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Lillie Langtry

depicted with a Jersey lily in her hair
by Frank Miles
Born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton
October 13, 1853(1853-10-13)
Jersey, Channel Islands
Died February 12, 1929 (aged 75)
Other name(s) Lily Langtry
Occupation Actress

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 Edward VII.


From Jersey to London

A Jersey Lily by Millais

Emilie was the only daughter of the Dean of Jersey, Rev. William Corbet le Breton. He gained an unsavoury reputation and after his wife had left him he was obliged to leave Jersey in 1880[1]. He had eloped to Gretna Green with Lillie's mother[2], who was known for her beauty [3] before marrying her again at Chelsea in 1842. One of Lillie's ancestors was Richard le Breton. She had six brothers, all but one older than her. Proving too much for her French governess, she was educated by her brothers' tutor and was unusually well educated for the time.

In 1874, twenty-year-old Lillie married twenty-six-year-old Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the brother-in-law of her brother William's wife. One of his attractions was that he possessed a yacht, and she insisted that he take her away from the Channel Islands. Eventually, they rented a place in Belgravia, London.

In an interview published in several newspapers (including the Brisbane Herald) in 1882, Langtry said,

“It was through Lord Ranleigh and the painter Frank Miles that I was first introduced to London society… I went to London and was brought out by my friends. Among the most enthusiastic of these was Mr Frank Miles, the artist. I learned afterwards that he saw me one evening at the theatre, and trid in vain to discover who I was. He went to his clubs and among his artist friends declaring he had seen a beauty, and he described me to everybody he knew, until one day one of his friends met me and he was duly introduced. Then Mr Miles came and begged me to sit for my portrait. I consented, and whn the portrait was finished he sold it to Prince Leopold. From that time I was invited everywhere and made a great deal of by many members of the royal family and nobility. After Frank Miles I sat for portraits to Millais and berne Jones and now Frith is putting my face in one of his great pictures."

Lord Ranelagh, a friend of her father and the father of her brother's wife, invited her to a high society reception at which Lillie attracted notice for her beauty and wit despite wearing a simple black dress (which was to become her trademark) and no jewelry.[3] Before the end of the evening, Frank Miles had completed several sketches of her that became very popular on postcards.[4] 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. (According to tradition, the two Jersey natives spoke Jèrriais to each other during the sittings.) The painting caused great interest when exhibited at the Royal Academy, but Lillie is holding a Guernsey lily (Nerine sarniensis) in the painting rather than a Jersey lily, as none was available at Covent Garden during the sittings. She also sat for Sir Edward Poynter and is depicted in works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. She became much sought after in London society, and invitations (previously scarce) flooded in. Her fame soon reached royal ears.

Royal mistress

The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward ("Bertie"), arranged to sit next to her at a dinner party given by Sir Allen Young on 24 May 1877[5]. (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 it was soon no secret that she had become his semi-official mistress. She was even presented to Edward's mother, Queen Victoria. Eventually, a cordial relationship developed between her and Princess Alexandra.[6]

The affair lasted from late 1877 to June 1880.[7] Edward had construction begun on the Red House (now Langtry Manor Hotel) in Bournemouth, Dorset in 1877 as a private retreat for the couple.[8] He allowed Lillie to design it.[8] The tradition is that their relationship finally cooled when she misbehaved at a dinner party,[9] but she had been eclipsed when Sarah Bernhardt came to London in June 1879. In July 1879 Langtry had begun an affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury; in January 1880 Langtry and the Earl were planning to run away together.[10] Also, at the end of August and in September 1879, it was stated 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. Nevertheless, 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, and in October 1880 many of her possessions were sold to meet her debts, though the statement that Edward Langtry became officially bankrupt[11] is not correct.


In April 1879, Lillie started another affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg, although she was involved with an old friend at the same time, Arthur Clarence Jones (1854-1930). In June 1880, she became pregnant. The father was definitely not her husband; Prince Louis was allowed to believe that it was he. When the prince confessed to his parents he was indeed the father, he was hastily assigned to the warship HMS Inconstant. Lillie, receiving some money from the Prince of Wales, retired to Paris with Arthur Jones, where on March 8, 1881, she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie.[12]

The discovery of Lillie's passionate letters to Arthur Jones in 1878 and their publication by Laura Beatty in 1999 support the idea that Jones was the father.[13] However, Prince Louis's son, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, had always maintained that it was his father.[14]

Jeanne Marie married the Scottish politician Sir Ian Malcolm in 1902. They had four children. Lady Malcolm died in 1964.

Acting career

Lillie Langtry - 1899
"The Degenerates"
Langtry as Lady de Bathe c. 1915

At the suggestion of one of her close friends, 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.[15] The following autumn, she made her first tour of America, an enormous success, which she repeated in subsequent years, though the critics generally condemned her interpretations of roles such as Pauline in the Lady of Lyons or Rosalind in As You Like It.[15]

In 1903, she starred in America in The Crossways, written by her in collaboration with J. Hartley Manners.[15] She returned to America in 1906 and again in 1912, appearing in vaudeville.[15]

Thoroughbred racing

From 1882 to 1891 she had a relationship with the New York City millionaire Frederic Gebhard and while with him became involved in the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing. In 1885 she and Gebhard brought a stable of American horses to race in England. On August 13, 1888 Langtry and Gebhard were in her private car attached to an Erie Railroad express train which departed from New York City bound for Chicago. Another railcar was transporting seventeen of their horses when it derailed at Shohola, Pennsylvania at 1:40 in the morning and rolled down an 80 foot embankment and burst on fire. One person died in the fire along with Gebhard's Champion runner Eole and fourteen other horses belonging to him and Langtry. One of the two horses to survive the wreck was St. Saviour, named for St. Saviour's Church in Jersey where Langtry's father had been rector and where she would be buried. [1] [2]

In 1900, Langtry's horse Merman, ridden by American Tod Sloan, won the Ascot Gold Cup. [3]

American citizenship and after

In 1897, Langtry became an American citizen, and divorced her husband the same year in Lakeport, California. Edward died a few months later following an accident that same year[16]. A letter of condolence written by her to a widow reads in part, "I too have lost a husband, but alas! it was no great loss."[17]

She had purchased a winery with an area of 4,200 acres (17 km2) in Lake County, California in 1888 which produced red wine. She sold it in 1906. The winery and vineyard are still in operation.

From April 1891 until his death at New Orleans in March 1893 she was involved in a relationship with George Alexander Baird, millionaire amateur jockey and pugilist[18].

In 1899, she married the much younger Hugo Gerald de Bathe,[15] who would inherit a baronetcy, and became a leading owner in the horse-racing world, before retiring to Monte Carlo. During her final years, she 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, she was the lessee and manager of London's Imperial Theatre.[19]

Langtry died in Monaco in 1929, and was buried in the graveyard of St. Saviour's Church in Jersey – the church of which her father had been rector.

Cultural influence

Caricature of Langtry, from Punch, Christmas 1890. The soap box on which she sits is a reference to the Millais painting, Bubbles

She used her high public profile to endorse commercial products such as cosmetics and soap, becoming an early example of celebrity endorsement. Langtry was portrayed on film by Lillian Bond in The Westerner (1940), and by Ava Gardner in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). Judge Roy Bean, a real-life admirer, was played by Walter Brennan in the former and Paul Newman in the latter, both times as a man with a life-long obsession with her.

Langtry's story was dramatised by London Weekend Television in 1978 as Lillie, with Francesca Annis in the title role. Annis had previously played Langtry in two episodes of ATV's Edward the Seventh. Jenny Seagrove played her in the 1991 made-for-television film Incident at Victoria Falls . A heavily fictionalized incarnation of Langtry was performed by Stacy Haiduk in the 1996 television series Kindred: The Embraced. In the series, Langtry is the immortal leader of a sect of vampires living in the present day.

Langtry is also a featured character in the tongue-in-cheek western novel, Slocum and the Jersey Lily by Jake Logan. She figures prominently in Death at Epsom Downs by Robin Paige, the pseudonym of Bill and Susan Wittig Albert, who wrote a series of Victorian novels featuring actual people.

The fictitious character Irene Adler, who bested Sherlock Holmes when he sought an incriminating photograph of her and a European monarch, is thought to have been based upon Langtry.[20] Langtry was also the subject of The Who's 1967 recording, Pictures of Lily about a young man infatuated by her image. A line from the song states "She's been dead since 1929".

Places connected with Lillie Langtry

21 Pont Street, London
Blue plaque at the Cadogan Hotel, London
Lillie Langtry's grave in Saint Saviour, Jersey

Lillie Langtry lived at 21 Pont Street, London from 1892 to 1897. Although from 1895 the building was actually the Cadogan Hotel, she would stay in her old bedroom there. A blue plaque on the hotel commemorates this, and the hotel's restaurant is named Langtry's in her honour.

Whilst she was Edward VII's mistress, Lillie Langtry frequently performed at the in-house theatre of a hotel on 1-9 Inverness Terrace, in Bayswater, on the north side of Hyde Park, London W2. The in-house theatre is known as 'Lillie's theatre'. A grade II listed building, the hotel was originally built by Ritz architects Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis and continues to function as a hotel today - renamed 'The Jones Hotel', its in-house theatre continues as the venue for nightly cabaret-style performances.

She lived for a time at 42 Wickham Road, Brockley in southeast London.

Merman Cottage in Saint Brelade, Jersey, was purported to be owned and occupied by Lillie Langtry (Merman was also the name of one of her racehorses). However there is no record in the Public Registry of Jersey of any transactions by Emilie Charlotte Le Breton or that she ever owned property in Jersey.

Langtry stayed at Teddy's Nook, a house in Yorkshire, some time between 1877 and 1880.

Sculptured exhibit at Whitehead Memorial Museum in Del Rio, Texas, of Lillie Langtry visiting Langtry, Texas, after Judge Roy Bean's death

The town of Langtry, Texas, was not named for her, although its most illustrious inhabitant, Judge Roy Bean, was an ardent admirer, naming the saloon where he held court "The Jersey Lily". Bean himself spread the rumor about the town's name. He also built an opera house in anticipation of a visit, and Mrs. Langtry appeared there after Bean's death. The town was named for railroad supervisor George Langtry.



  1. ^ Anthony Camp, Royal Mistresses and Bastards: Fact and Fiction 1714-1936 (London, 2007) 365.
  2. ^ Camp, op.cit. 366.
  3. ^ a b Lillie Langtry
  4. ^ "Frank Miles Drawing". Retrieved 2008-05-30.  
  5. ^ Camp, op.cit., p.364.
  6. ^ "The Girl from Jersey". Retrieved 2008-05-30.  
  7. ^ Camp, op.cit., 364.
  8. ^ a b "History of the Langtry Manor". Retrieved 2008-05-13.  
  9. ^ "Fall from Grace". Retrieved 2008-05-30.  
  10. ^ Laura Beatty, Lillie Langtry: manners, masks and morals (London, 1999), pp. 164-65.
  11. ^ "Changing fortunes". Retrieved 2008-05-30.  
  12. ^ Camp, op.cit., pp.364-67
  13. ^ Beatty, op. cit.
  14. ^ Daily Telegraph, 27 September 1978; Evening News, 23 October 1978.
  15. ^ a b c d e New International Encyclopedia
  16. ^ Beatty, op.cit., p.302.
  17. ^ Letter in the Curtis Theatre Collection, University of Pittsburgh.
  18. ^ Camp, op.cit., p.366.
  19. ^ "Mrs Langtry sold the theatre to Wesleyan Methodists who in turn sold [the interior] to the company owning the Royal Albert Music Hall, Canning Town, who re-erected it stone by stone as the Music Hall of Dockland." (Source: Templeman Library, University of Kent at Canterbury) On the site of the theatre is now the Methodist Central Hall.
  20. ^ Wolfe, Julian, "The Adventuress of Sherlock Holmes", cited by Baring-Gould, William S.(ed.), "The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, vol.1 p.354.

External links

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