Bernhardt was also a keen fan of photography, using the most modern 19th century technologies available to get her image out to the public.
Bernhardt as Gismonda, created by Mucha in 1884, Paris
By the time the Divine Sarah Bernhardt arrived in Australia in 1891, she was the most famous actress in the world. The Pall Mall Gazette in July 1891 noted that the 46-year-old star’s arrival in Sydney emptied State Parliament and caused wild scenes at Redfern station where she was received with extraordinary honours. The Mayor left his duties to meet her and took her to an official reception. The harbour was decorated as if for a regatta, and the town was illuminated at night.
Everyone cashed in on her trip to Australia. The fabulous Australia Hotel, whose foundation stone had been laid by the state premier Sir Henry Parkes just two years earlier, asked Sarah Bernhardt to perform the grand opening. Her name was first in the new hotel register, later displayed in a glass showcase in the main foyer.
Hotel Australia, 1891, opened by Bernhardt
The newspapers were agog. The Melbourne Argus in Sep 1890 told its readers that JC Williamson has concluded an agreement with Mme Sarah Bernhardt and company, who would visit Australia for a theatrical season of 10 weeks. She would first appear in Melbourne in June 1892. The plays to be produced would include M. Sardou's drama Cleopatra. In July 1891 The Argus wrote "Madame Sarah Bernhardt opened the Sydney season to night at Her Majesty s Theatre in Camille. The house was crowded by a brilliant audience, who, though somewhat impassive during the first act of the play, were gradually warmed to genuine enthusiasm, and rewarded the magnificent performance of the great actress by thunders of applause. Tomorrow La Tosca will be produced".
Photo of Bernhard, taken during her Australian trip, 1891 (State Library Vic)
At the very same time, Australia needed help to end the appalling rabbit plague and Professor Louis Pasteur sent his brilliant nephew Dr Adrien Loir (1862-1941), a handsome young scientist, to represent the family business – the Pasteur Institute. Apparently Dr Loir needed a translator since he didn’t speak English well, so Bernhardt offered her services (sic)! Bernhardt, aged 47, was already a legendary lover with a particular interest in much younger men. She took one look at young Dr Loir and instead of going on to fulfil her contractual obligations in Brisbane, the couple had a passionate romp for a week on the tiny Rodd Island in Sydney Harbour.
In time, the lovely Bernhardt returned to France alone, but clearly island life had started to appeal to her. At home she bought a Napoleonic fort on the lovely Belle Isle off the coast of Brittany where she spent holidays for the rest of her life. When the star died in 1923, half a million citizens lined the streets of Paris to bid farewell to France's most beloved heroine.
Read Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, written by Robert Gottlieb and published by Yale UP, 2010. And read EdwardianPromenade for some of the gossip that surrounded her early adult life.
It is just as well she did her romping in Australia. At 70 she injured her leg when performing Victorien Sardou’s play Tosca, in which she was the heroine who finally hurls herself off a castle wall to kill herself in despair. She tried wearing a cast but that failed; the Divine Sarah then decided she would be better off without the leg altogether. She wrote to one of her lovers, the surgeon Samuel Pozzi, telling him to cut it off above the knee. Even then, wooden legs failed her, so she was carried around on a sedan chair for the rest of her life, including on stage and on tour.