Lillie Langtry - a biography
Emilie LeBreton was born at St Saviour’s Rectory, where her father was the Dean of Jersey. By the time she was 14 years old she had received her first marriage proposal and her pure white skin had earned her the nickname of 'The Jersey Lily'. Judge Roy Bean named a town, Langtry, Texas, after her. Mark Twain eulogised over her beauty and intelligence and George Bernard Shaw complained that "She has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent as well as lovely".
Oscar Wilde wrote Lady Windermere's Fan for her and a future king of England fell head over heels in love with her.
Bright lights, big city
In 1874, she met Edward Langtry who, although not wealthy, did have a beautiful yacht. Lillie saw her way out of the island of her birth, which had become too parochial for such a beautiful and intelligent woman. They were married and moved to his home in Southampton.
However, her new husband's passions were fishing and drinking and when Lillie developed typhoid fever, her besotted doctor convinced Edward that Lillie would recover much faster if they moved to London. In 1876 London was the capital of the world and very expensive. But, to please his wife, Edward would sell his beloved yacht to finance the move.
In the spring of 1877 Lillie and Edward were invited to a society party by an old family friend from Jersey, the 7th Viscount Ranalegh. Still in mourning following the recent death of her favourite brother, she wore only a plain black gown with her red-gold hair gathered in a simple knot at the nape of her neck. Amid all the colourful costumes of the London society ladies, Lillie Langtry, as Oscar Wilde was later to write, had risen "like Venus from the Jersey foam".
One of the most renowned portrait painters of the day, a Jerseyman Sir John Millais, painted her and when the portrait, "A Jersey Lily", was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, Lillie was already so famous that the picture had to be roped off to protect it from the crowds who flocked to view.
The prince and the actress
'The Marlborough Set, with its leader, the future King of England, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, was at the peak of high society and it was inevitable that Lillie would be drawn into this circle. The Prince was a well-known philanderer and very soon after their first meeting Lillie Langtry became a besosted Prince Albert’s official mistress, with Edward Langtry now rapidly becoming an alcoholic back home in Southampton.
The Prince bought a love nest for the couple near Bournemouth, far removed from the London reporters who followed their every move. Invited to all social events, as everywhere that Lillie went, the Prince was sure to go, the 'Langtry Phenomenon' was moving full steam ahead and Lillie couldn’t be happier.
Then one night Lillie, usually a teetotaler, drank too much champagne and stuffed a large piece of ice down the Prince’s back in full view of the entire party. Lillie refused to apologize and their relationship came to a resounding halt, making Lillie a social outcast. Her fall from favour was as rapid as her rise to fame.
She had been given credit by every merchant she frequented as the advertisement ‘By Appointment to Lily Langtry’ would set the tills ringing. But after falling from the favour of the Prince, the vultures descended demanding their money. Close to bankruptcy and with no source of income, her friend, the leading actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, suggested she capitalize on her fame and become an actress. First appearing in light comedies, her success was immediate. Her famous ivory complexion brought her additional income as the first woman to endorse a commercial product, advertising Pears Soap.
While she was playing to a packed house in Edinburgh, a New Yorker by the name of Henry E Abbey was struck by her astonishing beauty and offered her a season in America. New York was rapidly catching up with London in the social whirl and when, in 1882, Lillie arrived in America, traffic came to a standstill and the New York Stock Exchange was closed.
On the eve of her debut at New York’s Park Theatre, the theatre burnt to the ground leaving only a charred sign bearing the name “Lillie Langtry". Thereafter, Lillie’s fame was assured and she was a huge hit across America including a town in Texas, Langtry, named after her by yet another admirer, Judge Roy Bean.
In the 1882-1883 season she grossed between $100,000 and $150,000, an unheard of amount of money at the time. Lillie Langtry was a superstar.
A happy ending?
In 1881 Lillie had given birth to her only child, Jeanne Marie, who rumour has it was fathered by Prince Albert’s nephew, Prince Louis of Battenberg. The real father was never revealed to the public or her family, and Jeanne Marie was raised in Jersey by Lillie’s mother and a governess. She was brought up as Lillie’s niece and was only told the real story on the eve of her own wedding day.
A newspaperman in San Francisco uncovered the story and Edward Langtry, who hadn't known about Jeanne, finally fell apart and was committed to a mental asylum.
In her mid-40s and tired of the constant press intrusion, Lillie retired from the stage. Her successful stage career and recently acquired and profitable hobby as a horse owner meant that she was a multi-millionaire.
She married a 'toy boy', Hugo de Bathe, at St Saviour's Church in Jersey in 1899 and, after a brief return to the London stage and charity concerts on both sides of the Atlantic during the First World War, she retired to Monaco. Though now in her 50s, she managed to break the bank at Monte Carlo, write a best selling novel and spend the last year of the war back in England helping grow vegetables for the war effort.
In 1928, at the age of 75, Lillie caught bronchitis and, though she recovered the following year, she died in Monaco where she had spent the last decade of her life . The beauty of her age, who had entranced and captivated men and women around the world for so long, was buried in St Saviour’s churchyard in her home of Jersey.