There have been dark heartthrobs for centuries—but no one was as messed-up, or as alluring, as actor and all-around bad boy Jacques Damala. Women found him irresistible, men found him dangerous, and his marriage to the leading actress of his day was one of the most disastrous unions of the 19th century. Yet none of that holds a candle to his infamous end.
Jacques Damala Facts
1. He Was Born Notorious
Born in 1855 to a wealthy Greek family, Jacques Damala came into the world on the cusp of La Belle Epoque, a time when hedonism ran wild and celebrities were made and broken in a matter of weeks. That, as it happened, suited Damala down to his bones. At a young age, he developed a taste for fine wine and finer women, and he knew just how to get both.
2. He Knew How To Manipulate People
Just after finishing school, Damala came up with an ingenious plan. He began pursuing diplomatic studies around France, even though he actually harbored secret dreams of becoming an actor one day. Why diplomacy then? Well, partly because it put him in the path of elite members of high society—and Damala understood that connections were everything.
Even so, he did have something of a secret weapon.
3. He Was “The Handsomest Man In Europe”
As it happened, Damala was extremely attractive, with broad shoulders, dark features, and the devil-may-care demeanor of a well-bred rake who wasn’t afraid to sling you over his shoulder and take you to bed. In short, people simply couldn’t ignore is looks, and he was genuinely called the “Handsomest man in Europe” as well as the “Diplomat Apollo”.
But it was very these good looks that got him into more trouble than you can ever imagine.
4. He Was Irresistible To Women
Damala was a man about town in Paris, and he quickly got a much shadier reputation. Even as he mingled with powerful men, those same men were constantly worried that their wives would catch one glimpse of Damala and fall in lust forever. Um, they were right to worry.
Damala was absolute catnip to the rich, beautiful ladies of Parisian society…and the details of his little black book were beyond deranged.
5. He Was Ruinous
By the time Damala was in his mid-20s, he had seemingly seduced every ineligible woman in the French capital. Thanks to him snagging numerous men’s wives, they began calling him “the most dangerous man in Paris”—but he was dangerous not just for the nervous husbands, but also for the lovesick married women who followed him wherever he went.
His affair with the banker Paul Meisonnier’s wife, for one, ruined her reputation and forced her to flee the entire country. Yet that was just the tip of the iceberg.
6. He Went For Young Girls
Soon enough, Damala’s body count was almost literally a body count. Not content with destroying at least two marriages, his affair with the daughter of a magistrate turned into a bloody nightmare. The young girl became completely infatuated with Damala after he seduced her—and that wasn’t all. She was also quickly pregnant by him.
It set off a brutal chain of events.
7. He Drove Women To Desperate Acts
In love and terrified at the position she found herself in, the girl picked up and left her parents’ house to go follow Damala to Paris and try to carve out a life with him. Only, she made a grave misjudgment of his character. Oh sure, Damala played along for a little while…right up until she birthed their illegitimate baby. Then he betrayed her.
8. He Abandoned His Lover
With the appearance of his newborn child, Damala completely deserted the magistrate’s daughter, leaving her alone and bereft in an enormous city far away from her family. It turned tragic in an instant. Shortly after, the girl disappeared entirely, and many presume that she took her own life. Not that Damala cared; he was on to a newer, darker vice.
9. He Got Into The Theater World
In case you haven’t clocked it yet, Damala was something of an obsessive—as in, he was obsessed with women, with himself, and soon with making it as a stage actor. His dream of becoming a thespian had always been in the back of his mind, so once he’d gone through all the women in the diplomatic world, he decided to try his luck with the theater crowd.
It would lead him down his darkest path yet.
10. He Had A Dark Addiction
Damala started small in his acting career, playing mostly bit parts and going by the stage name of “Daria”. But behind the scenes, something much more sinister was going on. He quickly fell in with a louche, Bohemian group of actors infamous for taking substances, particularly downers, in the green rooms of the theaters before and after shows. And this is when he met his destiny.
11. He Met A Famous Actress
One of Damala’s fellow lotus-eaters was an actress named Jeanne, and she just so happened to be the half-sister of the 19th century’s most famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt. Jeanne, like so many women in Paris, couldn’t help tittering to her sister that she was socializing with the infamous Jacques Damala, and did Bernhardt want to meet him?
Now, Bernhardt—an original diva if there ever was one—was dramatic as heck, 11 years Damala’s senior, and had taken many lovers before. She was also intrigued by his horrific reputation, and the pair set up a meeting. They would both live to regret it.
12. He Met His Match
In many ways, it was inevitable that Bernhardt and Damala would attract each other. It was also an absolute disaster. This wasn’t Bernhardt’s first rodeo; as her biographer put it, she prided herself “on her ability to conquer men” and liked using her notoriously hot temper to keep them in line. Damala, meanwhile, fancied himself as a “hunter” of women, with no regard for who he ruined.
Maybe it’s no surprise that, despite each of them approaching it like a game at first, they quickly fell violently in love with one another. But there was one major problem.
13. His Bosses Exiled Him
Just as Damala met Sarah Bernhardt, his dark past caught up with him. Even libertine Parisian society had become too scandalized by his dealings with women, particularly since those women kept leaving their husbands or ending up dead. As a result, his diplomatic unit thought it best to get Damala the heck away from France and reassigned him to St Petersburg, Russia.
It was an exile in everything but name. Sarah Bernhardt, however, wasn’t about to pine for her lover long-distance, and she moved heaven and Earth to get what she wanted.
14. He Had A Magic Touch
Bernhardt, at the height of her popularity, was just about to head on tour. Seeing an opportunity, she insisted that her managers make St Petersburg into a six-month stop on the voyage, despite refusing to even set foot in the city before. But that wasn’t all.
She also coolly dumped her current lover—and leading man—so that she could arrive in Russia and meet Damala completely free of obligations. Then she made him a proposition.
15. His Dream Came True
Once in Russia, Bernhardt languished in a romance with Damala, then offered him a role in her company as her co-worker and lover. After all, he was dismal at this diplomacy nonsense anyway, so why not become a real actor at last? For Damala, it was a dream come true, and he quickly said yes. Except none of this was a good idea.
16. He Got Married In A Hurry
Although both Damala and Bernhardt had been commitment-phobes before their relationship, they didn’t seem to suffer any cold feet now. In fact, they married the same year they met, tying the knot in April 1882 in London. It was a rash decision, yes, but that wasn’t all it was. The details around their wedding day are absolutely bizarre.
17. His Wedding Was Bizarre
As if anyone needed more red flags around Jacques Damala, Bernhardt’s behavior at becoming a bride was deeply unsettling. On the day of the wedding, Bernhardt sent a dramatic telegram to the playwright she’d been working with, telling him, “I am going to die and my greatest regret is not having created your play. Adieu”.
The playwright must have been alarmed…until two hours later, when he received a second telegram. This one informed him, “I am not dead, I am married”. Um, okay? Still, it gets even less romantic.
18. He Ridiculed His New Wife
As more information came out about Damala and Bernhardt’s “fairy tale” day, the details got more sordid. When someone asked Bernhardt why she’d decided to marry Damala, she replied flippantly that marriage was the one thing she hadn’t done yet. In the meantime, Damala boasted to anyone who would listen that it was Bernhardt who had debased herself to propose to him.
Surprise! It didn’t take long for it all to start falling apart.
19. He Was A Bad Actor
When Bernhardt offered Damala a place in her acting troupe, she hadn’t considered one crucial thing: Damala was not a good actor. In fact, he was about as good a thespian as he was a diplomat. People thought he was “exceptionally untalented,” and his heavy Greek accent made it difficult for audiences to understand him.
In the end, critics essentially called him eye-candy on stage and nothing else. This lack of talent would end up having grave consequences.
20. He Was Jealous Of His Wife
As a vain man, it’s not like Jacques Damala would have ever handled his lack of talent well. But now he was in the worst possible situation. Bernhardt was famous for a reason: She was an incredible actress, with one reviewer calling her “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture”. And Damala? He simply could not handle being upstaged by anyone, let alone the genius of her generation. Somehow, though, it got worse for him.
21. The Press Tried To Destroy Him
The press may have known and loved Sarah Bernhardt, but they deeply distrusted Damala, who brought nothing to their new union but his awful reputation. Soon, caricatures showed up depicting the older Bernhardt acting as Damala’s puppet master, even after Bernhardt tried to hype up her new husband, telling journalists, “This ancient Greek god is the man of my dreams”.
It was yet another blow to Damala’s ego. Within weeks of their marriage, Damala began exacting his revenge.
22. He Was Vengeful
Spoiler alert: Damala was not a nice man, and he was about to show a particularly vicious streak. Beside himself at the thought that his wife was—gasp!—better than him, Damala started belittling Bernhardt any chance he could get, especially if it was in public in front of her friends. Yet Bernhardt’s reaction to this was heartbreaking.
23. He Controlled The Relationship
Bernhardt was a Diva with a capital “D,” and she did try to fight back against Damala’s attacks, often sneering cruelly that he was a “Gypsy Greek”. Only, it just wasn’t enough. At the end of the day, the actress was hopelessly in love with Damala, and she would always end up shrugging off his insults or, worse, asking him for forgiveness for their spats.
Sensing he had the upper hand, Damala tried to go for the jugular.
24. He Was Possessive
Just weeks after their wedding, Damala made a furious request to Bernhardt. After yet another argument, he commanded her to change her name to “Sarah Damala”. Yes, it was another transparent attempt to feel like he was the big man in the relationship, but Bernhardt still had a lot of fight left in her. She refused…and Damala went nuclear.
25. He Fought Dirty
Following the argument, Damala did what he did best: He abandoned Bernhardt, if temporarily. For days, she saw neither hide nor hair of him, and grew more and more anxious as the nights passed. What he was really doing would have only hurt her more. During this time, people saw him out romancing a young Norwegian girl—though when he returned, he acted like nothing was wrong, and Bernhardt didn’t address it either.
But Damala was just getting started. He was about to show exactly how brutal he could get.
26. He Got Away With Horrific Acts
Over the next weeks and months, Damala went into a cruel frenzy. Whenever he and Bernhardt fought—which was a lot—or even just when he felt like it, he would leave their home, not return for days, and spend his time in the company of all kinds of women. Heartbreakingly, Bernhardt continued tolerating these transgressions and took him back every time.
She did, however, make one disturbing discovery that stayed with her.
27. He Was A Gold Digger
Damala’s dalliances with other women were one thing, but he was about to outdo even himself. One day, Bernhardt discovered that whenever she gave Damala money—out of her own, much bigger salary—he was mostly using it to buy gifts for his mistresses, or else “favors” from women on the street. Still, Bernhardt endured, even as their doom approached.
28. He Ruined His Wife’s Career
As you might imagine, none of Bernhardt’s friends understood what in God’s name was so great about Jacques Damala as a lover—but much worse, they were shocked and concerned at how willing Bernhardt was to hurt her career for him. Instead of hiring competent actors, she now insisted on starring alongside the sub-par Damala in all her shows.
In a fit of true lovesickness, Bernhardt even bought her own theater and made him her official leading man for those performances. It all had to come crashing down eventually.
29. He Failed Spectacularly
Still desperately trying to make the marriage work, Bernhardt now decided Damala would be “perfect” in the role of Armand Duval in a stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camelias. She even had the utterly delusional confidence to say to a very taken-aback Dumas, “Won’t he make an excellent Armand?”
Guess what? He didn’t. While Bernhardt’s performance became one of her most famous triumphs, critics panned Damala as usual—and he, as usual, blamed Bernhardt for his failure. They didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of the end.
30. Playwrights Despised Him
By December of 1882—still just mere months after he and Bernhardt married—no one in the theater world was willing to give Damala a chance. When Bernhardt asked the playwright of her upcoming job in Fedora to include Damala, he refused outright, forcing Bernhardt to make Damala her tour manager instead. Somehow, this was the worst decision she could have made.
31. He Couldn’t Cut It As A Manager
Despite Bernhardt giving him the over-inflated title of “Head of the Tour,” the insolent Damala was obviously still bitter about not being on stage. He made sure Bernhardt felt his wrath. He was so terrible at this job, too, that she had to fire him and make him a kind of honorary “Prince Consort” member of the troupe instead. And then he really started acting out.
32. His Addiction Spiraled
Jacques Damala was now utterly frustrated at his lack of fame and blaming everyone but himself. To assuage his fury, he took more and more illicit substances than ever before—and quickly developed a raging and uncontrollable addiction. It was frightening to witness, and it began to have an even more terrifying effect on his relationship.
33. He Hit The End Of The Road
Near Christmas in 1882, Bernhardt and Damala got into one of their infamous dust-ups—but this time, it really was different. Finally fed up, Bernhardt insisted she would no longer bankroll Damala’s various addictions to women and substances. Damala responded with his same old pattern: He called her names, then abandoned her in the morning to go to North Africa.
He probably didn’t guess that he was making a fatal mistake.
34. His Marriage Was Over
With Damala gone—though his debts were still there—Bernhardt took even more steps away from her horrific husband. Namely, she got a new lover and went on tour in Scandinavia, determined to stop caring about her human wrecking ball. Incredibly, it mostly stuck.
Bernhardt returned home to Damala squatting in her house a couple of times (because of course he was), and although the couple tried a handful of times to reconcile, they were irrevocably broken at last. Which only made Bernhardt’s next actions all the more gut-wrenching.
35. His Wife Tried To Help Him
Damala no longer had such a hold on Sarah Bernhardt, but she did give one last attempt at saving him. Using her money and influence, Bernhardt tried to get pharmacists to stop giving him medication that only fed his addictions, and even put Damala into a clinic to try to kick his habits. When that didn’t work, she set him up in a hotel on the outskirts of Paris.
Yet even with Bernhardt’s help, Damala was about to enter the cruel winter of his life.
36. He Went Crawling Back
With the theater world turning its back on him now that he wasn’t hitched to Bernhardt’s star, Damala tried to re-enter diplomatic life. What he got back was a rude awakening. They didn’t want him either. Instead, he was forced to eke out bit parts on his own to make ends meet—though, to be fair, his performances seemed to have improved, and the critics weren’t nearly so dismissive this time around.
Still, it wasn’t enough for Damala. His last dramatic act was coming.
37. He Sent An SOS
In 1889, six years after his break from Sarah Bernhardt, Damala gave the actress a nasty surprise. She received a message from her estranged husband, and the words shook her to her core. In the letter, Damala told Bernhardt that he was both penniless and dying, and begged her to take him back one last time. There was only one thing she could do.
38. He Got Better Than He Deserved
Bernhardt had never stopped loving Damala, and he was still very much her kryptonite. Without a second thought, she canceled all her obligations and rushed to his side. In the next weeks, Bernhardt nursed the ailing Damala back to some semblance of health—his long-time addiction made it impossible for a full recovery—and forgave him all of his sins in the process. Then she went even further.
39. He Tried To Make A Comeback
The hold Jacques Damala had on Sarah Bernhardt was truly something to behold. The minute he was well enough, Bernhardt made him promise to curb his habits, then cast him again as Armand Duval in the revival of Dames aux Camelias. Bernhardt was hoping for a triumphant comeback of both their romance and Damala himself…but she wasn’t going to get anywhere near it.
40. He Shocked Critics
Before, critics had ridiculed Damala’s limited acting ability, but they at least acknowledged his devastating good looks. Their reaction now was truly depressing. Damala was a transformed man, and not in a good way. Older, haggard, and clearly still ill and struggling with addiction, he fumbled his lines and generally reminded everyone that the Grim Reaper comes for us all.
As one aghast critic put it, “He makes us feel sick”. Then again, there was even more going on behind the curtain.
41. His Addiction Only Worsened
Despite his promises, Damala’s addiction was too strong to let go of, and it only got worse during this period. It led to even further displays of bad behavior and rapidly diminishing mental capacity. At one point, authorities found Damala undressed and running through the Hotel de Ville in Milan, which narrowly had him spending a few nights behind bars.
When Bernhardt tried to fight back, he only got closer to his tragic end.
42. He Played Cruel Games
At this point, Bernhardt and Damala were on-and-off again, and the increasingly addled Damala seemed to delight in ruffling Bernhardt during their “off” moments. One evening, he even decided to sit in the front row of Bernhardt’s new play and make faces at her the whole time, earning him a beating from Bernhardt’s current lover.
Still, Bernhardt—who was also a devout Roman Catholic—felt she could neither quit Damala nor divorce him. Little did she know, his most appalling insult was on the way.
43. His Mistress Was Nasty
Soon after Damala sent Bernhardt his message begging for forgiveness and help, an extremely disturbing “gift” showed up at the actress’s door. That gift? A bouncing illegitimate baby girl, straight from Damala’s loins. See, Damala had been sleeping with a theater extra, who had the baby, and then decided to dump the little girl with Bernhardt as a particularly cruel message.
Well, Bernhardt was about to prove she could be crueler.
44. His Wife Almost Killed His Love Child
Bernhardt was understandably humiliated and furious at this evidence of Damala’s rampant promiscuity and infidelity, let alone at the implication that she was responsible for the girl. Less understandable, though, was her next reaction. Her notorious temper got the better of her, and Bernhardt actually contemplated drowning the girl in the Seine.
Bernhardt’s servants, terrified that she was really going to go through with it, tried to notify Damala. It was far too late.
45. His Brain Was Wrecked
Tragically, at this point Damala was far too gone into his addiction to even understand what was happening in front of his own face, so he was absolutely no help in saving his daughter’s life. Or, most probably, even comprehending that she existed. Luckily, in the end, one of Bernhardt and Damala’s friends took in the girl—no thanks to either of them.
46. He Publicly Humiliated His Wife
During one notorious performance where Damala had the rare privilege of acting alongside his wife, he messed it up royally. Probably after partaking in some substances in the green room, Damala tore off Bernhardt’s dress on stage, exposing the eminently respected actress’s backside to the entire audience. It may have been the final straw.
47. He Met A Tragic End
In the summer of 1889, just months after his “comeback” performance as Armand Duval, Jacques Damala’s luck lethally ran out. He overdosed in a Paris Hotel room, blazing out of his life just as violently as he had blazed in. He was, incredibly, just 34 years old.
As news of his passing got around, everyone worried how Bernhardt would react—but her reply was surprising.
48. His Love Responded With Indifference
Reportedly, Bernhardt was on stage when news of Damala’s overdose came through the wires. However, the cautious managers of the production only told her after she finished her performance just in case she had a meltdown. Only, she didn’t. The actress’s first response was only a melancholy, “Well, so much the better…” Yet she quickly changed her tune.
49. His Wife Never Forgot Him
Just as in life, Sarah Bernhardt never quite got over Damala in death and wore black in mourning for a year afterward. She not only sent a bust she had made of him to sit on his grave in Athens, Greece, but she also made a point to visit his final resting place every time she toured the area. Still, perhaps her most touching tribute is the one almost no one knows about.
50. He Got What He Wanted In The End
Bernhardt outlived her husband for another 24 years, but she continued to sign her name as “Sarah Bernhardt, widow of Damala” until her own passing in 1923. And that’s not all. Although she kept it a secret from most, Bernhardt did reportedly change her mind about taking on Damala’s surname and had her name legally changed to “Sarah Bernhardt-Damala” at some point. She used this name until her death, too.