Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry, also known as the “Jersey Lily” was one of the most famous international celebrities of her day. Women wanted to copy her (and she made good money off of this through endorsements) and men were smitten by her all over the world, from kings and princes to the likes of Judge Roy Bean (the “law west of the Pecos”) who named the town of Langtry, Texas in her honor. She was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton on the island of Jersey in 1853 and gained an above average education for a girl in her day and age, mostly because her own tutor considered her impossible and so she was educated alongside her brothers. In 1874, at the age of 21, she married the wealthy Irish landlord Edward Langtry and moved to London. Her stunning beauty, quick wit and considerable knowledge made her an instant hit in the high society of London and she quickly gained many well-placed friends.

Lillie became even more famous after Sir John Everett Millais painted a very famous portrait of her called “A Jersey Lily” which was eventually exhibited at the Royal Academy. Other portraits, sketches and the like followed and soon her features were well known far and wide. The philandering Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) was taken with her and arranged to meet her. An affair quickly followed and Lillie became the Prince’s primary mistress, even being presented to HM Queen Victoria (whom we can be sure did not approve!) and even after things cooled down Lillie and the future King always remained good friends. About the time things were ending with Edward (as another girl caught his eye) Lillie became involved in an affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury which progressed so far that the two planned to run away together. Edward Langtry became fed up with this situation and threatened to sue for divorce and even make public the affair with the Prince of Wales.

This attitude was understandable but probably not wise. The Prince kept his distance after that and creditors who had been kept at bay by the fact that Lillie was the Prince’s mistress quickly closed in and Edward Langtry was driven to the brink of bankruptcy. Lillie herself had to sell many of her possessions but, for someone like her, there was no shortage of men to come to the rescue of the ‘damsel in distress’. Prince Louis of Battenberg was first but he was scared off when Lillie became pregnant and she was paid off by the Prince of Wales and went to live in Paris with another beau, Arthur Clarence Jones. In 1881 she gave birth to her daughter Jeanne Marie. It was then that Lillie, at the urging of Oscar Wilde, became a stage actress, making her debut in London in 1881. She was a great success and later toured the United States as she would do a number of times throughout her career.

From 1882 to 1891 Lillie was involved with the New York millionaire Frederic Gebhard who got her interested in the world of thoroughbred horse racing. In 1900 one of her horses won the Ascot Gold Cup. In 1897 Lillie became an American citizen and finally obtained an official divorce from Edward Langtry in Lakeport, California. In 1888 she bought a winery in California but sold it in 1906, nonetheless the Langtry winery and vineyard are still in business today in Middletown, California. After a brief affair with another American millionaire horse lover (George Alexander Baird) Lillie married Hugo Gerald de Bathe in 1899 who later inherited the title of Baronet (a sort of hereditary knighthood) and who became one of the leading race horse owners in the world. To many it seemed like only a symbolic marriage and before long the couple retired to the Principality of Monaco. They lived separately, though not too far away. For these final years Lillie’s closest companion was the widow of her former butler. Lillie Langtry died in Monaco on February 12, 1929, one of the most famous and widely recognized stars in the world. She was taken home and buried on the island of Jersey not far from where she was born.


  1. A very interesting, and, shall we say, colorful career. One rarely hears of celebrities from small, out-of-the-way places like Jersey. It's also interesting that she ended up in another small (though not exactly out-of-the-way) place like Monaco.

    I think there's a slight typo though- shouldn't it be Edward VII, rather than Edward VIII? (Although, perhaps the two Edwards were similar in some ways).

  2. Thanks for catching that -it's now corrected. They were alike in having a certain "moral flexibility" though Edward VII had more devotion to royal duty and Edward VIII at least was faithful once he was married (as far as I know).


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