner has written several novels on strong women from the famous, Coco Chanel, and now in the; First Actress, he has written one on a woman that the majority in the mainstream has never heard of: Sarah Bernhardt. First Actress is a highly fictionalized first person account of the one who captured her native France but also the United States with her acting ability. Born in 1844 the illegitimate daughter of one Julie Bernard. Sarah had a passion for the stage early on when she played the main role of an arch angel at a boarding school. The overall structure of the novel is one of repetitiveness. Each chapter has Sarah Bernhardt going from high to low then high again. There is very few descriptive narratives in the story the author has left it up to the reader to visualize what anything looked like. A scene early in the story had Sarah kissing the ring of a Monsignor. The ring must have been the only thing that the Monsignor had on because the author doesn't show the reader only tells the reader. This telling not showing goes on throughout the book. At one point the author says that Sarah Bernhardt puts on the robe of Zechariah but never says what the robe looks like. Is the robe white with blue horizontal stripes, maybe it's green, or pink or purple. The author assumes that the reader knows what the robe of Zechariah looks like. This is constiant throughout the book as the author assumes that the reader knows what the theater looks like, what Paris looks like, what the boarding school or the actor school. Another problem with the novel is when something happens that someone in the story will mention something about Sarah that leaves the reader yelling When. Alexander Dumas meets Sarah and she mentions that she read a novel of his. Then someone says she, meaning Sarah, reads all the time. The author should have put a book in Sarah's hand when outside with the dog before this incident occurred. The main character is nothing more than a self centered, egotistical, undisciplined, brat. Her character shows up in every chapter. I wanted to throw the book across the room because she is so annoying but I was reading the story on my phone. Her lows only last either a page or half a page wasn't long enough to grieve for the character. When her self absorbing ego comes up against another person who has a self-absorbing ego tensions are going to occur but of course this happens on every single chapter of this book. She grieves for her sister for half a page then there is a longer section of a sexual interlude. Sarah runs off and does things, like balloon ride, without any feelings that her actions will have consequences. Runs with a poet who doesn't have any connections but ignores the American who is offering her a opportunity. The constant use of the author using the mothers first name is confusing. I got lost several times wondering who is this person named Julie. Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine for this advance copy.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Debbie Viscosi

    C.W. Gortner has written a well-balanced book detailing the life of Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah's life was not easy. She was abandoned in her early years to be raised by a farmer's wife. Her mother was a "demimondaine" who lived in an apartment paid for by rich patrons. This was the life that her mother intended for her but Sarah had other ideas. She wanted to become an actress. Her willfulness and temper get her into more than a few difficult situations but she manages to rise above those. Through p C.W. Gortner has written a well-balanced book detailing the life of Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah's life was not easy. She was abandoned in her early years to be raised by a farmer's wife. Her mother was a "demimondaine" who lived in an apartment paid for by rich patrons. This was the life that her mother intended for her but Sarah had other ideas. She wanted to become an actress. Her willfulness and temper get her into more than a few difficult situations but she manages to rise above those. Through perseverance Sara Bernhardt becomes famous and one of the first actresses to perform in motion pictures. This book is very well written and doesn't shy away from sensitive subjects. Sarah lived through war and its aftermath. She supported her family with her acting and she was an unmarried mother. All of the ups and downs of her career are related without judgment. Much of Sarah's life was a struggle and this story covers all of it. It is an amazing journey and illustrates the difficulties of the times quite clearly. You may have heard about Sarah Bernhardt before but I guarantee you did not know all of the details of her life. This is a fascinating story that offers a rare look at the history of theater in France. Pick this book up. It is illuminating!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Stoeckel

    "It does not matter how I am received. I have made my mark. No one can take that away from me. Regardless of what is said tonight, I will always be Sarah Bernhardt." Sarah Henriette Bernhardt, born in 1853, died in 1923, had her early life in Brittany, her education in Paris at Catholic school where she was found to have a dramatic flair, sponsored to one of the oldest dramatics program in the world. She never knew her father and was only used by her mother, a demimondaine who had three girls and "It does not matter how I am received. I have made my mark. No one can take that away from me. Regardless of what is said tonight, I will always be Sarah Bernhardt." Sarah Henriette Bernhardt, born in 1853, died in 1923, had her early life in Brittany, her education in Paris at Catholic school where she was found to have a dramatic flair, sponsored to one of the oldest dramatics program in the world. She never knew her father and was only used by her mother, a demimondaine who had three girls and brought them up to become like her. However, Sarah had other ideas, and fought more than her family to get them. Living through the Franco-Prussian war matured her. With that maturity she clawed her way up to become one of the first actresses to step beyond the rigid barriers of classic acting; breaking through he third wall. Poetry and plays were written for and about her. She was one of the first to brave the new world of film. She opened doors for women and men, directed a theater in Paris that earned her the Legion of Honor and became loved- and used- and hated all over the world. My first knowledge of "The Divine One" was, when as a child my sister and I would play dress-up with sunglasses, all the costume jewelry we had, scarves and hats much too big. Then we'd link arms and prance around the yard. My father christened us "Lana Turner-burner and Sarah Heartburn". Little did he know what those childhood names could recall over 60 years later. CW Gortner is an author I have followed and trusted since I first read his extant work on Coco Chanel, followed by his biography of Marlene Dietrich, my grandfather's favorite actress. However, he seems to struggle a bit through this book, akin to Bernhardt when forced into a mold she never fit. His love for biographical style shines as bright as ever. This is what lead me to a 4 star rating. I DO recommend this work, but not as highly as I have his other works. 4/5 [disclaimer: I received this early copy from NetGalley and voluntarily read and reviewed it.]

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    I loved this book! It was very well researched and very true to the facts of Sarah Bernhardt's life. Fasscinating read!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Denise Kruse

    Informative, well-written biography with a certain amount of artistic license. Entertaining and easy to read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mandy

    This book did not capture my imagination as much as I was hoping. I knew very little about Sarah Bernhardt's life other than her worldwide fame as an actress. It cannot be said that this was not a well researched book. C.W. Gortner stuffs every page full of details; however, a compelling plot never comes together. I was honestly quite bored through the bulk of the novel, and Ms. Bernhardt most certainly did not live a boring life. Much of the book centers on her life before she achieved internat This book did not capture my imagination as much as I was hoping. I knew very little about Sarah Bernhardt's life other than her worldwide fame as an actress. It cannot be said that this was not a well researched book. C.W. Gortner stuffs every page full of details; however, a compelling plot never comes together. I was honestly quite bored through the bulk of the novel, and Ms. Bernhardt most certainly did not live a boring life. Much of the book centers on her life before she achieved international fame with a short afterword on her later years. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had the book featured less of her time as a child in Brittany and her school years and more on her exploits as a famous actress traveling the globe.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hallie Winchell

    Fabulous novel on a woman that was a generation ahead of her time.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    The First Actress by C. W. Gortner is an excellent Historical Fiction of the life and times of Sarah Bernhardt. I am going to have to confess that I was not familiar with this stunning woman, however I have loved every book by this author that I have ever read, so I knew I had to learn more. I was beyond impressed with the dialogue, prose, pace, and the amount of research that occurred to create this amazing book. I found out so much about the theatrical history of the mid-late 1800s in France ( The First Actress by C. W. Gortner is an excellent Historical Fiction of the life and times of Sarah Bernhardt. I am going to have to confess that I was not familiar with this stunning woman, however I have loved every book by this author that I have ever read, so I knew I had to learn more. I was beyond impressed with the dialogue, prose, pace, and the amount of research that occurred to create this amazing book. I found out so much about the theatrical history of the mid-late 1800s in France (Paris specifically) and all of the fascinating actors and actresses that played a part. I also learned so much about multiple plays and the atmosphere of the city at this time, as well as the effects that were placed on it and its people during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. I am so impressed with all of the things that the author added to the book that brought so much more new information to me, yet it flowed not as a history lesson, but as an excellent novel. I most of all loved learning about Sarah. She was a woman well before her time. The traumas, obstacles, prejudices, and difficulties she had to endure just to be able to do what she enjoyed was astounding. She was so many things: creative, unique, passionate, driven, eccentric, intelligent, flawed, stubborn, and above all talented. She seemed to me to be very sad and lonely, searching to fill that unnamed void, yet was surrounded by fellow artists and talents continuously. To not be truly wanted and loved by her (to me a cruel and unkind woman) mother, she spent her whole life trying to find love, acceptance, and acknowledgment. She did find most of it with her success and her close friends, and son towards the end, but I still finished the book feeling sad for her and all she did not have at the end. While I know this was a difficult time for a woman in general, it is sad to know that at that time to do want she wanted to do, she had to be considered: weird, eccentric, a hussy, and “not natural”. Meanwhile, in a man with the same interests and behaviors, one would be considered: driven, a “bachelor”, and determined. To know that she was judged for that as well, adds another layer of sadness. I have already started researching even more about this incredible woman, and I truly thank Mr. Gortner for this novel in exposing me to this material and inspiring me to learn so much more! That is the make of a truly successful HF novel. I even loved the author’s note at the end (and I am sorry to hear of the loss of his kitty cat). We both have a true passion for animals and animal rescue, and I appreciate his note even more so for this addition. A truly amazing 5/5 star read! Thank you NetGalley and Ballantine Books for this ARC and in return I am submitting my unbiased and voluntary review and opinion. I am posting this review to my GR and Bookbub accounts immediately and will post it to my Amazon and B&N accounts upon publication.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jenny Buchta

    CW Gortner is a fabulous historical fiction novelist. His books are thoroughly researched and I found Sarah Bernhardt’s story fascinating. She isn’t a figure I knew much about, so I was excited that Gortner chose her as his focus. I expect that many more novelists will follow in his footsteps, as happened with his novel about Coco Chanel. But Gortner leads by telling the story first and best, so definitely check this one out before the market is inundated with followers and second-rate tales.

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