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The First Actress -- C.W. Gortner
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Available in hardcover on May 26, 2020!

The tumultuous rise to fame of legendary French star, Sarah Bernhardt—the world's first modern actress and international celebrity—dazzles in C.W. Gortner’s new novel.

From her beginnings as the daughter of a courtesan to her extraordinary transformation into the most celebrated actress of her era, Sarah Bernhardt’s highly dramatic life starts when she returns to Paris after her convent schooling to be confronted by her mother’s demand to take up the family trade. To escape this fate, Sarah impulsively pursues a career onstage at the esteemed Comédie Française, until her rebellious acting style leads to her scandalous dismissal. Only nineteen years old and unemployed, Sarah is forced to submit to her mother. 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 is cast adrift, penniless and alone.

Using her striking beauty and unique style, she gains a contract in a bohemian theater, where her innovative performances in both female and male roles catapult her to unexpected success. Suddenly, audiences clamor to see this daring young actress. But her world is torn asunder by the brutal 1870 Siege of Paris. Sarah refuses to abandon her ravaged city, opening a ward to nurse wounded soldiers and endangering her own life.

Vowing to rebuild her career, she makes a controversial return to the Comédie. Her tempestuous affair with her leading man and defiance of convention plunge Sarah into a fierce quest for independence. Undeterred, she must now risk everything to become France’s most acclaimed actress.

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


“Sarah Bernhardt was a woman of fearless strength and awe-inspiring talent, a living icon in her day and an unapologetic iconoclast. 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 to demand more for artists and for women.”

Allison Pataki, New York Times Bestselling 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. Here, he turns his talent to Sarah Bernhardt, the daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan, who would rise over the late 19th century to become an icon of the stage. Readers will revel in this gloriously heady mix of love and war, 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, NYT Bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Paris


“A sumptuous tale of a woman coming into her own. 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, a must-read for fans of the genre.”

Melanie Benjamin, NYT bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife