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LILLIE LANGTRY

'The Jersey Lily'

It's hard to imagine that in the midst of the dour and staid Victorian era one woman could command such public fame and admiration that she would easily have rivalled the popularity reserved for the superstars of the music and film industry today. Yet at the height of her fame she was unable to go out without being mobbed, was admired by the world's wealthiest people, enjoyed the company of intellectuals, artists and royalty, and commanded record breaking fees for performances on stage during her acting career. To better understand how a woman could soar to such heady heights in what was, at the time, a strictly male dominated world, we need to go right back to Lillie Langtry's early childhood in this small island of Jersey.

 

Early Life

Emilie Charlotte Le Breton was born in St. Saviours Parish church rectory, Jersey, on Thursday, 13th October 1853. She was the sixth child of seven to the Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend William Corbet Le Breton, and his wife Emilie Davis (nee Martin).

Her mother was considered to be a great beauty, having a perfect complexion, blue eyes and auburn hair and the little girl, being fortunate enough to inherit her mother's beautiful pale skin, consequently became known as 'Lillie' to family members. She was to keep this name for the rest of her life because, as she later confessed, she far preferred her nickname, finding the names Emilie and Charlotte 'dreadful'.

  St. Saviours Parish church

 

Her father, who was also Rector to St. Saviours Parish church, was a very imposing man. He was over six foot in height, handsome, with a good physique and above all a charming personality. The Le Breton family was very well respected locally and Lillie was proud of her ancestors who had served with William the Conqueror in their defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings. Of her father she commented:

'I am convinced that the stage suffered a greater loss than the army, for my father had the true histrionic gift, and his dramatic talent would have undoubtedly made him a fine actor.'

Not only did the Very Reverend William Corbet Le Breton have a charismatic personality, however, he also had a strong sexual appetite and indulged in several passionate extra marital affairs.

As the only girl in a family of seven children, Lillie quickly realised that in order to join in the games that her brothers played she had to act like a boy, control her tears and see things from a boy's point of view. The Dean's children were constantly involved in practical jokes, often using neighbours and visitors to the Rectory as their victims. One of her favourite pranks was for her and her younger brother, Reggie, to 'haunt' St. Saviours churchyard at midnight, frightening unwary travelers late at night by walking around on stilts, clad in white sheets. The prank only came to an end when someone writing in the local press threatened to fill the 'ghosts' with cold lead if they appeared again.

 

Her six brothers attended Victoria College, the nearby school, and after the day's classes their tutor would often visit the boys for further tutoring with homework. Although Lillie had initially been appointed a French governess she admitted that she was 'rather a handful' for the poor woman. Rev. Le Breton was a man who believed in the higher education of women, so Lillie started taking lessons in the evening from her brothers' tutor in Latin, Greek, maths, German, French, music and art. Of course this completely set her aside from her contemporaries of the time who no doubt would have been learning the gentle arts of needlework and household management.

 

 

Family outings in her childhood included gathering together with friends for large picnics and the occasional day at the races (at the time held on Gorey Common), both of which she thoroughly enjoyed.

By the time she reached her teens her older brothers had gradually moved away from home, and life in the Deanery took on a quieter pace. Unfortunately her mother also started suffering from bouts of ill health and at times when it would normally have been customary for the Dean's wife to appear at official functions, Lillie would occasionally attend in her mother's place. She became quite accustomed to speaking publicly and conversing with people who were sometimes considerably older than her. As a precocious, pretty young girl, filled with self-confidence, it is perhaps not surprising that she received her first marriage proposal at just 14. Lieutenant Charles Spencer Longly, the 23 year old son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was stationed in Jersey with his regiment, and became captivated by the beautiful young girl. When he was told that Lillie was far too young to marry, he promptly asked to be posted back to England.

Other suitors followed and although Lillie was no more interested in them, it did open up a world of new possibilities to her and she began to daydream of going to London. At the time it was common practice for daughters of the well-to-do to complete their education with a season in 'town' (London). Both the Dean and his wife had connections in London and Mrs. Le Breton and sixteen year old Lillie were soon on their way to town, with invitations to several social events.

Unfortunately the trip was not a success. Lillie felt very out of place in her simple ball gown made for her in St. Helier and had little idea of the airs and social graces attendant in London society. She later wrote:

'I felt like a clumsy peasant...I disgraced myself so often I could scarcely wait until the evening came to its abysmal end'.

She returned to Jersey and for the next four years, as well as attending the usual round of local social events, she also immersed herself in poetry and literature.

 

In 1873 Lillie's brother William married Elizabeth Price and the event was to have a significant and lasting effect on Lillie's own future. Elizabeth's brother-in-law was Edward Langtry, whose wife had tragically died of tuberculosis after only two years of marriage. Lillie shone at the wedding celebrations and soon after, Edward was taking her for trips on his luxury 80 foot yacht, 'The Red Gauntlet', with the Dean as chaperon. Neither the Dean, his wife or brother Reggie (the only brother still remaining at home) liked Edward, but the more they showed their disapproval, the more determined the willful Lillie became. She was attracted by the glitter and dazzle of Edward's apparent money and within 6 weeks of their first meeting Lillie at just aged 20, married the 26 year old Edward Langtry. The newly-weds spent several weeks sailing on the 'Red Gauntlet' and then on its replacement the 'Gertrude', and Lillie quickly recognised the power exerted by owners of large yachts. She determined to one day become one of them.

 

The couple initially had two homes. She had persuaded Edward to buy Noirmont Manor in Jersey and they also rented a house in England. Eventually Lillie tired of Jersey's social set and moved permanently to England, but she contracted typhoid and was seriously ill for a month. The Langtrys decided that perhaps London would be a better place for Lillie to convalesce, so in 1876 they moved into rented accommodation in Belgravia. The move was not a good one for either of them. Invitations to social gatherings were not forthcoming and for long periods Lillie merely spent time reading in bed, whilst Edward missed all the outdoor activities he had been accustomed to and took to drinking as compensation.

The sudden death of her beloved younger brother Reggie led to a return to Jersey in the spring of 1877 for his funeral. Reggie's dislike of Edward Langtry had been so marked that he had refused to attend his sister's wedding, had not visited her at Noirmont Manor and had distanced himself from her. Lillie was devastated at the news of her brother's death and sadly arrived in the island too late to attend his funeral. She returned to London with feelings of depression and guilt.

   


 

The rise to fame

A chance meeting with a former Jersey friend led to her first invitation to an important social occasion in London at Lady Sebright's house in Lowndes Square. As she was still in mourning from the recent death of Reggie, Lillie was wearing a simple black dress with no jewellery. She felt very dowdy, choosing to sit quietly in a remote corner of the room. As luck would have it, the eminent English painter John Millais was at the gathering. Millais had spent most of his childhood in Jersey and when he heard of Lillie's origins he introduced himself, eventually taking her down to supper. During the course of the meal he asked if he might paint her portrait. In fact Lillie's beauty was generally arousing interest, and by the end of the meal the young artist Frank Miles had already produced several sketches of her.

Life suddenly changed for the Langtrys. The very next day invitations to social gatherings flooded into their house and Miles' sketches were put on sale in London, leading to the spread of her fame as an unusual beauty, and requests by photographers to capture her image for display in shop windows.

Lillie chose to retain the image of the plain black dress at a time when her contemporaries were dressed in elaborate garments with expensive trims. With her good education, her confidence, her beauty and her plain, simple clothing, she stood out in London society and soon caught everyone's imagination, from painters to peers of the realm and even the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. She was still only 24 years old and yet the famous artist Millais had painted her portrait - a portrait that had raised such public interest it had to be roped off for fear of the visiting crowds at the Royal Academy damaging it.

 


The Prince of Wales

Her first meeting with the Prince of Wales ('Bertie' as he was affectionately known) came about as a result of an invitation to attend a gathering hosted by Sir Allen Young. Although Bertie was married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and indeed had five children with her, he refused to give up his bachelor lifestyle and philandering ways. On first introduction to the Prince of Wales both Lillie and her husband were so overwhelmed that they uttered only monosyllabic responses to the Prince's questions. She was, however, very impressed at the Prince's good humour and kindness and it seems the feelings were reciprocated because it was not long after this first meeting that they were seen riding together in Hyde Park. Bertie had a reputation for flitting from one sexual dalliance to another, whether the pretty face was that of a prostitute or aristocrat made no difference to him. Lillie was different, however. For the first time he was besotted with one woman.

It was obvious to everyone, including both Edward Langtry and the Princess that Lillie and Bertie were having an affair, and yet both chose to quietly accept the fact. Lillie even noted how very kind Princess Alexandra was to her and Edward's solution to the problem was often to go away on extended fishing trips, or simply sit at home drinking. This tacit acceptance led to a blissful period for Lillie and Bertie during 1877 and 1878 when they were totally free to enjoy each other's company. Bertie had a house built especially for them in Bournemouth - a place where the two could be completely alone and 'play house'.

Lillie's greatest wish was to be presented to the Queen. This was duly arranged, although accounts suggest that Queen Victoria was a little frosty with her. The result of their meeting, however, was open access to all the finest social gatherings, including receptions at Buckingham Palace. Her circle of friends at this time included the painter Whistler, and, probably most notably Oscar Wilde, who advised and 'coached' her on her way to stardom.

 

 


Changing fortunes

This whirlwind period was not to last, however. Such a high lifestyle cost the Langtrys a great deal of money and funds were running short. Somewhere along the way Lillie had forsaken her simple black dresses and replaced them with only the finest haute couture with expensive and elaborate trims. Bertie had always been generous with gifts, but never gifts of money. On the horizon came the added threat of another great beauty's arrival in London. Sarah Bernhardt was greeted with as much enthusiasm as Lillie had been and the Prince of Wales was not immune to the newcomer's charms. The 'Jersey Lily' was falling from favour with the fickle Prince.

John Millais' painting of Lillie, courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Trust

In contrast to the heights that she had reached over the previous two years, suddenly fate seemed to be turning against her. Her father's philandering ways came to the public's attention in Jersey and he was demoted from his position as Dean of Jersey and sent to be a Vicar in London.

With the public perception that the affair between Bertie and Lillie was fading, so the creditors closed in on the Langtrys and in October of 1880 Edward Langtry was declared bankrupt. His solution to this crisis was to go fishing again and leave his wife to deal with an invasion of the Bailiffs into their Norfolk Street home.

During this time Lillie had sought solace in the arms of Bertie's cousin, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and to her dismay found that she was carrying the young Prince's child. The royals closed ranks and immediately sent Louis back to serve in the navy.

The most obvious solution to her was to move away from the staring eyes of London and return to her beloved Jersey. She made various excuses to keep Edward away on his travels while she rented a small cottage just outside St. Helier, hoping to continue her pregnancy unnoticed. It soon became obvious, however, that in a small community like Jersey it would be impossible to keep the birth of a baby a secret. Although Bertie had chosen to distance himself from her, he was not about to desert a friend in need. Two men from Buckingham Palace accompanied her on a journey to Paris where she was to stay in an apartment belonging to one of Bertie's close personal friends.

Jeanne-Marie was born in March of 1881. Having a child was not about to keep Lillie away from London and after a brief stay back in Jersey she placed her daughter in the care of her own mother in Bournemouth and headed back to 'town'. With no money to her name and Edward now permanently away on fishing trips, she had to find a means of supporting herself and it was Oscar Wilde who suggested that she would be ideally suited to acting.


A new career

Under her own admission, acting did not come easily at first, but after a slightly halting start she soon hit heady heights and once again was the subject of public admiration. In the late 19th century actors did not form part of high society, their career considered to be rather disreputable, and she was aware that her old circle of friends would be well beyond her reach. This was not something that could hold back such a determined personality as Lillie Langtry, however. She cultivated the friendship of William Gladstone, who was at the time Prime Minister for a second term of office. The association with a man of such integrity and power gave her an air of respectability.

In 1882 she left for her first theatre tour of America, having negotiated the highest salary ever paid to an actress. Her nervousness at acting on stage in such a vast country was totally unfounded because she quickly became a favourite of the American public, with box office receipts reaching record proportions. In fact so successful was this initial tour that it was repeated for a total of five consecutive years.

As Rosalind

 

Whilst in America she struck up a relationship with Freddie Gebhard who had inherited a vast fortune from his father. A lavish lifestyle ensued with lengthy trips to Europe, the purchase of a town house in New York and, incredibly, a railway carriage to her own design and costing a staggering one million dollars.

Her decision to become an American citizen allowed her to finally be free of Edward Langtry and their marriage was dissolved in California in 1887.

In the midst of this new freedom and phenomenal wealth came the sad news that her father had died in Kennington, South London, with a mere £5 to his name.

She decided to return to England to make it her permanent home and continued to perform on stage. She had always been interested in horse racing and decided to purchase some horses. A friendship developed with George Baird - a wealthy Scot who used to ride his own horses under the pseudonym 'Squire Abingdon'. Unfortunately Baird had a nasty temper and in a fit of jealousy one night beat Lillie very badly, giving her two black eyes and leading to a 10 day stay in hospital. Try as he might to apologise, she would have nothing further to do with him until, that is, he presented her with a 200 foot luxury yacht named the 'White Ladye'. She dropped all charges against him and American reporters at the time, seeing the irony of the situation, nicknamed the yacht the 'Black Eye'.

 

In 1897 Edward Langtry sustained serious head injuries whilst in a drunken state, eventually leading to his death in October of that year. He was a sad figure, clearly still very much in love with Lillie right until the end. He had often traveled to train stations and ports when he knew she would be there but had always lost his nerve at the last minute, pleading with porters to keep an eye out for her and to report back later on every aspect of his wife's appearance and beauty.

  


Family estrangement

By 1898 Jeanne-Marie had reached the age of 18 and was engaged to be married. Lillie had formally given up her acting career and at the age then of 45 she married Hugo, the son of Sir Henry de Bathe. He was 19 years her junior. She purchased a small property at Beaumont in Jersey where they would both live and named it 'Merman Cottage' after her most successful racehorse. When Hugo volunteered to join the British forces fighting in the Boer War in South Africa she made the decision to leave the quiet life in Jersey and return to the stage in London - again to critical acclaim. A sad turn of fate was, however, just about to hit her life.

Throughout Jeanne-Marie's early childhood a web of lies had been spun as to who her parents actually were. By her teens she believed that Lillie was her aunt and that Edward Langtry was her father. On the night before her marriage, Lady Asquith asked her what her father would be giving her as a wedding present.

 

Portrait of Lillie by Valentine Prinsep 

Jeanne-Marie innocently explained that her father was dead and unfortunately it took Jeanne-Marie's fiancé to explain the truth about her parentage. She was confused and humiliated and wrote to her mother to say that they had little in common and, sadly, from then on treated Lillie as a complete stranger.

   


 

 

The final years

In 1906, at the age of 53, Lillie turned her back on theatre and made her first appearance in vaudeville in New York. It was a time of new projects for her: trying her hand as a novelist, and then an appearance in a film.

Whenever Lillie had spare time she liked to visit Monte Carlo, taking turns at the gambling tables. Occasionally she lost more money than she was earning at the time, but she also had her fair share of good luck - in 1907 becoming the first woman to break the bank at Monte Carlo.

In the same year her father-in-law died and she took on the title 'Lady de Bathe'.

Her final home was a villa in Monaco which she named 'Le Lys'. Husband Hugo lived in Nice, about half an hour away from the villa and was well provided for by Lillie, but only called upon as an escort on social occasions. Her constant and faithful companion at the villa was her butler's widow, Mathilda Peat.

In 1929, aged 75, she contracted bronchitis which developed into pleurisy. After weeks of illness, and in a weakened state, she then contracted influenza and died with her companion, Mrs. Peat, by her side.

 

In accordance with her wishes, her body was returned to her beloved Jersey and she lies in the Parish churchyard of St. Saviour.

Hugo did not attend the funeral, nor did he send flowers.

Only three months before her death she had changed her will: the first legacy of which was to leave numerous personal items to the Jersey Museum. Both her daughter and grandchildren were provided for and her constant companion in her latter years, Mrs.Mathilda Peat, was bequeathed £10,000, in addition to all her clothes, furs, jewellery and numerous other personal items. To Hugo, she bequeathed nothing.

Right: Lillie's final resting place in St. Saviours parish churchyard, facing the rectory.

 

Personal items belonging to Lillie Langtry are on display at the Jersey Museum in Pier Road, St Helier.

If you are looking for more information on Lillie, can I suggest that you contact either the Museum or the Societe Jersiaise, which is a local association concerned with all aspects of Jersey's history and heritage and is closely associated with the Museums service.

 

 

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Thanks to Jeanne: Lillie photos obtained from here. Visit her site for more photos and information on our 'Jersey Lily'

Sir John Millais' painting of Lillie courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Trust

Modern photos, Lily graphics and all written content subject to copyright. All rights reserved. Contact me here.

Microsoft clipart from http://cgl.microsoft.com/clipgallery/default.asp

  

If you are currently planning a trip to the UK, looking for books about the country, or hoping to learn more about British history, culture and events, you might find a visit to British Heritage online useful.

You can also stay at the former home of Edward VII and Lillie Langtry in Bournemouth: The Langtry Manor Country House Hotel. Visit their website here

 

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