Considered the most beautiful woman in England, Royal Mistress to the Prince of Wales, paramour of the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg, Lillie Langtry, a Victorian beauty, caused a commotion wherever she went. She became a controversial figure who challenged Victorian society’s attitude toward women and paved the way for future women entrepreneurs all over the world.
Born in 1853 on the island of Jersey, located off the Normandy coast of France, Emilie Charlotte Le Bretton, affectionately called Lillie, grew up with six brothers. Her father was the Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey, and her mother, Emilie Davis, a woman noted for her beauty.
Lillie inherited her mother’s good looks and had many suitors on the island. One asked Lillie’s father for her hand, but was turned down as Lillie was only fifteen at the time. She paid the suitors no mind preferring to roughhouse with her boisterous brothers, join in their pranks, and ride horses bareback on the beaches and throughout the countryside of Jersey. Her father also insisted that she have the same educational opportunities as the boys and she proved to be an ardent and talented student.
When it became known that her father, the religious authority on the island, was a habitual philanderer, Lillie decided it was time to leave Jersey and wanted to sail to the continent and live in London. Her reprieve came in 1874, when at twenty years old, she married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner, yachtsman, and angler. He took her from the island to his home in Southampton. Having escaped Jersey and her family’s troubles, Lillie expected marriage to open up a whole new world for her. But, married life and her new husband proved to be disappointments. Edward often left Lillie alone in their grand house, with no one for company except servants, to go on his sailing and fishing excursions.
Despondent and unhappy, Lillie contracted Typhoid Fever. Her doctor, her soul source of company for weeks, soon became besotted with his beautiful patient. She confided in him that she wanted above anything else to move to London. When Edward returned from his adventures, the doctor insisted that the couple move to London or else risk Lillie’s good health.
Shortly after the move, Lillie received word from her family that her younger brother Reggie was killed in a riding accident. She went home immediately to comfort her mother and when she returned to London she took to wearing a simple, black, form-fitting dress for all occasions – even soirees and balls — in honor of her favorite brother. The simplicity of her attire only enhanced her beauty.
New in London, Lillie and Edward were invited to a reception given by her father’s friend, and fellow Jerseyman, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, in Lownes Square. Many of the guests were immediately enchanted with the Jersey beauty, who stood out in contrast to the glittering and tailored ladies of London’s elite in her simple, black gown. Frank Miles, an up and coming young artist and guest, was so taken with her, he immediately took out his sketch pad and made a line drawing of her right there at the party. Drawings of beautiful society women were printed on postcards and sold to the public. Miles’ postcard was an instant best seller and out-sold all the other postcards of society beauties. Thrilled with the success of the postcards, Miles begged Lillie to honor him with a formal sitting. The resulting portrait was immensely popular and purchased by England’s Prince Leopold.
Lillie had arrived.
Soon, other artists were clamoring for her to sit for portraits. Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of her became her most famous. Dressed in her usual black gown with a white lace collar, Langtry was portrayed holding a Guernsey Lilly, as no lilies from Jersey were attainable. Millais named the portrait, A Jersey Lilly. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caused quite a stir. After the exhibition, Lilly was always referred to as “The Jersey Lilly.”
With all of London’s elite flocking to share time with Mrs. Langtry, she made some famous and influential friends. One of the closest in her circle was the flamboyant and eccentric Irish poet and play-write Oscar Wilde, who deemed her the “New Helen.” He said of her, “Yes, it was for such ladies that Troy was destroyed, and well might Troy be destroyed for such a woman.” He also said, “I would have rather discovered Lillie Langtry than America.” She was also very close to the American artist James Whistler and the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her popularity was so unprecedented that it became known as “The Langtry Phenomenon.”Lillie’s most enduring and influential relationship was one she shared with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (“Bertie”) eldest son of Queen Victoria, later known as King Edward VII. Bertie, married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and father of their six children, was known to have taken several mistresses — all beauties of the London social set. When the Prince heard Mrs. Langtry would be attending a dinner party given by his friend Sir Allen Young, he insisted it be arranged that she be seated next to him. Her husband was to be seated at the other end of the table. From the moment he met her, it was made clear to anyone inviting the Prince to any event that Mrs. Langtry must be invited as well.The love affair began. The Prince was so enamored of Lillie that he openly flaunted their relationship in public and even presented her to his mother, Queen Victoria. He soon went so far as to buy a plot of land at Bournemouth’s East Cliff and told her to design a home to serve as their private “love nest.” Lillie took on the project with great enthusiasm. She added many touches that advertised their fondness for one another. One of the most interesting was a statement prominently displayed over the fireplace mantle that read, “They say what they say? Let them say.”
The Prince and Mrs. Langtry entertained friends at “The Red House” often, and upon the guest’s arrival they would be welcomed with the greeting, “and yours my friends,” meaning the home was theirs too. The house is still standing and has become The Langtry Manor Hotel. It is a favorite venue for weddings.
Princess Alexandra accepted her husband’s “friendship” with Lillie graciously. Such was Lillie’s charm and likability that eventually the two women became friends. Later, after the Prince, then King Edward VII, passed away, Alexandra reportedly returned all of the love letters Lillie had sent him.
As all things eventually come to an end, the relationship between Lillie and the Prince cooled when during a masquerade ball, Lillie came dressed in the same costume as the Prince. Apparently, it was all right for him to flaunt the relationship, but if she did, it was seen as a lack of decorum and respect. After the Prince chastised Lillie during the party, she poured ice down his back in front of all the guests. Needless to say, she not only fell out of favor with the Prince, but with all of London society.
Things at home were also in a state of disrepair. Edward Langtry, Lillie’s husband, had trouble keeping up with his socially demanding wife, and spent less and less time fishing and sailing and more and more time drinking. He was also falling into a financial hole with his spending on yachts and Lillie spending on her lifestyle. The relationship and their finances were a shambles.
On the verge of bankruptcy, Lillie realized she needed work and turned to a great love of hers, the theater. Her friends, including Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, encouraged her to try her charms on the stage. Although not incredibly talented, Lillie’s outgoing attitude, intelligence and sparkling wit made people love her once again. Her acting career blossomed and she gained more popularity than ever. A great lover of theater himself, the Prince was once again enchanted with Lillie and came to many of her performances. It was clear he had forgiven her. Until his death in 1910, they remained great friends.
In 1879 Lillie began an affair with Prince Louise of Battenburg, the nephew of the Prince of Wales. She was also involved with Arthur Clarence Jones, a childhood friend from Jersey. In 1880, she became pregnant. The only known fact of the paternity of the child was that it was not Langtry’s husband. She insisted the child was Prince Louis’. Many others believed the father was Arthur Jones. When Louis confessed to his family his relationship with Mrs. Langtry and the birth of their child, he was instantly assigned to one of Her Majesty’s warships. Bertie, still fond of Lillie, gave her some money and she moved to Paris with Arthur Jones. In 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie. Lillie’s mother raised the girl and she would be publicly known as Lillie’s niece. Jeanne Marie did not learn the truth about her parentage until her wedding day in 1902. The news put a strain on Lillie and Jeanne Marie’s relationship that would last the rest of Lillie’s life.
In 1881 Lillie announced that her theater company was to tour the United States. When she arrived in New York, she was greeted by hundreds of soon-to- be-fans who had heard of the English beauty, and her old friend Oscar Wilde, already touring the states. Her first performance was a total sellout and she donated much of the proceeds to charity, further endearing her to the American audience. Disaster struck when the theater burned to the ground. The only thing that remained standing was a sign depicting Lillie’s name. Undaunted, Lillie chose to view the mishap as a foretelling of better things to come. She moved her company to another theater and continued to play to full houses and drew attention wherever she went. Having fallen in love with America, she repeated her tours to the U.S . several times.
Lillie always had many ardent suitors at home and abroad. One of her most prominent American suitors was Freddie Gephard, a wealthy New York industrialist who showered her with gifts, including a private railway car he named ‘”Lalee.” Lillie used the private railcar to travel across America on her theater tours. Gephard was also a horse breeder and well known on the racing circuit. Lillie’s early love of horses prompted her to start breeding thoroughbreds. She purchased a 6,500 acre ranch in Lake Country, California, next door to Freddie Gephard’s ranch.
Another American admirer, Judge Roy Bean of Texas, had fallen in love with one Lillie’s many pictures. In honor of her he renamed his bar/courthouse “The Jersey Lilly Saloon.” Bean never actually met Lillie, but also had a town named for her, Langtry, Texas. By the time she was able to visit the town, Bean had passed away.
During her stay in America Lillie endorsed many American products and set up several companies, including a winery. Lillie had become a millionaire in her own right. But, disaster reared its ugly head again. While being transported across country, fourteen of Lillie’s race horses were killed after the train derailed.
After picking up the pieces again and having toured America for six years, Lillie longed to return to England. It was during this time she took up with George Alexander Baird, a millionaire, amateur jockey and pugilist. She also purchased more race horses and wanted them to compete, but the Jockey Club in London forbade women owners. Never one to be told “no”, Lillie registered as “Mr. Jersey.” Her horse Merman won the Cesarewitch and Ascot Gold Cup , the Goodwood Cup and the Jockey Club Cup. Her relationship with Baird ended when he died in 1893.
After many years of asking Edward for a divorce and his constant refusals, Lillie became an American citizen and was finally able to secure a divorce. A few years later, Edward, destitute and a hopeless alcoholic, was committed to an insane asylum and died.
In 1899, Lillie finally settled down and married Hugo de Bathe, a wealthy race horse owner fifteen years her junior. Upon the death of his father, Hugo inherited a baronetcy and Lillie became Lady de Bathe. Now middle aged, Lillie’s fame had not diminished. She still dressed in the latest fashions and was still in demand for portraits and photographs. She was the lessee and manager of London’s Imperial Theater and acted in plays well into her seventies. She starred in one U.S. film called The Crossways. She owned and raced horses and owned thousands of acres in property. In her golden years, Lilly lived in Monaco at her cliff top Villa named “Le Lys” where she became a prize winning gardener.
From the boisterous tom boy of Jersey, Lillie Langtry became a historical icon. Her beauty was only surpassed by her superior wit and intelligence, charm and graciousness. From the moment she entered London society she was admired and idolized by both men and women from royalty to commoners, over the span of two continents and half a century. The Jersey Lilly was a woman before her time and was unstoppable in her quest for a full, exciting and fulfilling life.