Hotel Australia

The Australia entertained many famous guests, none more exacting than Sarah Bernhardt, who installed a whole menagerie of birds and beasts in the suite she occupied during her Sydney season in 1891. She was 46, at the height of her reputation and had played in Melbourne before travelling to Sydney on 7 July. She and her entourage of twenty-five actors, actresses and servants were two hours late arriving because the train was held up in Melbourne while a member of the company went in a hansom cab back to St Kilda to retrieve a tortoise that had been left behind. State parliament was deserted, the Mayor was there to meet her, the harbour decorated as if for a regatta and the whole town illuminated at night. Hundreds of people turned out at Redfern Station: a scene of great confusion ensued as hotel servants endeavoured to secure in safety Madame Bernhardt’s hundred and one parcels, wraps, animals and cages. The St Bernard, the pug, the native bear, the possums, the parrots and the tortoise all stayed with her in her suite, where she was in the habit of dining in state around midnight. Hotel management did all they could to accommodate their eccentric guest, the only casualty was the hotel engineer, Sam Dickinson, who fell off a ladder in the basement while checking the electric light and refrigerating plant, fractured his skull and died. She played femme fatales: La Dame aux Camelias, La Tosca, Fedora, Jeanne d’Arc and Cleopatra and was a purist in matters of detail. Wax grapes were unacceptable; her manager instructed the properties man at His Majesty’s Theatre to send a cab to Adelaide for some real ones; but the enterprising Mr Phillips instead soaked raisins in wine, they swelled, and the grand dame pronounced them acceptable. All her performances were in French so the audiences were provided with booklets of English translations and the house lights left up so that they could read along.  At the same time Adrien Loir, the nephew of Louis Pasteur, was in Australia seeking a means of ending the appalling plague of rabbits. Dr Loir needed a translator and Bernhardt, who liked handsome younger men, offered her services; indeed she liked him so much she cancelled her Brisbane season and went instead for a week to Rodd Island in the harbour, where she and Dr Loir held a passionate romp. Madame Bernhardt opened the Hotel Australia, her name was first on the register, and subsequently displayed in a glass case in the foyer. The hotel had a large polished granite entrance onto the street, the stairs were grey stone, the Doric columns red. The squared columns in the foyer itself were of imported Italian marble and the neo-classical staircase which led from the main foyer to the first floor was Carrara marble in several colours. From the first to the tenth floor a massive carved and polished mahogany staircase led to their rooms those guests who, in the early days of lifts, preferred to walk. Also on the first floor were the Winter Garden, the Moorish Lounge and the Emerald Room, with a high, decorated ceiling, Italian chandeliers, and a dais at the west end with a white marble fountain, surrounded by palms. The hotel was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for the MLC Centre; as for Madame Bernhardt, she returned to France alone but soon after bought an island in Brittany, where she spent her holidays for the rest of her life. When she died in 1923, half a million citizens lined the streets of Paris to say farewell to her. No-one knows what happened to the tortoise.

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