Langtry, Lillie (1853–1929)
Langtry, Lillie (1853–1929)
British courtesan and actress who rose from an obscure life on the Isle of Jersey to become celebrated, in her youth, as the most beautiful woman of her era. Name variations: Lily; The Jersey Lily. Born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton on October 13, 1853, on the Isle of Jersey; died in Monaco on February 12, 1929; daughter of William Le Breton (Anglican dean of Jersey) and Emilie Martin (a Londoner); tutored at home; married Edward Langtry, on March 9, 1874 (divorced 1885); married Hugo de Bathe, in 1899; children: (with Louis Battenberg) Jeanne-Marie Langtry (b. March 8, 1881, in Paris).
Made stage debut in She Stoops to Conquer in London (December 15, 1881). Publications: The Days I Knew (1925).
Lillie Langtry was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in 1853 on the Isle of Jersey (eleven miles long by five miles wide, a few miles off the coast of France). She was a roughneck and playmate of six brothers in a family with a glorious past. A Le Breton fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 beside William the Conqueror and was pictured in the Bayeux Tapestry. His descendants were feudal lords who prospered under King John Lackland, but in Lillie's day the family was circumscribed by money and the provincial nature of the island.
Her first romantic attachment, when she was about 13, led to a shocking discovery. She had fallen in love with a local boy from the island, whom her father William Le Breton, Anglican dean of Jersey, had forbidden her to see. Lillie pressed him for an explanation until she learned that the boy was her father's illegitimate son, her own half-brother.
A handful of English lords owned property in Jersey, and Lillie, as daughter of the dean, was considered a suitable companion for their daughters. She was by all accounts astonishingly beautiful, with reddish hair and deep blue eyes. Through the offices of Lord Suffield, who owned an estate on Jersey and was lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria , Lillie was introduced to London society at age 15. She found herself socially inept, graceless, and her clothes inferior even to the maids who dressed in tailored black dresses and crisp white aprons. When her weeks in London were over, she returned happily to Jersey.
Edward Langtry, the ne'er-do-well grandson of Belfast's wealthiest shipowner, was a 26-year-old widower living on the island. By her own admission, Lillie was attracted to his 80-foot yacht Red Gauntlet. Ambitious for money, excitement, and position, she set about to win him over. Soon after their marriage, on March 9, 1874, Edward sold his boat to generate the income with which to keep his costly bride. His ardor for her soon cooled, however, and he publicly compared Lillie unfavorably to his first, more docile wife Jane Langtry . The Langtrys did share a love of their racing yawl, and once, out of deference to Lillie who was sleeping in her cabin, Edward declined to fire a victory cannon when he passed a winning post. Waiting for her to awaken, he allowed two other boats to drift past him and win the race.
With Edward's money, Lillie bought Noirmont Manor, an estate on Jersey that she liked to think rivaled the feudal courts of her ancestors. She soon tired of its isolation, however, and the couple moved to Southampton where she contracted typhoid fever. She convinced her physician that she should convalesce in the city of London, which had no reputation for therapeutic properties, but great renown for its social ones.
In 1876, when she was 23, a chance meeting at the royal Aquarium with Lord Ranelagh, whom she knew from Jersey, led her into London society and the world of the Aesthetes. Devotees of a Romantic knightly past, they included in their number the architect and designer William Morris and the painter Edward Burne-Jones. Lacking furs, jewels, a proper maid and sufficient funds, Langtry knew she could not compete with women of fashion. Cleverly, she cultivated her own style and dressed down in simple clothes fashioned for her in Jersey, and arranged her hair with a loose knot at the nape of her neck and a fringe of bangs on her forehead.
When she appeared in drawing rooms where monied society entertained rising artists, she was a sensation. John Everett Millais was struck by her pale skin, high profile and Junoesque figure. Combining the qualities of a country girl with the spirit of a goddess, she appeared to embody the passions of the Arthurian Age, which the Aesthetes celebrated. Millais asked to be introduced to her and immediately sought to do her portrait. Soon, other artists and lords pressed in, asking her to model for them or to allow them to take her to dinner. In a corner of the room, George F. Miles took a tailor's bill from his pocket, sketched her in pencil, and soon had the sketch reproduced and advertised in shop windows.
As her celebrity grew, Edward Langtry was ignored. Having sought the sea in Jersey, he now found himself confined to London drawing rooms where he retreated into melancholy and drink. His uncomfortable role was to provide Lillie with funds and the respectability of being a married woman.
When Millais' portrait of her was exhibited at the Marsden galleries in 1877, she was established a "p.b." or professional beauty, a group of young women celebrated for being celebrated. Soon she was known as "The Jersey Lily," after a second painting Millais did of her. Langtry was sought after by society hostesses and was the subject of mass-produced photographs sold to the public. She attended two or three parties a night, accompanied by the hapless Edward. One woman described her as entering a room like "a beautiful hound set upon its feet."
Still unable to afford fashionable Paris gowns, Langtry wore a black mourning dress for her favorite brother who had just died. Frances Maynard, a young girl who met her at this time (and who would later succeed her as mistress to the prince of Wales as Frances Greville , countess of Warwick, the richest woman in the kingdom), wrote: "She had dewy violet eyes, a complexion like a peach. How can words convey the vitality, the glow, the amazing charm that made this fascinating woman the center of any group she entered?" Langtry earned acclaim, and probably some money, by continuing to model for artists and photographers. Edward Langtry, whom Frances dismissed as "an uninteresting fat man," always accompanied her. James Whistler, Edward Poynter and George Frederic Watts produced some of the more famous portraits of Langtry at this time.
Mutual friends arranged for Lillie to meet Queen Victoria's son Edward, the prince of Wales (the future king Edward VII), at a dinner party, and soon they began an affair. When Edward openly flaunted their relationship, Langtry was lionized by hostesses. She was no longer intimidated by her social gaffes and felt they did not matter. She once asked Ulysses S. Grant, who was on a world tour, what he had done since the Civil War, oblivious to the fact that in the interim he had been president of the United States.
I would rather have discovered Mrs. Langtry than have discovered America.
The prince of Wales built a house for her in Bournemouth so they could rendezvous a hundred miles from London in relative privacy. At public receptions, she met the greatest politicians of the age, including Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, who brought her books and offered to tutor her in English literature. Oscar Wilde, then a disheveled 22-year-old just down from Oxford, already possessed a prize for poetry and a gift for showmanship, and the two of them found they could use each other to advantage. Wilde walked through town holding a single white amaryllis to show his admiration for "The Jersey Lily," and she relied on him to educate her about art and the classics. She soon fell behind in her studies and declined to follow up on some of his more elaborate suggestions—such as driving through the park, enveloped in black, with "Venus Annodomini" written on her bonnet in sapphires.
Only one woman threatened Langtry's renown as the most sought-after woman in London—Sarah Bernhardt . Bernhardt, who brought her Comédie Française to England in 1879, briefly captured the prince of Wales' attention, but the two women apparently admired each other and were soon friends. Lillie then became infatuated with a new man, Louis Battenberg, the prince's nephew, and soon found she was pregnant by him. Meanwhile, Edward Langtry's Irish estates were being ruined by political turmoil and the potato famine of the late 1870s. Lillie sent him off to America on some dubious business prospect during her confinement, and the two never lived together again. After her daughter Jeanne-Marie Langtry was born in Paris on March 8, 1881, Langtry gave her to her mother to raise as the child of one of her deceased brothers. With debts closing in on her, Lillie considered several professions to make money, including gardening, to make the most of her sobriquet The Jersey Lily, and the new field of product endorsement. Finally, she decided to capitalize on her looks and popularity by going on stage, although her friend Ellen Terry warned that she was too pampered to endure such a rough life.
So at age 28, Lillie Langtry prepared for her stage debut. On December 15, 1881, she appeared in a supporting role in Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer at the Theater Royal in London. All the while, she was bedeviled by thoughts that actors were no better than tradesmen, and she was bored by long rehearsals, which seemed like physical labor. The prince of Wales, whose friendship she always retained, helped her by attending the opening with his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark , who was perennially gracious and supportive of Langtry.
Some critics expressed surprise that the Jersey Lily had potential as an actress. Others said she would have to work hard to prove that she had real gifts. Lillie, however, was enough of a success that the prince soon persuaded the actor-manager Squire Bancroft to hire Langtry at a handsome salary. As if to remove the long-standing stigma from the acting profession, the prince opened his home, Marlborough House, to actors and openly socialized with them. Gladstone, now prime minister, who made a hobby of trying to rescue fallen women, gave Lillie volumes of Shakespeare and read scenes aloud to her.
Langtry had by now been replaced as the prince's favorite by Frances Greville. Embarked on a new phase of her life, Lillie attempted to sue Edward Langtry for divorce, but he threatened to create a scandal. She was forced to pay him a monthly allowance, which would be revoked if he attempted to contact her.
When Langtry felt she had sufficient experience, she organized her own troupe, which was managed by the erstwhile actress Henrietta
Hobson , her business manager. After touring the provinces, the company traveled to the United States. Two days after the Jersey Lily's departure, Louis Battenberg was allowed to return to Great Britain from an extended tour of duty in the Middle East.
On her own and in greater need of money than respectability, Langtry's hardness and venality began to assert itself. A 22-year-old American millionaire named Freddie Gebhard wooed her with a diamond necklace and bracelet. Their relationship, her popularity with the public (but not with the critics), and an acrimonious break with Henrietta Hobson, kept gossip columnists busy promoting Lillie's name. Her fame was such that she stopped traffic in New York after her American debut in Unequal Match in 1882. When the troupe toured the West, she and Gebhard openly traveled together, prompting a congressman to demand that she be deported, and an editor in St. Louis to challenge Gebhard to a duel.
Fearing that the notoriety would hurt her in Britain, she decided to stay in the States and took the $100,000 she had earned from the tour and invested in real estate on Fifth Avenue and a private railroad car decorated with polished brass lilies. She became a citizen, which enabled her to divorce Edward in 1885 on grounds other than adultery, of which she of course was guilty. Still living in England, he knew nothing of the existence of his wife's daughter, who was now six, or of the divorce proceedings.
Langtry returned to Europe to see her daughter, to buy clothes in Paris, and to study acting in Paris with Sarah Bernhardt. "I despair of becoming a real actress when I work on the stage with her and I would gladly exchange my beauty, such as it is, for a soupçon of her great gift," she wrote a friend in New York.
During her years in America, Langtry was shunned by American society. Though the Four Hundred excluded her from their number, she enjoyed the rough and tumble of the American West. Cowhands staged an impromptu rodeo for her benefit and "Judge" Roy Bean traveled to Chicago to see her perform, then returned to Texas and named a town after her.
On her visits to England, she encouraged aristocrats who wooed her. Hugh, Lord Lonsdale, the "sporting earl," and Sir George Chetwynd came to blows over her while the three promenaded in London's fashionable Rotten Row. Newspaper headlines about this brawl between two married men ended any pretense Langtry might have had to respectability and alerted tradespeople, to whom she owed money, of her return. They soon sued her. At 30, the one shock she was unable to face was the passage of time. When Oscar Wilde presented her with a play he had written for her, about a woman with a grown illegitimate daughter, she claimed she was too young and thus passed up Lady Windermere's Fan. Meanwhile, her daughter was growing up uncertain as to whether she was Lillie's niece or daughter, a child of the prince of Wales or Edward Langtry, whom she had never seen. Gebhard treated her as his daughter, but Lillie broke with him in 1889, when Jeanne-Marie was eight. Reportedly, Gebhard and Langtry fought over a visit from the prince of Wales while Lillie was gravely ill in London. Neither Langtry nor her daughter ever saw Gebhard again.
Now resettled in Britain, Lillie took as her next millionaire the disreputable Squire Abingdon, a Scot and amateur jockey who would beat her and then repent by giving her a ransom in diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. When a friend found Lillie hiding at home with a blackened eye, Langtry said, "I detest him, but every time he does it, he gives me a check for £5,000." The few respectable people who had stood by her through her past escapades now shunned her. When the squire found Langtry in a Paris hotel with a young Englishman, he destroyed their room in his rage, then beat them both savagely. Lillie spent ten days in the hospital, during which time she signed a complaint for the squire's arrest. To restore himself to her good graces, he had jewels delivered daily, then presented her with two thoroughbreds. She held on to the gifts, and her anger, until he gave her a 600-ton yacht that was more than the equal of the prince of Wales' new toy The Britannia. Like the prince, Langtry soon sold her vessel to concentrate on her racing stable. She collected £120,000 on a single race in October 1897. Husband and lover did less well. Edward Langtry died insane on October 15, 1897, in a Chestershire county asylum. After Lillie sent a wreath with a ribbon in her racing colors of turquoise and fawn, The New York Times noted in an editorial that it was a "piece of insolence so utterly reckless and original, and at the same time so ingenious and effective, that its moral and social aspects tend to or toward complete disappearance."
Langtry made one last marriage, to Hugo de Bathe, who was 19 years her junior. His father, the baronet Sir Henry de Bathe, promptly disinherited him, saying, "I wish I could die now so that the will could go into effect at once." He waited six years to die, and then Lillie became Lady de Bathe, while remaining on the stage. One afternoon at a party, Jeanne-Marie, who thought her father was dead, learned that Louis Battenberg was her father and politely left the party to return home to confront her mother with the lies she had told. Their relationship never recovered. Jeanne-Marie married a Scottish lord, had four children, and slowly cut Lillie from her life. After the death of Edward VII, who had loved Lillie when he was prince of Wales, the royal family received her, but her own daughter would not. Lillie Langtry died in Monaco on February 12, 1929, with only a paid companion by her side.
Gerson, Noel Bertram. Lillie Langtry. London: Hale, 1972.
Langtry, Lillie. The Days I Knew. NY: George H. Doran, 1925.
Birkett, Jeremy, and John Richardson. Lillie Langtry: Her Life in Words and Pictures. Poole: Blandford Press, 1979.
Brough, James. The Prince and the Lily: The Story of Lillie Langtry—The Greatest International Beauty of Her Day. NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975.
Lillie (11 hours, 22 min. videocassette), seven-part series starring Francesca Annis , aired on Public Television.