Friday, April 26, 2013

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry (1853-1929)

Some known facts:
  • Born 13th October 1853 - Channel Island of Jersey (UK).
  • Died 12th February 1929 - Monaco (France).
  • Real Name - Emilie Charlotte Le Breton
  • Married 1) Edward Langtry, 2) Hugo de Bathe.
  • In USA known as Lily Langtry.
  • Famously admired by notorious US lawman Judge Roy Bean.
  • One time mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales.

Lillie Langtry, birth name Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, was born in St. Saviors Parish church rectory, on the English Channel island of Jersey, on 13th October 1853. She was the sixth child (of seven) and only daughter to the Very Reverend William Corbet Le Breton, Dean of Jersey, and his wife Emilie Davis (nee Martin) who was considered a great beauty. As the only girl amongst six brothers it was perhaps inevitable that Emilie, 'Lillie' for short, would become something of a tomboy, playing boyish games and becoming inseparable from her only younger brother, Reggie. The six boys all attended the local school but Lillie received her only education at home from a French governess during, supplemented in the evenings by her brothers' tutor.

The family was highly respected locally and attended many social events so that Lillie learned to socialize in good company from an early age. When Lillie was in her early teens, her mother began to suffer from bouts of ill health, and Lillie would sometimes substitute for her at official functions where the Dean's wife was expected to appear. Consequently, she became quite adept at speaking in public to an audience considerably than herself. Having inherited her mother’s beauty, Lillie received her first marriage proposal when she was only fourteen, from a young army Lieutenant who was promptly informed she was far too young to marry. When Lillie was sixteen, her mother took her to London for her debutante season as was the practice for daughters of high ranking families. For Lillie it proved something of a shock, her Jersey manners set her apart and made her feel awkward and clumsy in London society so that she was glad when the time came to return home.

In 1873, at her brother William's wedding, Lillie met Edward Langtry, a wealthy widower who was the brother-in-law of the bride, Elizabeth Price. Within six weeks they too were married, Lillie's father performing the service. Unfortunately this created a rift between Lillie and her beloved brother Reggie who so disliked Edward that he refused to attend the wedding or to visit the couple at either of their two homes in Jersey or Southampton. Married life did not live up to Lillie's expectations, and after four years of Edward leaving her alone for long periods whilst he pursued his own interests Lillie took advantage of a bout of illness to persuade her husband that a move to London would be good for her health. She returned to London a far more assured and confident character than the young girl that had visited the capital previously, and this time she quickly found her place in London society. Her newfound happiness was marred when her beloved brother Reggie died suddenly in a riding accident, leaving Lillie devastated with grief and guilt - especially when she arrived back on the island too late to attend his funeral.

But her own was finally taking the direction she had laid out for it. In London, she became renowned for her exquisite beauty and was painted by a number of artists, including John Everett Millais, Edward Poynter and Frank Miles. Millais was responsible for the nickname by which she would be known throughout the rest of her life, entitling his portrait of her "The Jersey Lily" (after the flower that is a symbol of Jersey). Her gregarious nature and sense of humor made her the toast of the London social scene where she frequently mixed with royalty, and even began an affair with Edward Prince of Wales. In 1880 Edward Langtry, from whom Lillie was becoming increasingly estranged, was declared bankrupt and retreated into seclusion leaving Lillie to deal with the angry creditors. Her affair with Prince 'Bertie' having cooled, Lillie found solace in the arms of Prince Louis of Battenberg to whom she fell pregnant. Retreating from the public eye, Lilly returned first to Jersey then to Paris where her daughter Jeanne-Marie was born in March 1881.

Now separated from her husband, and with no means of financial support, Lillie placed her daughter in the care of her own mother and became one of the first English society women to embark upon a career on the stage. She made her debut as 'Kate Hardcastle' in "She Stoops to Conquer" with the Bancroft’s at The Haymarket Theatre on 15th December, 1881.

The following year she formed her own company to play a season at The Imperial before embarking on her first American tour. She was due to open there at the Park Theatre on Broadway and 22nd Street in New York on 30th October 1882 but the theatre was totally destroyed by fire on that very day. In spite of that inauspicious beginning, the tour was a great success and Lillie instantly became a huge favorite with the American public. She repeated the tour in each of the next five years. In 1887 Lillie adopted American citizenship and divorced her husband the same year in California.

Between those tours, back in England she proved herself a shrewd and capable theatre manageress, taking over the leases of various London theatres, including the Prince's, St James and Princesses. She also developed a passion for horses and horse racing and over the years acquired a stable of successful racehorses both in England and America (where she purchased a ranch and stud farm). This passion also led to her association with the Scottish millionaire George Baird, owner of a stable of thoroughbreds, with whom she began an affair. Baird, however, was an excessively jealous man and when Lillie went off on a shopping trip to Paris with another man he set of in hot pursuit. He beat Lillie so badly she had to spend two weeks in a French hospital and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Amazingly, Lillie refused to press charges, though Baird did recompense her for her injuries with a payment of £50,000 and the gift of a yacht.

Edward Langtry died a sad, pathetic figure in an insane asylum in Chester in 1897. He had been recently committed there after suffering a brain injury falling down the gangway of the Dublin to Holyhead steamer. Rumors were rife at the time that Lillie was about to remarry to Prince Esterhazy, but it would be another two years before she married again, and then to young Hugo de Bathe (some eighteen years her junior). Now aged forty-five, she formally retired from the stage to a small property named 'Merman Cottage' in Jersey which she would share with her new husband. Another sacrifice she made for her new husband was to give up her small stable of racehorses since he did not believe it was a fitting occupation for a lady. But when Hugo joined the British Forces shortly afterwards and embarked to fight in the Boer War in South Africa, Lillie quickly reversed her retirement, returning to America to resume her stage career.

Her popularity in America had famously brought her to the attention of the notorious Judge Roy Bean who had become infatuated with her even though they never met. Bean had written to Lillie many times inviting her to visit him in his saloon in Langtry*, Texas, and in January 1904, when her travel plans brought her nearby, she decided to take up his offer. Her arrival came too late for Bean, who had died some ten months earlier. She was warmly welcomed by the people of the small town however, and was presented with gifts of a live tarantula in a silver filigree cage, a black pet bear, a span of mules and a six-shooter. She declined the mules, but had the bear sent to her farm in California, taking with her tarantula and the six-shooter.

On the same tour a month later she narrowly escaped death as the train carrying her company was passing by the town of Terrace in Utah. As the train started down a steep gradient at high speed her private carriage jumped the rails and bumped along alarmingly for a quarter of a mile before the train could be stopped. Staying remarkably calm, Mrs. Langtry held on to a table and pledged a toast to the frightened members of her company - "Here's to the one who keeps the coolest head." Only when the danger was over did the shock overtake her and she fainted.

In 1907, Hugo inherited his father’s title becoming Sir Hugo and making Lillie Lady de Bathe. Although the marriage lasted thirty years it was no more successful than her first marriage had been, and the couple largely went their own ways. Professionally, Lillie continued her pattern of alternating American tours with spells in management in London.

Lillie remained active on the stage until 1918, making her last American tour in 1915. She spent her final years in retirement, residing with her friend and companion Mrs. Peat in a little villa she had purchased in Monaco and which she named 'Le Lys'. Lillie died in Monaco on the morning of 12th February, 1929, aged 75, from pleurisy and influenza.

In life, Lillie's private affairs had been characterized by a series of ruinous misjudgments and extraordinary turns of fortune. Both her marriages were failures and her only daughter Jeanne-Marie, who had been raised believing that Lillie was her aunt (only discovering the truth on the eve of her own wedding) would have little to do with her in later life. She had many notable lovers, all of them prominent and well connected men of the time, and could name among her friends such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and the American artist James McNeill Whistler. She took advantage of her notoriety to endorse commercial products, such as Pears soap, and even manufactured claret from her own California winery. Her race-horses won most of the major handicaps, including the Gold Cup at Ascot, and she was famously the first woman to break the bank at Monte Carlo. At its height, her personal fortune was counted in millions though most of this was gone by the time she died. It is difficult to comprehend that during such staid times one woman could command such fame and power, and without the aid of film or television become so recognizable that she was mobbed in the street. She was undoubtedly a great beauty, possessed of classic features and the diminutive waist that was considered so desirable at the time. It was this allied to her charm and wit that attracted her many rich lovers and won her the admiration of millions.

At her own request, Lillie was buried back in her beloved Jersey, her life having turned full circle as she was laid to rest in the graveyard of the same parish church in whose rectory she had been born - St. Saviors. In her will she left Mrs. Peat, her main beneficiary, the Monte Carlo villa they had shared, a lump sum of £10,000, and all of her jewellery. To her four grandchildren she left a combined total of £16,000. Numerous smaller bequests included a motor car to her maid, Mathilde, and antique furniture to the museum of St. Helier.

*The widely held belief that the town of Langtry, where Judge Bean dispensed his unique form of merciless justice, was named by him in her honor is in fact not true (the town's name pre-dates Bean and was chosen to honor an American railroad pioneer). It may very well, however, have been the name of the town that attracted Bean to choose it as his base of operations. And it is unquestionably true that he did erect a small wooden saloon there and name it 'The Jersey Lillie' in her honor (the building is preserved to this day).

"Reproduced courtesy of Don Gillan (Copyright),"

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