I thought it would be fun to continue my posts on scandalous Victorians. So today I’m reposting an article I wrote for talented author Gini Rifkin.
What does socialite and actress Lillie Langtry have to do with my novella, A Woman of Love? Nothing. My character, Annabel, is driven by love, whereas Lillie seems to be motivated by celebrity and money. So why write about her, and why would you want to read about her life? Because she was notorious. Her lovers were princes, lords and the cream of English society and when society was done with her she reinvented herself. I suppose I should start at the beginning.
Lillie Langtry was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton on 13th October 1853, on the Island of Jersey. (For those of you who have never heard of Jersey, it’s an island in the middle of the English Channel.) She was the youngest of seven children, and by all accounts a tomboy. This is not surprising when you consider she had six older brothers. Her father was the rector and Dean of Jersey.
In 1874, Lillie met and married 30 year-old landowner Edward Langtry. He was wealthy enough to own a yacht and Lillie wanted an escape from her island home. The pair moved to London. Soon after their arrival they were invited to a reception by one of her father’s friends, Lord Ranelagh. She wore a simple black, figure-hugging gown, which was a stark contrast to the flamboyant gowns worn by the other women. (This was before Coco Channel invented the “little black dress.”) She caused a sensation. The dress showed off her natural beauty. Among the guests were artists Frank Miles and Everett Millais, both asked if she would sit for them. Their sketches and portraits of Lillie were sold as postcards and were a sell-out success.
It was not long before news of the beautiful young, and witty Mrs. Langtry grew, reaching the attention of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Edward, son of Queen Victoria and married to Princess Alexandra, was a well-known philanderer. He arranged an intimate dinner party where Lillie was seated next to him while her husband was sat at the opposite end of the table. And so began her affair with the Prince of Wales, which lasted three years. The prince even built a love nest for them in the Bournemouth area.
The affair was over by 1880. Some say she insulted him in public and refused to apologize, others say that her husband threatened to divorce her and cite the Prince and the Earl of Shrewsbury as her lovers in the divorce petition. Whatever the reason the relationship cooled.
By this time, Lillie was living well beyond her means; especially considering her husband had never been as wealthy as she had been led to believe. With creditors closing in she was forced to sell her possessions to avoid bankruptcy.
Lillie now began an affair with the handsome Prince Louis of Battenberg. She was also seeing a childhood friend, Arthur Jones, at the same time. She became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie, in Paris on 8th March 1881. To this day the question of paternity is still unresolved. Letters Lillie wrote to Arthur, discovered in 1978, suggest the child was his.
After the birth of her daughter, she realized she needed to find employment, so she took to the stage. Although, she wasn’t a great actress her charm and stage presence guaranteed a full house. It is known that the Prince of Wales supported her acting efforts by going to her shows and encouraging his friends to do the same.
In 1882 she started her own stage company, and announced that they were going to tour the United States of America. Her tour was an enormous success and while critics condemned her acting ability, she played to sold-out houses.
She was now with wealthy industrialist Freddie Gebhard. The staggering profits from her tour and her relationship with Gebhard, a man who was not shy about sharing his wealth with her, encouraged her to repeat her stage tour of America. In the meantime, Gebhard showered her with gifts, there was a railcar made to her own design, costing a million dollars, a town home in New York, and trips to Europe.
In 1887 she became an American citizen and divorced Edward Langtry. Free of her husband and independently wealthy she decided to return to England. Her relationship with Gebhard faded and in 1895 he married another woman.
In 1899 she married Gerald de Bathe, by all accounts the marriage wasn’t a close one, and although they both lived in Monte Carlo they only saw each other at social gatherings.
Lillie died alone in Monaco in 1929, and was buried in Jersey.
Initially, I found it hard to empathize with Lillie. Yes, she was a survivor who was able to recreate herself, but she seemed so calculating. Was she a social climber? With the exception of Arthur Jones, the men she chose were rich with the social status to match. Was Arthur the love of her life? I really don’t know enough about him to decide.
Once Lillie became independently wealthy she could have chosen any man rich or poor. Was Arthur married, or worse, dead by then? Is that why she continued to seek out men from the upper class even though they never made her happy?
In the end she died rich and alone. A tragic figure, who I believe was never truly happy.