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When Sarah Bernhardt met Thomas Alva Edison; first encounters

Afterward she claimed that he was "intensely bored" by the prospect of her visit. Not likely. She was, after all, the incomparable Sarah, on her first tour of America, and Edison, who had been stagestruck in his youth and who cherished a secret image of himself as a tragedian, might have been apprehensive, but not bored. Besides, her visit provided excellent publicity for his new incandescent lamp.

Her motives are less clear. She had finished her New York run and was en route to Boston; Menlo Park, New Jersey, lay in the opposite direction. What in that cold, snowy December of 1880 prompted so deliberate a detour? Perhaps the same sense of adventure that impelled her to ride out on to the partially built Brooklyn Bridge, to go down into a Pennsylvania coal mine, and to leap about on the ice floes of the St Lawrence. Was not the 33-year-old inventor another American wonder to be experienced?

The train reached Menlo Park at 2am - little problem for the routinely nocturnal Edison; more of one for Mrs E, who had prepared supper. Dimly lit carriages transported Bernhardt's party along the dark road. As they neared the house, she saw "the whole country suddenly illuminated". Hundreds of electric lights strung from the trees were reflected by the snow to dazzling effect. The carriage stopped; she alighted. Edison took her extended hand.

Later, touring the lab, the sylphid actress followed her host up and down ladder-like stairways, admiring the machinery, applauding the flashing lights, nodding in response to his running commentary in a language she did not understand. She spoke some lines from Phedre into a marvellous phonograph. She must have it! He would have one specially made. She took his arm; in this short time they were the best of friends. He bore, she decided, a striking resemblance to Napoleon. Gazing over a balustrade into an abyss of revolving wheels and belts, she paid him her ultimate dramatic compliment - she fainted away in his arms