Lillie Langtry, also known as The Jersey Lily, was a social-climbing powerhouse who rocked Victorian England. Her popularity was so immense it became termed, “The Langtry Phenomenon.”
I was so enraptured in the history of this dynamic Victorian woman that I had to include her in my novel, Peccadillo at the Palace, the second book in the Annie Oakley mystery series. The novel centers around the Wild West Show’s visit to England in 1887 at the request of Queen Victoria to perform at her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Annie Oakley and the rest of the company toured London and met many influential people. It is not documented that Annie ever met the popular socialite, but it wouldn’t be surprising if she did.
Considered the most beautiful woman in England, Royal Mistress to the Prince of Wales, paramour of the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg, Lillie Langtry caused a commotion wherever she went. She became a controversial figure who challenged Victorian society’s attitude toward women and paved the way for future women entrepreneurs all over the world.
Lillie inherited her mother’s good looks and had many suitors on the island. She paid the suitors no mind, preferring to roughhouse with her boisterous brothers, join in their pranks, and ride horses bareback on the beaches and throughout the countryside of Jersey. Her father insisted she have the same educational opportunities as the boys, and she proved to be an ardent and talented student.
Born in 1853 on the island of Jersey, located off the Normandy coast of France, Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, affectionately called Lillie, grew up with six brothers. Her father was the Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey, and her mother, Emilie Davis, a woman noted for her beauty.
Although close to her family, when Lillie discovered that her father, the religious authority on the island, was a habitual philanderer, she decided it was time to leave Jersey. She longed to sail to the continent and live in London. Her reprieve came in 1874 when, at twenty years old, she married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner, yachtsman, and angler.
Langtry took her from the island to his home in Southampton. Having escaped Jersey and her family’s troubles, Lillie expected marriage to open up a whole new world for her. But married life and her new husband proved to be disappointments. Edward often left Lillie to go on sailing and fishing excursions, leaving her alone in their grand house with no one for company except servants.
Despondent and unhappy, Lillie contracted Typhoid Fever. Her doctor, her sole source of company for weeks, soon became besotted with his beautiful patient. She confided in him that she wanted above anything else to move to London. When Edward returned from his adventures, the doctor insisted that the couple move to London or else risk Lillie’s good health.
After the move, Lillie received word from her family that her younger brother, Reggie, was killed in a riding accident. She went home to comfort her mother and when she returned to London she wore a simple, black, form-fitting dress for all occasions—even soirees and balls—in honor of her favorite brother. The simplicity of her attire only enhanced her beauty.
In London, many people became enchanted with the Jersey beauty who stood out in contrast to the glittering and tailored ladies of London’s elite in her simple, black gown. Frank Miles, an up-and-coming young artist and guest, was so taken with her he immediately took out his sketch pad and made a line drawing of her right there at the party. Drawings of beautiful society women were printed on postcards and sold to the public. Miles’ postcard was an instant bestseller and out-sold all the other postcards of society beauties.
Lillie had arrived.
Soon, other artists were clamoring for her to sit for portraits. Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of her became her most famous. Dressed in her usual black gown with a white lace collar, Langtry held a Guernsey Lily in her hand, as no lilies from Jersey were attainable. Millais named the portrait A Jersey Lily. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caused quite a stir. After the exhibition, Lillie was always referred to as “The Jersey Lily.”
With all of London’s elite flocking to spend time with Mrs. Langtry, she made some famous and influential friends. One of the closest in her circle was the flamboyant and eccentric Irish poet and play-write Oscar Wilde, who deemed her the “New Helen.” He said of her, “Yes, it was for such ladies that Troy was destroyed, and well might Troy be destroyed for such a woman.” He also said, “I would have rather discovered Lillie Langtry than America.”
She was also close to the American artist James Whistler and the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her popularity was so unprecedented that it became known as “The Langtry Phenomenon.“
Lillie’s most enduring and influential relationship was one she shared with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (“Bertie”) the eldest son of Queen Victoria, later known as King Edward VII. Bertie, married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and father of their six children, had taken several mistresses — all beauties of the London social set. When the Prince heard Mrs. Langtry was to attend a dinner party given by his friend Sir Allen Young, he made sure to instruct the host to have Mrs. Langtry seated next to him. Her husband was to be seated at the other end of the table. From the moment he met her, the Prince made it clear that if he attended any event, Mrs. Langtry must be invited.
The love affair began. The Prince was so enamored of Lillie that he flaunted their relationship in public and even presented her to his mother, Queen Victoria. He soon went so far as to buy a plot of land at Bournemouth’s East Cliff and told her to design a home to serve as their private “love nest.” Lillie took on the project with great enthusiasm. She added many touches that advertised their fondness for one another. One of the most interesting was a statement prominently displayed over the fireplace mantel that read, “They say what they say? Let them say.”
Princess Alexandra accepted her husband’s “friendship” with Lillie graciously. Such was Lillie’s charm and likability that the two women became friends. Later, after the Prince, then King Edward VII, passed away, Alexandra reportedly returned all the love letters Lily had sent him.
As all things eventually come to an end, the relationship between Lillie and the Prince cooled when during a masquerade ball, Lillie came dressed in the same costume as the Prince. After he chastised her for showing a lack of decorum and respect, she poured ice down his back in front of all the guests. Needless to say, she not only fell out of favor with the Prince but with all of London society.
Things at home were also in a state of disrepair. Edward Langtry, Lillie’s husband, had trouble keeping up with his socially demanding wife and spent less and less time fishing and sailing and more and more time drinking. He was also falling into a financial hole with his spending on yachts and Lillie spending on her lifestyle. The relationship and their finances were in shambles.
On the verge of bankruptcy, Lillie realized she needed work and turned to a great love of hers, the theater. Her friends, including Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, encouraged her to try her charms on the stage. Although not incredibly talented, Lillie’s outgoing attitude, intelligence, and sparkling wit made people love her once again. Her acting career blossomed, and she gained more popularity than ever.
In 1879, Lillie began an affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg, the nephew of the Prince of Wales. At the same time, she also embarked on a relationship with Arthur Clarence Jones, a childhood friend from Jersey. In 1880, she became pregnant. The only known fact of the paternity of the child was that it was not Langtry’s husband. She insisted the child was Prince Louis’. Many others believed the father was Arthur Jones. When Louis confessed to his family about his relationship with Mrs. Langtry and the birth of their child, he was assigned to one of Her Majesty’s warships.
Bertie, still fond of Lillie, gave her some money, and she moved to Paris with Arthur Jones. In 1881, she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie. Lillie’s mother raised the girl and she would be known in public as Lillie’s niece. Jeanne Marie did not learn the truth about her parentage until her wedding day in 1902. The news put a strain on Lillie and Jeanne Marie’s relationship that would last the rest of Lillie’s life.
In the same year of her daughter’s birth, Lillie announced that her theater company was to tour the United States. When she arrived in New York, hundreds of soon-to-be fans who had heard of the English beauty greeted her. Her first performance was a total sellout, and she donated much of the proceeds to charity, further endearing her to the American audience. Disaster struck when the theater burned to the ground. The only thing that remained standing was a sign depicting Lillie’s name. Undaunted, the determined socialite viewed the mishap as a foretelling of better things to come. She moved her company to another theater and continued to play to full houses and drew attention wherever she went. Having fallen in love with America, she repeated her tours to the U. S. several times.
Lillie always had many ardent suitors at home and abroad. One of her most prominent American suitors was Freddie Gephard, a wealthy New York industrialist who showered her with gifts, including a private railway car he named ”Lalee.” Lillie used the private railcar to travel across America on her theater tours. Gephard was also a horse breeder and well known on the racing circuit. Lillie’s early love of horses prompted her to breed thoroughbreds. She purchased a 6,500-acre ranch in Lake Country, California, next door to Freddie Gephard’s ranch.
During her stay in America, Lily endorsed many American products and set up several companies, including a winery. Lily had become a millionaire in her own right. But disaster reared its ugly head again. While being transported across the country, fourteen of Lillie’s racehorses were killed after the train derailed.
After picking up the pieces again, and having toured America for six years, Lillie longed to return to England. It was during this time she took up with George Alexander Baird, a millionaire, amateur jockey, and pugilist. She also purchased more racehorses and wanted them to compete, but the Jockey Club in London forbade women owners. Never one to be told “no”, Lillie registered as “Mr. Jersey.” Her horse Merman won the Cesarevitch and Ascot Gold Cup, the Goodwood Cup and the Jockey Club Cup. Her relationship with Baird ended when he died in 1893.
After many years of asking Edward for a divorce and his constant refusals, Lillie became an American citizen and could finally secure a divorce. A few years later, Edward, destitute and a hopeless alcoholic, was committed to an insane asylum and died.
In 1899, Lily finally settled down and married Hugo de Bathe, a wealthy racehorse owner fifteen years her junior. Upon the death of his father, Hugo inherited a baronetcy and Lillie became Lady de Bathe. Now middle-aged, Lillie’s fame had not diminished. She still dressed in the latest fashions and was still in demand for portraits and photographs. She was the lessee and manager of London’s Imperial Theater and acted in plays well into her seventies. She starred in one U.S. film called The Crossways. She owned and raced horses and owned thousands of acres in property. In her golden years, Lillie lived in Monaco at her cliff-top villa named “Le Lys,” where she became a prize-winning gardener.
From the boisterous tomboy of Jersey, Lillie Langtry became a historical icon. Her beauty was only surpassed by her superior wit and intelligence, charm and graciousness. From the moment she entered London society, both men and women, from royalty to commoners, admired and idolized her for half a century. She was loved abroad just as much.
The Jersey Lily was a woman before her time and was unstoppable in her quest for a full, exciting and fulfilling life.
Where History Meets Mystery with Kari Bovée
Author Kari Bovée
When she’s not on a horse, or walking along the beautiful cottonwood-laden acequias of Corrales, New Mexico; or basking on white sand beaches under the Big Island Hawaiian sun, Kari Bovée is escaping into the past—scheming murder and mayhem for her characters both real and imagined, and helping them to find order in the chaos of her action-packed novels. Bovée writes the award-winning Annie Oakley Mystery Series and the Grace Michelle Mystery Series, and has more ideas than time for many, many more.