Lillie Langtry (13 October 1853 – 12 February 1929), born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in Jersey, was an actress. A renowned beauty, she was nicknamed the "Jersey Lily" and had a number of prominent lovers, including the future king of England, Edward VII.
From Jersey to London
Emilie was the only daughter of the Dean, the Rev William Corbet Le Breton. He gained an unsavoury reputation because of affairs and, after his wife left him, he left Jersey in 1880. He had eloped to Gretna Green with Lillie's mother, who was known for her beauty. In 1842 he married her at Chelsea. Emilie was always known among her friends as Lillie. She had six brothers, all but one older than her. Proving too much for her French governess, Lillie was educated by her brothers' tutor, becoming unusually well educated for women of the time.
In 1874, at the age of 20, she married 26-year-old Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the brother-in-law of her brother William's wife. He was wealthy enough to own a yacht, and Emilie insisted that he take her away from the Channel Islands. Eventually, they rented a place in Belgravia, London.
Lord Ranelagh, a friend of her father and sister-in-law, invited Lillie Langtry to a high-society reception at which she attracted notice for her beauty and wit. In contrast to more elaborate clothing, she wore a simple black dress (which was to become her trademark) and no jewellery. Before the end of the evening, artist Frank Miles had completed several sketches of her that became very popular on postcards. Another guest, Sir John Everett Millais, eventually painted her portrait. Langtry's nickname, the "Jersey Lily," was taken from the Jersey lily flower.
The nickname was popularised by Millais' portrait, A Jersey Lily. According to tradition, the two Jersey natives spoke Jerriais to each other during the sittings. The painting caused great interest when exhibited at the Royal Academy. Lillie was portrayed holding a Guernsey Lily in the painting rather than a Jersey lily, as none was available during the sittings. She became much sought after in London society, and invitations flooded in. Her fame soon reached royal ears.
Edward Prince of Wales arranged to sit next to her at a dinner party on 24 May 1877. Her husband was seated at the other end of the table. Though he was married to Princess Alexandra and had six children, Edward was a well-known philanderer. He became infatuated with Lillie and she became his semi-official mistress.
Lillie induced the same sort of hysteria as is today associated with the most famous film stars and pop stars. The press, the gossips, the fans and her critics all waited to see what she was going to do next, they couldn't get enough of the girl from Jersey.
George Bernard Shaw said: "I resent Mrs Langtry, she has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely. It is a frightening combination of attributes."
Oscar Wilde, in his flamboyant style, said of her: "I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America." He paraded the streets with bunches of lilies, proclaiming that he was going to meet the new Helen of Troy.
News of Lillie reached the long suffering Princess Alexandra with whom eventually Lillie developed a respectful and affectionate relationship. On the insistence of the Prince, Mrs Langtry was presented at court to his mother, Queen Victoria. Lillie's mischievous humour was evident as she wore a head dress of three huge white ostrich feathers in her hair (The Prince of Wales own emblem). It was not reported whether Victoria was amused or not, but she personally removed a picture of Lillie from above the bed of her youngest son Prince Leopold.
The affair lasted from late 1877 to June 1880. Edward had the Red House (now Langtry Manor Hotel) constructed in Bournemouth in 1877 as a private retreat for the couple. He allowed Lillie to design it. The tradition is that their relationship finally cooled when she misbehaved at a dinner party.
In April 1879 Lillie started an affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg, although she was also involved with Arthur Clarence Jones (1854-1930), an old friend. In June 1880 she became pregnant. Her husband was definitely not the father; she led Prince Louis to believe that it was he. When the prince confessed to his parents, they had him assigned to the warship HMS Inconstant. Given some money by the Prince of Wales, Lillie retired to Paris with Arthur Jones. On 8 March 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie.
At the suggestion of her close friend Oscar Wilde, Lillie embarked upon a stage career. In December 1881 she made her debut before the London public in She Stoops to Conquer at the Haymarket Theatre. The following autumn she made her first tour of the United States, to enormous success, which she repeated in subsequent years. While the critics generally condemned her, the public loved her.
American citizenship and after
In 1897 Lillie became an American citizen. She divorced her husband Edward Langtry the same year and he died a few months later following an accident. In 1888 she purchased a winery in California which produced red wine. She sold it in 1906. The winery and vineyard are still in operation.
In 1899, she married the much younger Hugo Gerald de Bathe. He would inherit a baronetcy and become a leading owner in the horse-racing world, before retiring to Monte Carlo. During her final years, she lived in Monaco, with her husband living a short distance away. The two saw one another only when she called on him for social gatherings or in brief private encounters. Her constant companion during this time was her close friend, Mathilde Peat.
Langtry used her high public profile to endorse commercial products such as cosmetics and soap, becoming an early example of celebrity endorsement.
She died in Monaco in 1929 and was buried in the graveyard of St Saviour's Church in Jersey.
- Review of book about Lillie Langtry
- A letter from Oscar Wilde to Lillie Langtry
- Lillie Langtry - a biography
- Lillie Langtry - courtesan, mistress or prostitute?: Another biography examining her adultery
- Mathilde Peat, Lillie Langtry's companion in her final years
- A website devoted to Lillie Langtry
- Wikipedia history
This is the largest collection of pictures of Lillie Langtry - drawings, paintings, photographs and printed advertisements - available on-line. Click on any image to see a larger version