Lillie Langtry (13 October 1853 – 12 February 1929), born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, was a highly successful British actress born on the island of Jersey. A renowned beauty, she was nicknamed the "Jersey Lily" and had a number of prominent lovers, including the future King Edward VII.
In 1874, twenty-year-old Emilie married twenty-six-year-old Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the brother-in-law of her brother William's wife. One of his attractions was that he possessed a yacht, and she insisted that he take her away from the Channel Islands. Eventually, they rented a place in Belgravia, London.
At a reception for one of her father's friends, Emilie attracted notice for her beauty and wit despite wearing a simple black dress (which was to become her trademark) and no jewelry. Before the end of the evening, Frank Miles had completed several sketches of her that became very popular on postcards. Another guest, Sir John Everett Millais, eventually painted her portrait. Langtry's nickname, the "Jersey Lily," was taken from the Jersey lily flower (Amaryllis belladonna) – a symbol of Jersey. The nickname was popularised by Millais' portrait, entitled A Jersey Lily. (According to tradition, the two Jersey natives spoke Jèrriais to each other during the sittings.) The painting caused great interest when exhibited at the Royal Academy, but Emilie is holding a Guernsey lily (Nerine sarniensis) in the painting rather than a Jersey lily, as none were available at Covent Garden during the sittings. She also sat for Sir Edward Poynter and is depicted in works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. She became much sought after in London society, and invitations (previously scarce) flooded in. Her fame soon reached royal ears.
The affair lasted from 1877 to 1878. Edward had construction begun on the Red House (now Langtry Manor Hotel) in Bournemouth, Dorset in 1877 as a private retreat for the couple. He allowed Lillie to design it. Edward once complained to her, "I've spent enough on you to build a battleship," whereupon she tartly replied, "And you've spent enough in me to float one." Their relationship finally cooled when she misbehaved at a dinner party. For some time, he didn't even see her. Nevertheless, he remained fond of her and spoke well of her in her later career as a theatre actress.
With the withdrawal of royal favour, creditors closed in. The Langtrys' finances were not equal to their lifestyle and in October 1880, Edward Langtry became bankrupt.
A recent biography of Langtry suggests that another of her extramarital lovers, Arthur Jones, may have been Jeanne Marie's father. However, Prince Louis's son, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, always maintained that it was his father, which would make Jeanne Marie the aunt of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and, by marriage, of Queen Elizabeth II.
At the suggestion of one of her friends, either Oscar Wilde or Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie embarked upon a stage career. In December 1881, she made her debut before the London public in She Stoops to Conquer at the Haymarket Theatre. The following autumn, she made her first tour of America, an enormous success, which she repeated in subsequent years, though the critics generally condemned her interpretations of roles such as Pauline in the Lady of Lyons or Rosalind in As You Like It.
From 1900 to 1903, she was the lessee and manager of London's Imperial Theatre.
In 1899, she married the much younger Hugo Gerald de Bathe, who would inherit a baronetcy, and became a leading owner in the horse-racing world, before retiring to Monte Carlo. During her final years, she resided in a home in Monaco, with her husband living a short distance away. The two saw one another only when she called on him for social gatherings or in brief private encounters. Her constant companion during this time was her close friend, Mathilda Peat, the widow of her butler.
Langtry died in Monaco in 1929, and was buried in the graveyard of St. Saviour's Church in Jersey – the church of which her father had been rector.
She used her high public profile to endorse commercial products such as cosmetics and soap, becoming an early example of celebrity endorsement.
Langtry was portrayed on film by Lillian Bond in The Westerner (1940), and by Ava Gardner in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). Judge Roy Bean, a real-life admirer, was played by Walter Brennan in the former and Paul Newman in the latter, both times as a man with a life-long obsession with her.
Langtry's story was dramatised by London Weekend Television in 1978 as Lillie, with Francesca Annis in the title role. Annis had previously played Langtry in two episodes of ATV's Edward the Seventh. Jenny Seagrove played her in the 1991 made-for-television film Incident at Victoria Falls . A heavily fictionalized incarnation of Langtry was performed by Stacy Haiduk in the 1996 television series Kindred: The Embraced. In the series, Langtry is the immortal leader of a sect of vampires living in the present day.
Langtry is also a featured character in the tongue-in-cheek western novel, Slocum and the Jersey Lily by Jake Logan. She figures prominently in Death at Epsom Downs by Robin Paige, the pseudonym of Bill and Susan Wittig Albert, who wrote a series of Victorian novels featuring actual people.
The song "Pictures of Lily", written in 1966 by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who, is about a young man who has his childhood's problems resolved by "Pictures of Lily" put in his bedroom by his father to help him to sleep at night.
Lillie Langtry lived at 21 Pont Street, London from 1892 to 1897. Although from 1895 the building was actually the Cadogan Hotel, she would stay in her old bedroom there. A blue plaque on the hotel commemorates this, and the hotel's restaurant is named Langtry's in her honour.
Whilst she was Edward VII's mistress, Lillie Langtry frequently performed at the in-house theatre of a hotel on 1-9 Inverness Terrace, in Bayswater, on the north side of Hyde Park, London W2. The in-house theatre is known as 'Lillie's theatre'. A grade II listed building, the hotel was originally built by Ritz architects Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis and continues to function as a hotel today - renamed 'The Jones Hotel', its in-house theatre continues as the venue for nightly cabaret-style performances.
She lived for a time at 42 Wickham Road, Brockley in southeast London.
Merman Cottage in Saint Brelade, Jersey, was purported to be owned and occupied by Lillie Langtry (Merman was also the name of one of her racehorses). However there is no record in the Public Registry of Jersey of any transactions by Emilie Charlotte Le Breton or that she ever owned property in Jersey.
Langtry stayed at Teddy's Nook, a house in Yorkshire, some time between 1877 and 1880.
The town of Langtry, Texas, was not named for her, although its most illustrious inhabitant, Judge Roy Bean, was an ardent admirer, naming the saloon where he held court "The Jersey Lily". Bean himself spread the rumor about the town's name. He also built an opera house in anticipation of a visit, and Mrs. Langtry appeared there after Bean's death. The town was named for railroad supervisor George Langtry.
Langtry, Lillie, The Days I Knew, 1925. (Autobiography.)