Shooting at Lake St John – Sarah Bernhardt In Remuera

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra 1891

In the late 19th century, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the most famous actress in the world. In 1891 she passed through Auckland.

At the end of a North American tour Sarah Bernhardt and her company sailed from San Francisco on 1 May 1891 via Honolulu and Auckland. The Monowai berthed in Auckland at about 5.30pm and left for Sydney at midnight. On her return journey Sarah Bernhardt travelled on the Mariposa on the 11th August, enduring a very rough crossing of the Tasman which saw several passengers injured and the ship extensively damaged. The ship berthed at about 8.30am on the 17th August and left port on the evening of the same day for Honolulu. (1)

These brief visits allowed no time for any formal performance, but Sarah Bernhardt was able to get out and about in Auckland. A man called George Cutler who wrote a column in a local newspaper called the Remuera Round in 1947 described being at Lake St John / Lake Waiatarua in 1891 when he met the Divine Sara. (2)

“Nearly 60 years ago, a horse cab drew up opposite Lake St. John. From it stepped a woman, a single barrel breech-loader in her hands. George Cutler, who had gone to the lake to shoot duck, recoiled at her appearance. He wasn’t rocked by the weapon, but at the sight of a woman wearing skirts as short as a kilt, with boots of red and blue and yellow leather buttoned up her calves. An unheard-of get-up in a day when, if women had legs, they contrived to disguise the fact. But then no one even accused Sarah Bernhardt of orthodoxy. Yes, the great French tragedienne had come to Remuera, an historic event of which few persons today are aware.”

“George Cutler showed her where to shoot duck, but she wasn’t inclined to get her feet wet among the rushes. Instead, she stood on a ridge and picked off skylarks, in those days as numerous as sparrows, an exercise in which she showed a precise skill. “I’m bored of being mobbed in Queen Street,” said she between vicious shots and fluttering birds. The divine Sarah had mundane tastes. She loved trussed skylarks a dish much in favour in her native land.”

“She showed her gastronomic taste at the exclusive Northern Club which broke all precedents by entertaining a woman at luncheon. She referred here to her son, Maurice. A clubman looked puzzled. “I er-er don’t quite comprehend,” he said. “I thought when your name was given, you were introduced as per miss-er-Bernhart. Sarah gave a saucy gesture, her eyes twinkled. Never mind what she said, it was in keeping with her gesture, but dundreary and other types of whiskers trembled as amusement fought through the barriers of dignified respectability.”

Sixty nine years old and still the greatest actress on the modern stage - Sarah Bernhardt. (1)

Sarah Bernhardt by Sarony in 1880.

Sarah Bernhardt always travelled with a dog or two. When she travelled from Auckland to Australia, her dog was quarantined and gave birth to seven puppies. To console herself, she bought a fine St. Bernard dog from a member of the firm of Messrs Howard, Smith and Co. She paid £40 for it, and judges say she knows enough about dogs to secure a good bargain. (3)

However, a gentleman who was travelling in Australia informed the N Z Herald that he was quite surprised when he heard at a railway station there a voice call out: “Auckland ! Auckland !” He found out that the great Madame Bernhardt was travelling, and that during a stoppage of the train, her manservant had been sent out for a few minutes with the big St. Bernard dog which she bought in Australia for £40 to give it a run. Madame has called the dog “Auckland,” as a souvenir of the first place at which she landed in these colonies. He said we are all no doubt grateful.(4)