Lillie Langtry (13 October 1853 – 12 February 1929), born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, was a British actress born on the island of Jersey. A renowned beauty, she was nicknamed the "Jersey Lily" and had a number of prominent lovers, including the future king of England, Edward VII.
by Frank Miles
Emilie Charlotte Le Breton was the only daughter of the Dean of Jersey, Rev. William Corbet Le Breton. He gained an unsavoury reputation because of a number of extramarital affairs and, when his wife finally left him in 1880, he left Jersey. He had eloped to Gretna Green with Lillie's mother, Emilie Davis (nee Martin), who was known for her beauty. In 1842, he married her at Chelsea. One of Lillie's ancestors was Richard le Breton,one of the reputed assassins of Saint Thomas a Becket in 1170.
She had six brothers, all but one older than she. 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, twenty-year-old Lillie married twenty-six-year-old Irish landowner Edward Langtry, a widower who had been married to the sister of her brother William's wife. They held their wedding reception at The Royal Yacht Hotel, in St. Helier, Jersey. He was wealthy enough to own a yacht, and Lillie insisted that he take her away from the Channel Islands. Eventually, they rented a place in Belgravia, London.
Lord Ranalegh, 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 jewelry. Before the end of the evening, 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 (Amaryllis belladonna) – a symbol of Jersey. The nickname was popularised by Millais' portrait, entitled A Jersey Lily. She also sat for Sir Edward Poynter and is depicted in works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.
A Jersey Lily, by John Everett Millais, 1878
She became much sought after in London society, and invitations flooded in. Her fame soon reached royal ears. The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward ("Bertie"), arranged to sit next to Langtry at a dinner party given by Sir Allen Young 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 Langtry and she became his semi-official mistress. She was even presented to Edward's mother, Queen Victoria. Eventually, a cordial relationship developed between her and Princess Alexandra.
Edward had the Red House (now Langtry Manor Hotel) constructed in Bournemouth, Dorset in 1877 as a private retreat for the couple. He allowed Langtry to design it. Edward once complained to her, "I've spent enough on you to build a battleship," whereupon she tartly replied, "And you've spent enough in me to float one". The tradition is that their relationship finally cooled when she misbehaved at a dinner party, but she had been eclipsed when Sarah Bernhardt came to London in June 1879.
In July 1879 Langtry began an affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury; in January 1880 Langtry and the earl were planning to run away together. In the fall of 1879 there were rumours published in Town Talk that her husband would divorce her and cite, with others, the Prince of Wales. For some time, the Prince saw little of her. He remained fond of her and spoke well of her in her later career as a theatre actress. With the withdrawal of royal favour, creditors closed in. The Langtrys' finances were not equal to their lifestyle. In October 1880 Langtry sold many of her possessions to meet her debts. Edward Langtry did not officially declare bankruptcy.
In April 1879, Langtry 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 him. When the prince confessed to his parents, they had him assigned to the warship HMS Inconstant. Given some money by the Prince of Wales, Langtry retired to Paris with Arthur Jones. On March 8, 1881, she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie.
The discovery of Langtry's passionate letters to Arthur Jones in 1878 and their publication by Laura Beatty in 1999 support the idea that Jones was the father. Prince Louis's son, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, had always maintained that his father was the father of Jeanne Marie.
At either the suggestion of her close friend Oscar Wilde or Sarah Bernhardt, 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 interpretations of roles such as Pauline in the Lady of Lyons or Rosalind in As You Like It, the public loved her. In 1903, she starred in America in The Crossways, written by her in collaboration with J. Hartley Manners. She returned to the United States for tours in 1906 and again in 1912, appearing in vaudeville.
From 1882 to 1891, Langtry had a relationship with the New York City millionaire Frederic Gebhard. With him, she became involved in the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing. In 1900, Langtry's horse Merman, ridden by American Tod Sloan, won the Ascot Gold Cup. In 1897, Langtry became an American citizen. She divorced her husband Edward Langtry the same year in Lakeport, California. Edward Langtry died a few months later following an accident. A letter of condolence later written by Langtry to another widow reads in part, "I too have lost a husband, but alas! it was no great loss."
Langtry was involved in a relationship with George Alexander Baird, millionaire amateur jockey and pugilist from April 1891 until his death at New Orleans in March 1893. In 1899, she married the much younger Hugo Gerald de Bathe. He inherited a baronetcy and became a leading owner in the horse-racing world, before retiring to Monte Carlo. During her final years, Langtry resided in a home 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, Mathilda Peat, the widow of her butler.
From 1900 to 1903, Langtry was the lessee and manager of London's Imperial Theatre. Keen's Chop House in New York says that Langtry sued them in 1905 over their gentlemen's-only seating policy and won, then sailed in wearing a feather boa and ordered a mutton chop. Langtry died in Monaco in 1929. She was buried in the graveyard of St. Saviour's Church in Jersey.
Langtry used her high public profile to endorse commercial products such as cosmetics and soap, becoming an early example of celebrity endorsement. Her famous ivory complexion brought her income as the first woman to endorse a commercial product, advertising Pears Soap. Her fee was allied to her weight so she was paid 'pound for pound'. Scholars believe the fictitious character of Irene Adler in a Sherlock Holmes novel, who bested the private investigator when he sought an incriminating photograph of her and a European monarch, is based upon Langtry.