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The First Actress

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  532 ratings  ·  174 reviews
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
Hardcover, 420 pages
Published May 26th 2020 by Ballentine Books
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Average rating 4.06  · 
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Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader
Jun 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 ones for you. This book, The First Actress? Its hist fic gold. I cant 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 Sarahs world.

C.W. Gortner is a gifted storyteller. You know how sometimes when you
Jul 01, 2020 rated it liked it
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 ...more
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
May 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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.
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
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was a French stage actress and the worlds 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
Apr 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing

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
Aug 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Overall: This book is exactly what good historical fiction is! A captivating heroine, great storyline, wonderful writing, and completely enrapturing. Highly recommend 5/5

Summary: This novel follows the story of actress Sarah Bernhardts life. Sarah is the illegitimate child of a Jewish courtesan and is raised in Brittany until she is sent by her unloving mother to boarding school in Versailles in 1852. She shines in one of the school plays and this causes one of her mother's to take an interest
Allison Keith
Aug 22, 2020 rated it liked it

Sarah Bernhardt was a trailblazer of a woman, revolutionizing theatre and launching the celebrity culture. Unconventional and driven, she was a woman desperate for fame and unapologetic in her pursuit of it. This was an engaging read, and the author does an exceptional job bringing such a complex woman to life on the page. My issue with the story was that so much time was spent in her childhood. With such a fascinating woman, it felt like much of the tale was prologue and scene setting. As such,
Susan Johnson
May 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: net-galley
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
Jul 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
A huge thank you to C.W. Gortner and Ballentine Books for allowing me to read this through Netgalley.

I was interested in the story of Sarah Bernhardt as I had not read much about her and wow, what a life she led. The family dynamics just between her and her mother, Julie, was a story all on its own. Bernhardt is one of the most intriguing characters I have read about so far in 2020. Even if she was not acquainted with such figures like Oscar Wilde and Alexander Dumas, Bernhardt herself is such
Jan 08, 2020 rated it liked it
The daughter of a cold and calculating courtesan, Gortner depicts Sarah Bernhardts 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. ...more
May 11, 2020 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Mercedes Rochelle
Feb 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 mothers feelings, and throughout her life their awkward relationship made a huge impact on how she sawand rebelled againstthe world. On occasion, when her financial situation demanded it, she was obliged to follow ...more
Diane Standish
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Marie Z. Johansen
Another hit!

C.W. Gortner has become one of my favorite authors.his books have never failed to delight me and always seem to spur my on to reading excellent no - fiction.

Sarah Bernhardt. Of courseI knew her name, but had never really thought know any more about her life. Just as he has always done, Mr. Gortners research is impeccable. As I read his books I always fact check and, true to form, his fiction closely follows fact.

What a woman Sarah Bernhardt was! What a remarkable life she led. Far
Sep 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
I knew very little about Sarah Bernhardt going into this book, so I wasn't sure what to expect. When I read a fictional book about a real person I always wonder how much is actually true and what was added by the author. While I loved reading about her childhood, since those details definitely seem to have shaped her into the woman she became, there was much more of the book spent in that part of her life than in her later successful years. The last part of the book felt rushed compared to the ...more
Deanna Lynn Sletten
The First Actress is an interesting novel written from Sarah Bernhardts perspective taking the reader on a journey from the famous actresss childhood through adulthood. Born the daughter of a courtesan and raised in a convent, Bernhardts 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
Jennifer Lafferty
Sep 14, 2020 rated it liked it
This is a colorful portrait of a very unique historical figure and is an interesting look into 19th century theater as well as the world of courtesans during this. A good read for those interested in learning more about Sarah Bernhardt or fans of historical romance..
May 17, 2020 rated it liked it
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 Sarahs 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. Sarahs 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 ...more
Julie Failla Earhart
Aug 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Youve heard me say it before: One of the reasons that I love historical fiction so much is that it introduces me to people and events I dont know much about, or have no knowledge whatsoever. The former is the category that this historical, biographical fiction work falls into for me.

I knew that she was an infamous late 19th and early 20th centuries French stage actress whose talents glowed in plays by Alexandre Dumas (the father and the son), Victor Hugo and Victorien Sardouto name only a few.
May 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jun 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 24, 2020 rated it it was ok
I so wanted to like this book! My family's childhood nickname for me was "Sarah" in honour of the drama-queen, so I have always been fascinated by her life. This book sounded like a great way to learn more while being entertained since this is a fictionalized version of her story. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be a good fit for my interests and I did not finish it.

I feel like the writing was very good, and the characters came to life through the author's handling of them. This could have
Dawn Wells
Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Bravo! This is one of the best historical fictional books Ive ever read. It is fresh in its writing, beaming with talent from the author. This is the story of a most celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt. It tells her story from being the daughter of a courtesan to her covenant school upbringing. To the celebrated one she became in her own right. She is funny, loud, brass and likable. You wont want it to end. A must read. ...more
Sara Wortman
Aug 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: netgalley
Thank you to Netgalley for granting my wish to read, "The First Actress" by C. W. Gortner. This is my second read from C .W Gortner and once again, I am blown away by his beautiful writing! I had never heard of Sarah Bernhardt before and am completely fascinated by the person she was. While this is a work of historical fiction, it felt like a wonderful tribute to a woman ahead of her time.
Kathleen Freeman
The author must have done a tonne of research to prepare to write this book, while Sarah's story was interesting, it was the peek into life in France and into the world of actors and actresses that intrigued me. I previously did not know about the Prussian invasion of Paris during this time period. One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction there is always something new to learn.
Cristie Underwood
May 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kindle
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.
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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.
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Bestselling author C.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing, with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies. Raised in Spain and half Spanish by birth, he currently lives in Northern California. His books have been translated in over 20 languages to date.

He welcomes readers and is always available for reader group chats. Please visit him at for more information.

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