Lillie Langtry: The life and loves of the scandalous Jersey Lily

Lillie Langtry on stage

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The Fantastic Lillie Langtry: Her life revisited in 1958

LILLIE LANGTRY! Was there ever another woman like her, this fair-haired, blue-eyed, vivacious vixen who, in a single night, captivated London society, quickly caught the eye and heart of Edward, Prince of Wales, then went on the stage and for 34 years toured Britain and America — a one-woman extravaganza?

Two generations of rich young men surrounded her. They showered fantastic wealth upon her — a half-million dollar yacht, a 7,000 acre California ranch, a London townhouse, racehorses enough for a fine stable.

There were gowns from Paris, and jewels in glittering array. One batch of gems stolen from her London bank vault was valued by Lillie at $200,000.

Not to mention cash. In her fabulous years, 10 million dollars passed through Lillie’s soft, efficient hands.

She traveled America in her private railroad car, specially built and a gift, naturally. Her retinue was regal. Her parties were staggering. She and one young lover dispensed $200,000 worth of drinks from their New York mansion.

Lillie married twice. A young Ulster widower was the first really rich man to propose to this young enchantress brought up in the deanery on the Island of Jersey. She married him and sailed away in his yacht.

He introduced her into London society — and lost her. His life became a tragedy, and he died after doctors, laughing at his tale that he was the husband of the fabulous Lillie, sent him to a lunatic asylum.

Mrs Langtry - Portrait with off-the-shoulder dress

LILLIE ALWAYS wanted to be a lady. She achieved the goal at last in a deal with a young man about town. She died in Monte Carlo in 1929 as Lady de Bathe.

She had one child, a daughter. The birth was a Victorian mystery, but Lillie herself related how Edward and his young nephew, Prince Louis of Battenberg, settled the matter with a flip of the coin, and Edward lost.

Prince Louis later became First Lord of the Admiralty, and changed his name to Mountbatten. A grandnephew, Philip, is today husband of the English queen. [Editor’s note from 2021: In keeping with the family names, Harry & Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, named their firstborn Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. Philip, mentioned above, is the father of Prince Charles, and grandfather of Harry.]

Lillie Langtry on stage

How the story of Lillie Langtry began

The story of Lillie Langtry really began on a mild May night in 1877. The street lamps pierced London’s springtime dusk as the four-wheeler with her and her husband of three years drew up outside Lady Sebright’s house in Lowndes Square, a mile or so from Buckingham Palace.

LILLIE WAS mourning her brother, but the square-necked black dress had been cunningly cut by the little St. Helier dressmaker to show off her figure and her superb alabaster shoulders.

The hostess led the rich young couple up the wide, crimson-carpeted staircase. Langtry nervously pulled at his dark, straggly mustache. Suddenly the glitter of light, the warm murmur of conversation reached out at Lillie Langtry. This was her world — the world she was determined to take by storm. She was 23.

Into the drawing room filled with lovely women carefully and richly dressed, glittering with diamonds, their hair in elaborate coiffures, glided the newcomer, without a single jewel, her hair tied in a simple bun.

Quickly, almost magically, she was encircled by masculine faces above stiff white shirt fronts.

The rich and powerful Earl of Wharncliffe, busy spending a coal fortune, bustled Langtry aside to take Lillie to supper. The hostess, Lady Sebright, drew her aside with a whisper: “You’ll be the talk of London tomorrow. You’re a tremendous success.”

They were.

Lillie Langtry portrait with hat - Photo by Sarony

For their first dinner party, they went to the Curzon Street mansion of the Earl of Wharncliffe.

Lord Randolph Churchill, father of the infant Winston, monopolized the conversation, and the next day wrote to his American wife, Jennie: “I took in to dinner a Mrs. Langtry, a most beautiful creature, quite unknown, very poor, and they say has but one black dress.”

That year photography was a craze, and photographers seized on the new belle. Lillie’s face soon filled shop windows.

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Fashionable, beautiful, admired & copied

LILLIE INSPIRED new fashions. Hurrying to lunch one day, she wound black velvet around her head and pinned it with a quill. The Langtry toque appeared almost at once in every smart milliner’s window. Shoes and parasols were named for her.

She sat for several painters. Miles sold a portrait to Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, a tall, transparent-skinned, delicate youth, who was to die at 31.

Another portrait, by Millais, showing her in a clinging black dress and, as the only touch of color, with a crimson lily in her hand, was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Miles and an Oxford pal, Oscar Wilde, idolized Mrs. Langtry. “I with my pencil and Oscar with his pen will make you the most famous beauty of the age,” Miles told her.

“FOUR NEW gowns for Ascot,” she said quickly. He laughed, patted her hand, and said: “Sensible young woman. Many another woman would have asked to have been made a duchess in her own right.”

Another early morning caller at the Langtry home was King Leopold of the Belgians.

But the real king of London society was Edward, Prince of Wales. Victoria had brought him up sternly, but when he broke from her tight-lipped restraints, he kicked over the parental traces with abandon.

ONE EVENING late in June, the Langtrys, in London for less than a month, drove in their new brougham along sedate Oxford Street.

Actress Lillie Langtry with umbrella

Extra special

Mrs. Langtry had that day already been to tea at the Langham, the most luxurious hotel in Europe. The Brougham turned into Stratford Place, a large cul-de-sac of elegant houses, and stopped at the home of rich young bachelor Sir Allan Young.

Mrs. Langtry had not told her husband this supper party was extra special, and Langtry, for once, was looking forward to it. He liked Young, an explorer, an open air type — a man’s man.

But the moment Mrs. Langtry stepped into the drawing room, the hum of conversation was turned off. The inevitable dozen men rushed toward Lillie. Young took a position at her side and stayed there, as though the pair were hatching a plot.

A servant appeared. There was a hurried whisper, and Young followed her from the room.

Thru the open door came a guttural voice, warm-toned and friendly: “I’m afraid I’m a little late.” Then the tubby, bearded figure of Edward, Prince of Wales, resplendent with medals donned for a diplomatic affair he had just escaped, appeared.

“I was absolutely panic-stricken,” Mrs. Langtry said to her husband afterward, “and could have climbed the chimney to escape.”

The prince, at 36, his palely protuberant eyes fixed on her, just 23, came forward.

A union that was to last, on and off, for the rest of their lives, had begun.

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The scandalous Jersey Lily (1958)

Book tells the dazzling story of beautiful Mrs Lillie Langtry, British actress who won Prince of Wales’ heart, and had saloon named for her by Texas judge Roy Bean

The cult of the professional beauty flourished as never before in the late 1870s and early 1880s, when its most glamorous exponent was lovely Lillie Langtry, the so-called Jersey Lily.

Mrs Langtry was a statuesque blonde with blue eyes, a perfect complexion and a ravishing figure. She was acclaimed by the social set. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, paid homage to the beautiful lady from the Isle of Jersey.

Beautiful Mrs Lillie Langtry

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Mrs Langtry crossed the Atlantic to act in American theaters with such success that even boys who shines shoes on Chicago street corners knew that her name signified the ultimate in feminine beauty.

Whatever she touched became history. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for example, is mentioned in a book, The Jersey Lily: The story of the fabulous Mrs Langtry, by Pierre Sichel, merely because Mrs Langtry, taking a before breakfast stroll, there commented on a handsome team of Percherons [horses] drawing a laundry wagon.

The Jersey Lily was a country girl; her father was Episcopal dean of the lonely English Channel Isle of Jersey.

Lillie Langtry: The scandalous Jersey Lily (1958) Lillie Langtry: The scandalous Jersey Lily (1958)

When she was a tall young woman with an unruly twist of reddish hair, she went with her father to watch a yacht trying to make shore in a storm. While sailors struggled with the canvas, Lillie noticed a man wearing a white scarf who seemed to be directing operations.

She grabbed the field glasses from her father’s hands, and when the yacht had arrived, Lillie prompted her father to invite the boat’s owner, Edward Langtry, to stay at the deanery. A few weeks later, Lillie and Langtry were married in an early morning ceremony so the yacht could sail with the tide.

ALSO SEE: Antique women’s clothing from 1890: See the styles Victorian ladies were wearing

Oscar Wilde complimented her

During their first year in London, the Langtrys were virtually unnoticed, but when some titled people met Lillie, the “delightful Langtrys” began to receive cards for all the society functions. Night after night, Lillie pressed her one evening dress, a plain black number.

Oscar Wilde told her how beautiful she was, and artists Watts and Millais painted her in the black dress. Soon Lillie had a little house in London where Whistler arranged gilded palm-leaf fans to relieve the monotonous walls.

Lillie Langtry aka Emilie Charlotte Le Breton onstage in 1905

At a late supper, Lille and her husband met the Prince of Wales, a short man blazing with medals. “I have seen your photographs all over London,” he told her. “I must say, they hardly attest to your beauty.”

“Thank you, sir, I am not so handsome as my father,” she replied.

From this exchange, the affair of the Jersey Lily and the prince developed. A friend told Lillie that the “prince was much interested in forming a possible friendship with you.” [His Royal Highness Albert-Edward, the Prince of Wales, was the son of Queen Victoria — for whom the Victorian Era was named — and he would eventually become King Edward VII.]

The outcome of the “negotiations” was the acceptance by society of a rule that if the price of Wales was to attend a party, Mrs Langtry must be invited.

At this period, the English aristocracy was fond of hilarious high jinks, including things like sliding downstairs at house parties on silver trays, a game said to have been popularized by Mrs Langtry.

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891
Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra (1891)

A flea for the prince

One night when Lillie was gaily calling the prince “Bertie-wertie” she persuaded him to drink a cup of champagne into which she had popped a live flea lifted from her own chest.

She had first plucked the insect, she said, from her horse. Prince Albert Edward was reluctant to swallow the little hopper, but since Lillie asked it, he finally downed the wine, swimming flea and all. A short time later Lillie shoved a piece of ice down the prince’s collar.

Some thought these incidents went a little too far, and there was a period of ostracism for Lillie. Meanwhile, she decided to leave her husband.

MORE: Victorian etiquette: See 129 rules that men were supposed to follow

HRH Albert-Edward Prince of Wales - Future King Edward VII

Her only child, a daughter named Jeanne [Jeanne Marie Langtry Malcolm], was born in 1881 in a cottage on the Isle of Jersey. The child was reared by Lillie’s mother and governesses.

Meantime, Lillie, coached by Mrs Henrietta Labouchere, made her debut as an actress in January 1882, in London’s Haymarket theater.

Some critics acclaimed her. Everybody agreed that she was beautiful. (Once, when an African king was to be entertained by royalty, the Prince of Wales sent for Mrs Langtry. “If heaven had only made you black and fat,” exclaimed the dark emperor.)

As her acting career developed, Henry E Abbey brought the Jersey Lily to the United States. She was advertised as no other star had been. Her opening filled Wallack’s Theater, and brought $6,800 — $1,000 more than Sarah Bernhardt’s record night.

Then Lillie met Freddie Gebhard, a wealthy Baltimore playboy, with whom she had an affair that lasted eight years. Freddie wanted to marry her, but Langtry, the deserted husband, would not give her a divorce.

Freddie and she traveled about the country in a private railroad car, called the Lalee.

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Lillie Langtry c1882

All America was talking about the beautiful actress. Typical of the Langtry vogue was the action of Judge Roy Bean, the so-called “law west of the Pecos,” who changed the name of his tough, Texan town from Vinegaroon to Langtry.

When Lillie offered to present the town with a drinking fountain, Judge Bean: “If there’s one thing folks don’t drink in Langtry, it’s water!”

The walls of Judge Bean’s saloon-courtroom were covered with magazine pictures of Lillie.

When she finally got to the town of Langtry, she was given a baby mountain lion, several horned toads, and Judge Bean’s revolver.

She returned to England, where Lillie and Freddie broke up after the American crashed into a room where she was entertaining the Prince of Wales in London. Lillie charged that Freddie lacked proper respect for royalty.

MORE: Til death did they part? Victorian divorce statistics (1898)

Lillie Langtry portrait

When Alfred Lunt met Lillie Langtry

The 1880s were noted for curious characters, and Lillie seemed to meet most of them.

One was “Squire Abingdon,” actually George Abingdon Baird, scion of a wealthy coal mining family of Scotland. He followed her to Paris, and surprised her with the socially-prominent Bobby Peel.

Baird beat up the lovely Lillie, marking her face until it seemed her beauty would be permanently impaired. She recovered, and, a few weeks later, the contrite squire presented her with the “world’s finest yacht,” called the White Lady.

The years passed, and Freddie Gebhard died at 50, a New York wine salesman. Four months before, King Edward VII had died.

Meanwhile, Lillie’s daughter was married, and was not anxious to be connected with her mother.

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Mrs Lillie Langtry on the cover of The Theatre magazine 1903

Lillie Langtry’s later life

When Lillie was 46, she married Hugo de Bathe, 27, Edward Langtry having died. At 59, she made a motion picture. There were numerous “farewell tours” of the United States, some in vaudeville.

Young Alfred Lunt toured with her for 26 weeks on the Orpheum circuit.

Lunt recalled the first meeting vividly: “It was late afternoon, and I shall never forget her silhouette against the sky, exactly as she looked in her early photographs. It was a beautiful profile. She was still a handsome woman, rather big, with the bluest eyes I have ever seen.” Mrs Langtry was then 63.

Lily Langtry - Lillie Langtry in a fur-trimmed coat and muff

Commuting between Liverpool and New York, she met Somerset Maugham, and told him about her old affair with Freddie Gebhard.

“Who was he?” asked the British author.

“The most celebrated man in two hemispheres,” she answered.

“Why?” asked Maugham.

“Because I loved him,” was the reply.

“The proudest thing I ever heard a woman say,” wrote Maugham later.

ALSO SEE: When Victorian women started smoking, cigarette sales were hot

Lillie Langtry with tight corseted waist

After World War I, Lillie lived in Villa Le Lys in Monaco, her husband in Nice. She read, grew flowers, played at the casino, and, her hair dyed, danced with the gigolos in Monte Carlo hotels.

In a room adjoining her bedroom, her pet poodles barked as Lillie died on February 12, 1929, at 76. Only a woman companion was with her.

She was buried in the churchyard on her beloved Isle of Jersey. The aged captain of the yacht, on which she and Edward Langtry had sailed with the tide so long before, hobbled to the grave to deposit a little bouquet of red Jersey lilies.

Older Lillie Langtry - 1920s before death in 1929


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Comments on this story

4 Responses

  1. I have been watching the series”Lilly” on Roku channel, Really enjoying it so much. Quite a story & quite a Woman. The4 Actor who plays Oscar Wilde Is Amazing. Francheska Annis plays Lilly, so Beautiful!

  2. I agree I liked the serial. However Francesca Annis has brown eyes and a darker complexion than Mrs. Langtry did. Also I didn’t like the studio scenes being videotaped, rather than put on film, videotape looks cheap.

    1. I understand your point, but most indoor scenes in BBC and PBS productions were videotaped in that era. It actually has a nostalgic feel for me now and lends the scenes a more personal and immediate feel – as though you were in the rooms with the characters. The original Poldark series and The Last of the Mohicans serial were both excellent and filmed the same way. The outdoor scenes of these series were filmed more traditionally to capture the authentic beauty of the locations.

  3. The PBS series on Masterpiece Theatre in 1979 of Lillie hooked me on that time period. I also have the dvd The site Americana pointed out a few facts that were dramatized in the series. Lillie’s story couldn’t have been fiction. Over the years it’s been enjoyable to connect many Victorian series.

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