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Born Paul Bernard into a Jewish family in Besançon, Doubs, Franche-Comté, France, he was the son of an architect. He left Besançon at the age of 14 years, relocating with his father to Paris, where he studied at the Lycée Condorcet, which was noted for its numerous literary alumni. In 1888 was born his son Jean-Jacques Bernard, also a dramatist.
He studied law, but after his military service he started his career as the manager of an aluminium smelter. In the 1890s he also managed the Vélodrome de la Seine at Levallois-Perret and the Vélodrome Buffalo, whose events were an integral part of Parisian life, being regularly attended by personalities such as Toulouse-Lautrec. He reputedly introduced the bell to signify the last lap of a race.
After his first publication in La Revue Blanche in 1891, he became increasingly a writer and adopted the pseudonym Tristan. His first play, Les Pieds Nickelés (Nickel-plated Feet), was a great success and was representative of the style of his later work (generally humorous). He became known especially for his writing for vaudeville-type performances, which were very popular in France during that time. He also wrote several novels and some poetry. Bernard is remembered mainly for witticisms, particularly from his play Les Jumeaux de Brighton (The Brighton Twins). In 1932, he was a candidate for the Académie Française, but was not elected, receiving only 2 votes of a total of 39.
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He was interned during World War II at the Drancy deportation camp. When Gestapo agents were at his door he turned to his wife, who was crying, and said "Don´t cry, we were living in fear, but from now on we will live in hope". Public protest of his imprisonment caused his release in 1943. He died in Paris four years later, allegedly of the results of his internment, and was buried in Passy cemetery.
A theater in Paris that he ran briefly as the "Théâtre Tristan-Bernard" in 1931 was later given the name permanently to honor him.
His descendants have achieved some fame. His son Raymond Bernard became an influential French filmmaker (using as scripts a number of works authored by his father) while his son Jean-Jacques Bernard published a memoir of his father in 1955 titled Mon père Tristan Bernard (My Father, Tristan Bernard). Tristan Bernard's grandson Christian Bernard is the current Imperator of the Rosicrucian organization AMORC. One of his grand-nephews is Francis Veber, a screenwriter, director and playwright whose films have been frequently remade or adapted in Hollywood.
- Les Pieds nickelés (1895)
- L'Anglais tel qu'on le parle (1899)
- Triplepatte (1905)
- The Brighton Twins (Les Jumeaux de Brighton) (1908)
- The Little Cafe (Le petit café) (1911)
- Vous m'en direz tant (1894) collaboration with Pierre Veber
- Contes de Pantruche et d'ailleurs (1897)
- Sous toutes réserves (1898)
- Mémoires d'un jeune homme rangé (1899)
- Amants et voleurs (1905)
- L'Affaire Larcier (1924)
- Robin des bois (1935)
- Un mari pacifique
- Aux abois