The scandalous Jersey Lily
New 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.
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 new 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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
Her only child, a daughter named Jeanne, 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.)
MORE LILLIE: Actresses with tiny, tiny waists (1902)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lillies.
Top photo: Lillie Langtry in 1882, taken by American photographer Napoleon Sarony in New York