An Unlikely Dalliance . . . the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the scientist Adrien Loire and Rodd Island.
She was the most famous actress in the world, a 46-year old Venus with a well-known appetite for younger men and counted numerous women and the Prince of Wales among her conquests.. He was the nephew of Louis Pasteur, a 25-year-old scientist who stepped out of his uncle’s shadow to come to Sydney and help end the rabbit plague. A little hunk of rock in Iron Cove, known as Rodd Island, was the unlikely place where this pair had a passionate romance.
When Sarah Bernhard arrived in Sydney, from Melbourne, she brought more than 100 pieces of luggage and a menagerie of pet animals, including a large St Bernard, a smaller pug dog, a native bear and several cages containing possum and parrots.
The hundreds of fans who flooded the Redfern railway platform awaiting her arrival in 1891 caused wild scenes, as did her arrival at the Australia Hotel where hundreds more waited to catch a glimpse of the glamorous celebrity. The event even emptied State Parliament.
Theatergoers, many of whom had paid up to £2 for a seat, were genuinely moved by Mme Bernhardt’s performance in La Dame aux Camellias at Her Majesty’s Theatre. After the show the drama critics called her a “woman of genius”, saying she had held the audience “spellbound”. One theatre critic reported: “Her name has been on every tongue for days past. She has been the general and absorbing topic of conversation. In the newspapers, in the clubs, in the hotels, in the streets, her visit has been discussed almost to the verge of weariness.
Loire and Bernhardt met when her dogs were quarantined on Rodd Island, where Loire was living and working. They became friends and visited each other regularly either in her rooms at the Australia Hotel or in his house on the little island.
The romance had long been a maritime legend and has only recently been confirmed by Australian historian, Stephen Dando-Collins, in his book “Pascal’s Gambit”.
Dando-Collins’ book revealed . . . there was only one obstacle that stood in the way of this romance – Loire had a great big handlebar moustache and Bernhardt hated facial hair oh men.
One Sunday before she set off from the island for a spot of fishing Bernhard told Loire: “When I come back, if you have shaved off your moustache, I will kiss you. This was an offer the young scientist could not refuse. When Sarah came back the handlebar moustache was gone! So passionate was their island love affair that the actress feigned illness and cancelled the Brisbane leg of her tour. But she was a confirmed bachelorette and eventually returned to France alone.
While her Rodd Island romance was short-lived, what endured for Bernhardt was a love of island living. On her return to France she purchased a Napoleonic fort on an island off the coast of Brittany, called Belle Isle, where she spent holidays for the next 30 years.
This was just one of many romances that have unfolded on the island, which became a party spot in the early 20th century. After Loire departed and his laboratory was dismantled, a dance floor was installed on Rodd Island and the place became a Sydney party sport. Throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s people travelled there for the regular Gypsy Tea Dances.