Courtesan, mistress or prostitute?
Lillie Langtry was as notorious for her earnings as one of the first celebrities to endorse products for money as she was for her acting and undoubtedly lucrative romantic liaisons
Emilie Charlotte Le Breton was born on 13 October 13 1853, the only daughter of Rev William Corbet Le Breton, Dean of Jersey, and his wife Emilie; though she had six brothers, only two survived childhood. Emilie was a high-spirited girl who inherited her mother’s looks and her father’s temperament; he had numerous affairs and eventually resigned his post in disgrace several years after his daughter had left the island.
Being the only girl also contributed to her personality: she learned to handle males from a very early age, and was educated by her brothers’ tutor because she was far too rumbustuous for a governess. At the wedding of her brother William in autumn of 1873 she met the Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the 30-year-old widower of the bride’s older sister. Emilie was taken with his charm and apparent affluence and he dazzled her with chaperoned cruises on his yacht.
They were married on 6 March 1874, and he bought her a stately home in Jersey and a flat in London. But Langtry was not as wealthy as he appeared to be, and her family’s dislike for him was so intense that when her beloved younger brother Reggie died in the spring of 1877, she had not seen him in years.
After the funeral Emilie fell into a deep depression and, in an effort to cheer her, Lord Ranelagh got her an invitation to a salon held by Lady Sebright, and attended by a number of famous artists and literary figures. Because she was still in mourning, she wore a simple black dress without jewellery and isolated herself in a quiet corner of the suite; but because she was both beautiful and charming, this had the opposite effect of the one she was looking for.
She attracted the attention of a number of artists at the salon, among them Frank Miles, who had previously seen her at the theatre and was very taken with her. He made several sketches that evening and raved about her beauty to everyone he knew. By the end of the week the Langtrys were overwhelmed by invitations. Miles’ sketches had been sold and every photographer and painter in London wanted Emilie to model for him; the most famous of these portraits was A Jersey Lily by Millais, which not only spread her fame but gave her the nickname by which she would be known ever after - Lillie.
==Prince of Wales==
Within weeks she had come to the attention of the Prince of Wales, who asked to be seated next to her at a dinner party on 24 May 1877, and was soon spending legendary amounts of money on her. As this allowed a far more lavish lifestyle than he would otherwise have had, Langtry was content to go away on fishing trips while his wife entertained her royal patron. Though Edward was a noted womanizer, he became totally infatuated with Lillie and even built a house (now Langtry Manor Hotel) for them to tryst in. She became the closest thing to an official mistress as was possible in that time and place, and was even accepted by the Prince’s wife, Princess Alexandra. Queen Victoria, on the other hand, was said to have treated her rather coldly.
The relationship continued for two years, during which time Lillie made many important friends Chief among them was Oscar Wilde, who later helped her launch the acting career for which she is known today. And though it ended when Sarah Bernhardt captured the Prince’s eye in June 1879, they parted on good terms and he later helped her on a number of occasions.
Lillie immediately became involved with the Earl of Shrewsbury, but that arrangement broke up the following January once rumors of divorce began to circulate and creditors started to hound her husband. By April she had attracted another royal patron, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and when she found herself pregnant in June she told him that he was the father. She was also carrying on a romantic affair with Arthur Clarence Jones at the same time, so it’s possible that the child was his.
By this point the Langtrys were truly estranged. Edward went off on an extended fishing trip, leaving Lillie to deal with the bill collectors, which she did in October 1880 by selling many of the expensive gifts Prince Albert had given her. She at first tried to hide the pregnancy by renting a cottage in Jersey, but soon realised a small community was the worst place to be. She then appealed to 'Bertie' for help, and he gave her some money and had her taken to Paris, where she and Jones lived until she gave birth to her daughter Jeanne Marie, on 8 March 1881.
By autumn she had deposited the child in her mother’s care and returned to London, where Wilde suggested she should take up acting. He connected her to Henrietta Labouchere, a retired actress turned acting coach, and after one amateur production in November she was hired for a part in She Stoops to Conquer. Though the critics were divided in their opinions, she had lost none of her charisma and the ever-supportive Prince of Wales made a point of attending several of her performances in order to draw attention to them.
Her popularity attracted enough investment to form her own company only a few months later, and she toured the UK for the rest of the year before landing a deal for an American tour in October – less than a year after she had started acting. She was an even bigger hit in the US than she had been at home, and her box office receipts broke all previous records.
Nor had she entirely given up her previous career: she found a new patron in the person of Freddie Gebhard, a multi-millionaire who bought her a townhouse in New York and a private railway carriage built to her specifications. She eventually became a US citizen and divorced Edward Langtry in 1887, but though she and Gebhard remained together until 1891, they never married. He bought her a whole stable of thoroughbred horses, and she enjoyed modest success racing them. She also bought a vineyard and winery in California in 1888, and though she sold it in 1906, it still bears the name Langtry Farms. She also sold endorsements for soap and cosmetics, becoming one of the first celebrities to do so.
In 1899 she married Hugo Gerald de Bathe, who became Lord de Bathe in 1907. Though he was 19 years her junior, the relationship does not appear to have been the typical love match between an aging courtesan and a young lover, but rather a marriage of convenience contracted to get money for him and a title for her. When they retired to Monaco in 1917 he lived half an hour away in Nice, and they only saw each other on social occasions.
She continued acting right up until her retirement, at which time she also sold all of her horses and racing interests. During her last decade her closest companion was Mathilde Peate, the widow of her butler. She had been estranged from her daughter since 1899, after Jeanne Marie’s fiancé had explained the truth about her parentage, which had been kept from her for 18 years.In the winter of 1929 Lillie contracted bronchitis and later influenza, dying on 12 February at the age of 75. She left her entire fortune to her daughter, grandchildren and Mrs Peate, and nothing at all to her husband. She was buried in the churchyard of St Saviour, Jersey, near the rectory in which she had grown up. Though she had left early and wandered far in her eventful life, the Jersey Lily eventually returned to the soil of her beloved home, which her heart had never really left.