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Publisher's Summary

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

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

Sarah’s highly dramatic life starts when she returns to Paris after her convent schooling and is confronted by her mother’s demand to follow in the family trade as a courtesan. To escape this fate, Sarah pursues a career onstage at the esteemed Comédie-Française, until her rebellious acting style leads to her scandalous dismissal. Only 19 years old and unemployed, Sarah is forced to submit to her mother’s wishes. But her seductive ease as a courtesan comes to an abrupt end when she discovers she is pregnant. Unwilling to give up her child, Sarah defies social condemnation and is cast adrift, penniless and alone. 

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

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

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

©2020 C. W. Gortner (P)2020 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Sarah Bernhardt was a woman of fearless strength and awe-inspiring talent, both a living icon in her day and an unapologetic iconoclast. In his beautiful The First Actress, C. W. Gortner gives readers an intimate and rich portrait of Bernhardt’s stunning career and tumultuous personal life. The Divine Sarah was a singular leading lady ahead of her time, winning devotees and breaking rules in order to demand more for artists and for women.” (Allison Pataki, New York Times best-selling author of The Queen’s Fortune)

“C. W. Gortner has made his mark illuminating the private lives and untold stories of the world’s greatest women. In The First Actress, he turns his talent to Sarah Bernhardt, the daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan who would rise over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to become an icon of stage and screen. Readers will revel in the gloriously heady mix of love and war, and art and society. Combining immaculate research with scintillating prose and an unforgettable cast of larger-than-life characters, The First Actress stands tall among Gortner’s remarkable body of work.” (Pam Jenoff, New York Times best-selling author of The Lost Girls of Paris

What listeners say about The First Actress

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Have read everything by this author.....not my favorite of his books.

I struggled getting through this book after the first few hours. Partly, the character just isn’t likable, except while she’s a child and adolescent . Also, the story seems to move in circles. The more she develops into adulthood, the less likable she becomes. The story just seems to stall and struggle. I was so looking forward to this book, and am very disappointed. I read quite a bit about Sarah Bernhardt, and it seems that this could have been a much better book. C. W. Fort we is such a talented author.....this is not a good representation of his talent.

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C.W.Gortner does not disappoint !

This book transported me to a place and time I knew nothing about, but I can never resist a C.W. Gortner story, although I blew through all 16 hours in only two days. It is exquisitely researched, and beautifully told. Gortner’s heroines are compelling multidimensional women who leave you feeling that you know them personally, and as always, there are phrases that have to be listened to more than once because they are deeply touching. My compliments also to the narrator Gabrielle De Cuir. And to Gortner himself I would say, keep writing, please........!

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Didn't care for Sarah

The book was well written and the performance very good. I just could never get above a "luke warm" feeling for Sarah. I didn't hate her, I didn't love her, I didn't feel sorry for her. I couldn't "connect" with her or her story.

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Disappointed

I read about this book and its author and it got a wonderful audiobook review. Should have been a real favorite for me - I love French History and literature - I speak French and go several times a year to the French opera and theater In Paris. I kept telling myself it would get better- why would it have gotten so much publicity and coverage? But chapter after chapter I just kept wondering - when does this get worth listening to? It’s got all of the elements to make a wonderful story but it just isn’t well written and you plod along waiting for it to gel. I had to give up after several hours and return it recognizing that it was just too pedestrian a treatment of what could have been an interesting subject.

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Delightful escape from the stress of 2020

For a few hours readers are able to escape the oppressive burdens of pandemic and shelter-in-place by immersing themselves in the dueling cultures of Imperial and Republican France, and follow the woman who conquered both into the modern world.

And as the author points out in his Afterword, Sarah Bernardt continues to be a muse for today's independent woman.

Thank you Mr.Gortner for bringing this inspiring heroine to life.

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Another great!

C.W. Gortner did it again. This story of an amazing woman was fabulous. Enjoyed every minute and was thrilled to learn all about Sarah!

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I don’t think C. W. Gortner can write a bad novel..

I was always a fan of his books set in European royal houses so I was a bit sad when I went through them all and felt a bit skeptical moving on to more modern historical figures but I shouldn’t have doubted him! I’ve enjoyed each one immensely and this was no different!

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  • Evil Edna
  • 03-06-21

Fascinating

This is a terrific story of the earlier part of Sarah Bernhardt's life and career, leading to her lasting fame. Sometimes biographies can be a bit dry to listen to, but not this one.
I had no idea how hard her early life and career were, and so from that perspective, her story is inspirational. She achieved so much through sheer dogged determination. This is no plot spoiler - we all know she is still famous, so I'm not telling you the plot!
The narration is good. Gabrielle De Cuir's accent is a bit weird and sometimes her pronounciation is too. But a weird accent and the occasional oddly pronouned word does help to keep reminding us that Sarah Bernhardt was not English or American.
I also liked the history it covered - we live through the horrors of the seige of Paris by the Prussians. And we live the life of an actress in Paris in the 1860s. Harvey Weinstein followed in well trodden and disgraceful steps.