She was born Emilie Charlotte LeBreton on October 13, 1853 on the island of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands, where her father, the Very Reverand William Corbet Le Breton, a clergyman was dean and the rector of St. Saviours Parish Church. She inherited her looks from both her parents. Her father was over 6 feet tall, with a shock of white hair and piercing blue eyes, while her mother, Emilie Davis, was petite and auburn haired. Her mother suffered from ill-health through out most of her life, her father was robust and larger than life, with a charismatic personality. The LeBreton family was very well respected and Lillie was naturally proud of her ancestors how had served with William the Conqueror in their defeat of the English at the Battle of Hastings.
Lillie wrote in her autobiography about her father, "I am convinced that the stage suffered a greater loss than the army, for my father had the true histrionic gift, and his dramatic talent would have undoubtedly made him a fine actor."
He was also an inveterate womanizer.
At one point when Lillie was 16, she had fallen in love with a handsome local boy, only to find out from her father, that he was his illegitimate son. Lillie was the only girl among 6 brothers, she grew up believing that anything they could do, she could do or better. The outcome of this upbringing was that Lillie was what they like to call a 'man's woman' utterly at ease in the company of men. She liked them and they liked her. She also understood them, and how to get what she wanted, two traits that would stand her well as she made her way through life. Her father believed in education for women, so Lillie started taking lessons from her brothers tutors in Latin, Greek, maths, German, French, music and art. Not a typical education for a Victorian girl, who mainly learned needlework and how to deal with household management.
She wrote in her autobiography that she was nick-named Lillie because of her beautiful lily-white complexion. She hated the name Emilie as well as her middle name of Charlotte which she considered 'dreadful'. For the rest of her life she would known as Lillie. She grew up into a beauty, the epitome of the 19th century standard. Tall, broad hipped and full-bosomed, with a pearly white complexion, and golden brown hair, Lillie dreamed of a life outside of island of Jersey. She was so beautiful that she received her first marriage proposal at the tender age of 14. Due to her mother's ill-health, Lillie began to appear at official functions, in mother's place. She became accustomed to speaking publicly and to dealing with people from all walks of life, including those who were many years older than her.
She dreamed of London and everything that city conjured up. She'd had one unsuccessful visit here at the age of 16. Many wealthy Londoners chose Jersey as a winter retreat. One of these men, Lord Suffield, suggested that Lillie was beautiful enough to have a London season. Lillie and her mother were elated, but they soon discovered that without connections, it was impossible to navigate the intricacies of London society. The only invitation they had was to a ball hosted by Lord Suffield. Despite her beauty, she more than likely came off as provincial, and lacking in manners. She eagerly wore her one evening dress to the event, but the modiste in Jersey could not compete with the extravagant creations that London society women wore. She talks in her autobiography of being at a dinner and being confused by the many forks and knives displayed in front of her. 'I felt like a clumsy peasant, I disgraced myself so often I could scarcely wait until the evening came to an abysmal end.'
Back home, Lillie determined that if she ever had the chance at London society again, things would be different. She applied herself to studying, preparing herself for the next time she made her way to London. The only problem was how to achieve that goal. Enter one Edward Langtry. She met him in 1873 when her brother William married Elizabeth Price. Edward Langtry was Elizabeth's brother-in-law, a widower, whose wife had died tragically of tuberculosis two years after they were married. His family had been shipbuilders from Belfast, and he owned an 80 foot yacht called The Red Gauntlet. Lillie later said that she fell in love with the yacht but married the owner. Despite her parents belief that she needed to see more of the world, and the disapproval of her younger brother Reggie, she married Edward Langtry several months after they met.
Lillie was in for the shock of her life. Contrary to what she had been led to believe or chose to believe, Edward was not as wealthy as she had thought. The Langtry family had gone from rags to riches and then back again. Edward, as a gentleman, did not work for a living. Their only income came from the rents on some Irish properties that he owned. They moved to Southampton in England, where Lillie was bored out of her mind. There was little society in Southampton and Edward spent most of his time racing his yacht. Lillie also realized that they had nothing in common, while Lillie was intelligent and well read, Edward's interests were mainly yachting and fishing. Things came to a head when Lillie came down with a serious case of typhoid fever, and almost died. Fortunately for her, she was able to convince her doctor that London would be the best place for her to recuperate. Lillie was ecstatic, finally she had arrived!
The couple arrived in London in 1876. But initially Lillie's experience of London this second time was even worse than the first. The couple would spend their days visiting museums or walking through the Park hoping to run into an aquaintance who might help introduce them into society. Once the season was over, and society had fled to their great country estates, Lillie began to spend most of her time indoors reading, while Edward, used to spending a great deal of time out of doors, took to drinking as his newest hobby.
Coinciding with their move to London, Lillie’s younger brother, Reggie, was killed in a freak horse accident. She was now in mourning. It was during this rather bleak period of her life that fate finally intervened. She and Edward were visiting a the new aquarium in Westminster where they ran into old family friends of the Le Bretons, the 7th Viscount Ranalegh and his two daughters, Jersey inhabitants who spent the season in London. The Langtrys were invited to stay at the Ranalegh’s home in Fulham. Ranelegh was somewhat eccentric, he lived with his mistress, the mother of his seven children, who declined to marry. Lillie took Lord Ranelegh into her confidence about their lack of society. Soon after their return to Eaton Place, the Langtry's received an invitation to dinner at the home of Lord and Lady Seabright, friends of Lord Ranelegh. Like their friend, the Seabright's considered themselves to be bohemian, Lady Seabright was a talented amateur actress. Among their frequent guests were artists and actors, including Henry Irving (later to be Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted), which was unusual for the time when society was much more of a closed circle, limited to those few families who owned most of the land in England.
Edward Langtry was not much of party animal, but Lillie, fully recovered from her illness and very bored, desired a change so she convinced Edward to go. Still wearing mourning, Lillie arrived at the party wearing a plain, figure-hugging black dress. Amid all the colorful plumage of the female guests, Lillie Langtry stuck out like a like a beacon of purity. Immediately, the artists Frank Miles and John Everett Milliais , a fellow countryman, who were also guests at the party, sought out the ethereal beauty and both asked if they could paint her portrait. Millais managed to win the chance to take Lillie into dinner.
Frank Miles, a very popular painter of the era made a line drawing of her on the spot, thus immortalizing her moment of discovery. Not only was Lillie beautiful, it was soon discovered that she was well read and could converse on a variety of topics, making her not just another pretty face. It was hard not to be enchanted by her and she was the hit of the party. Lillie Langtry was now launched not just in Society but to the world at large.
Soon she would pose for most of the major painters of her day including Edward Poynter, James McNeill Whistler, George Frederic Watts, Edward Bourne Jones, and became friends with many of them. She seemed to embody the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements that were coming to fruition in the 1870's. One of the most famous paintings done was by Millais, in which she wore her simple black dress, an amaryllis in her hand. The flower was mistakenly thought of as a Lily giving rise to her new nickname 'The Jersey Lily.' The portrait was hung at the Royal Academy, soon nominated Portrait of the Year and had to be roped off because of the crowds eager to see whom Milliais called “the most beautiful woman on earth.”
But it was the photographs that truly made her famous. Photography was just coming into its own, and many society women, including Jennie Jerome Churchill, Mrs. Luke Wheeler, the Duchess of Leinster and Patsy Cornwallis West (a good friend of Lillie's) had their photographs taken which were then offered for sale. They were known as Professional Beauties or PB's. These photos were collected not just by the lower classes but also by the middle class who kept them in special scrapbooks.
This must have been a heady time for Lillie. In what seemed like an instant, she had gone from obscurity to being feted by most of the artists of the day. In our celebrity driven era, the idea of being flavor of the month or the minute, is taken for granted. But in the late 19th century, the idea that a young woman could become almost famous overnight was a novelty. What was it about Lillie that made her so unique? She seemed to have come out of nowhere, in her one black dress, with her whiff of impoverished gentility.
Soon Lillie and Edward were invited everywhere, not just by the artists of the day, but also by society. Invitations flooding their tiny flat on Eaton Place. James McNeil Whistler helped to relieve some of the gloom of the place by stenciling gold palm fronds on the walls of the maroon drawing room. While Edward was out of his depth, Lillie was in her element. Knowing a good gimmick when she found one, Lillie continued to wear her black evening dress all events. Of course, she had a legitimate excuse, still being in mourning for her brother, but she was more than aware how the dress flattered her creamy complexion and contributed to her fame. The reign of the black dress came to an end when she was invited to a party by Lady Dudley, whose husband disliked the color black. Instead she wore a stunning white velvet confection that hugged her figure (Lillie, unlike most Victorian women, didn't wear a corset). At one dinner party, the Marquess of Hartington, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, stepped into the marble pools in his evening attire at Devonshire House, grabbed out handfuls of the water lilies and offered them to her.
Where ever Lillie went, she was now mobbed. She became a fashion icon, women imitated the way that she wore her hair, her hats, even her dress sense. She acquired many admirers, including John Leslie and Moreton Frewen (who both later married the younger sisters of Jennie Jerome Churchill). Among her coterie of new admirers was also the young Oscar Wilde, who wrote a poem about her called The New Helen. They became great friends, Oscar would teach her Latin and Greek, taking her to the British Museum to look at the antiquities. Laura Beattie, in her excellent biography of Lillie, writes that the two mutually used each other, as they continued their assault on the world. At the time of their meeting, Oscar Wilde was only a few years out of Oxford, and just beginning to make a name for himself in London as a dandy and aesthete. He would later become famous for wearing velvet suits and walking through the streets of London carrying a large lily. He would later be immortalized as one of the inspirations for Bunthorne in Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta Patience.
The Prince was the leader of what became known as The Marlborough House Set, named after Marlborough House, the London home of the Prince and Princess of Wales. At this time, society in London was evolving. While the Queen's court contained many of the same arisocratics that had served the monarchy for centuries, the Prince of Wales sought out not only those aristocrats who had the time and energy to devote themselves to pleasure, but also those men and women who risen through industry and commerce. He also loved beautiful women, particularly witty women. At dinner parties, during the time when men and women seperated, the Prince preferred to be sitting with the women, then spending time smoking cigars and drinking brandy with the men. He loved chatting with them about fashions, and gossiping. Although his wife, Princess Alexandra, was beautiful in her own right, (as the years went by, while he grew fatter and greyer, she seemed frozen in time, captured at the height of her beauty) they had little in common. Marriage and the birth of six children (five of whom lived) hadn't slowed him down.
It was at a dinner party given by Sir Allen Young after the opera in June of 1877. Lillie wrote in her autobiography: "Suddenly, there was a stir, followed by an expectant hush, a hurried exit of Sir Allen, then a slight commotion outside, and presently I heard a deep and cheery voice say: 'I'm afraid I am a little late.' Sir Allen murmured something in reply, and the Prince of Wales, whose face had been previously unfamiliar to me except through photographs, appeared in the doorway of Stratford Placing drawing room."
Lillie being taken up by the Prince meant that she was socially acceptable to a certain segment of society that had been closed to her before then. It was one thing to be the darling of the artists and bohemians of the day, but Lillie was smart enough to realize that her position was solely dependent on her royal lover. She even found herself hobnobbing with members of the Danish Royal family, and the Empress Eugenie of France, who lived in exile in England after Napoleon III was deposed, along with the Prince Imperial. Even Princess Alexandra was won over, Lillie was the only of the Prince of Wale's mistresses, that Alexandra didn't mind. Perhaps it was because she was the first official mistress, or maybe it was because Lillie genuinely liked the Princess.
Lillie was now so famous that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prince Rudolf fell in love with her on a visit to London, and pursued her ardently. He famously smudged her beautiful pink dress from Doucet with his sweaty hands. When she asked him to put on his gloves, he declared that it was she who was the one sweating! He presented her with a ring, attempting to press his attentions on her. When Lillie threw the ring into the fire, the Prince dropped to his knees to try and dig it out. Lillie lost all respect for him after that.
The Prince adored Lillie not just because she was a beautiful and sensual woman, but because she was not awed by him. Like the American women who married into the aristocracy, she treated him with the deference due to his rank, but she also wasn't afraid to tweak him when necessary. She loved practical jokes just as much as he did. In fact she once spent time at country house party tobaggoning down the stairs on a silver tray. She had a gregarious and extroverted personality like the Prince, but she was much more of a witty conversationalist than he. They had sailing and racing in common, the Prince was an avid sailor and spent a great deal of time at the races at Goodwood, Ascot and Deauville. Lillie and her younger brother Reggie had once secretly trained a horse that they entered in one of the races in Jersey, which they won. When she was once asked by Prime Minister Disraeli, what he could do for her, she replied "Four new dresses for Ascot."
Very little of the relationship was mentioned in the press. Unlike nowadays when you would be hard pressed to pick up an English tabloid newspaper that didn't have an article on Prince William and Kate Middleton, or Prince Harry and his girlfriend Chelsy Davy, the English papers of the time had a hands off policy towards the Royal Family in terms of their private life. Of course, everyone knew that the Prince of Wales and Lillie Langtry were lovers, one just didn't read about it in the papers. Even during the years when Edward VII's grandson, another Prince of Wales was falling for Wallis Simpson, the papers were remarkably silent. Not so across the Atlantic where even the venerable New York Times remarked on His Royal Highness's relationship with the beautiful Lillie.
The height of Lillie's relationship with the Prince occurred when she was finally presented at court. Generally young women were presented during their first season before they are married, but Lillie pestered the Prince until he agreed. First Edward had to be presented at Court, and then a sponsor had to be found for Lillie. She practiced for weeks to make sure that she didn't step on her train while walking backwards in her Majesty's presence. Women who were presented at court were required to wear white feathers in their hair, and the Queen had been heard to complain about the paltriness of the headresses of the women presented at court. Lillie in a moment of madness and bravado, picked the three tallest, whitest feathers that she could find which she wore in her hair in an imitation of the Prince of Wales insignia. Filled with nerves, she tried to delay her arrival, hoping that the Queen would have gotten tired and left, and she would be presented to the Prince. However, the Queen stayed, curious to see the famous Mrs. Langtry in the flesh (she had earlier taken down a picture of Lillie from her son Prince Leopold's wall). Lillie's presentation was a triumph. She had risen to the top from obscurity, it was only a matter of time before she fell and how hard.
Slowly the cracks were starting to show. From receiving universal acclaim in the press, they started to criticize her. But she still had her relationship with the Prince. For three years, Lillie and the Prince of Wales were lovers, a remarkable feat given the Prince's attention span. Edward Langtry, unfortunately put in the position of being a cuckold, escaped from his life at the bottom of a bottle. He dutifully put in appearances at parties to put the gloss on the relationship with the Prince but he was bitter and unhappy at the hand that fate had dealt him.
While Lillie enjoyed the Prince's favors, he was not the only one who enjoyed the Jersey Lily. Years after their deaths, letters were found in a house in Jersey, that were between Lillie and Arthur Jones, a young man she had known from her days in Jersey. They are passionate letters indicating a long love affair, although little is known about Arthur Jones. He was one of Lord Ranelagh's illegitimate children by his common law wife. Arthur and his brothers and sisters had grown up between Worthing with their mother and Jersey, where he became good friends with Lillie's brother Clement, a relationship that was cemented further when Clement married Arthur's sister Alice. There was also a relationship with the young Lord Shrewsbury, which was instigated by his mother no less, who thought that he would benefit by a realtionship with a slightly older woman (Lillie was still in her mid-twenties).
And Lillie had competition herself for the Prince's favors from none other than the Divine Sarah, Sarah Bernhardt herself, who arrived in London to take the theater world and society by storm in 1878. The Prince took a box at each opening night during the London run. Lillie was also becoming reckless. At a charity event at the Royal Albert Hall, where Lillie was pouring tea, one could purchase a cup of tea for an extra guinea if Lillie took the first tip. When the Prince and Princess of Wales, along with their two young daughters, arrived at her booth, Lillie took a sip without being asked. The Prince wisely told her to pour him a cup that hadn't been touched.
They were instantly smitten with each other. The Prince of Wales encouraged the relationship, since his own interest in Lillie was waning. On her part, Lillie was very much in love with the handsome Prince. However, the relationship could go no further since the Prince was eventually posted to a ship taking him away from Britain. Nor could they marry. Given the circumstances of his own parent's marriage, and Lillie's inconvenient husband, a love affair was the only thing possible.
Lillie's father past discretions also caught up to him around the time of Lillie's pregnancy. He was forced to leave Jersey to accept a position in Kennington as a vicar. The official reason was that it was for his health. Although he remained the Dean of Jersey, it was in name only.
Lillie's story in many ways is a Cinderella story. Young woman is plucked from obscurity to infamy, becoming the mistress to not one but two Princes. Lillie may have been in the right place at the right time in history. Did she love the Prince of Wales? Probably not, is she loved anyone, she loved Arthur Jones, the one man in her life who wanted nothing from her but her love, and could offer her nothing material in return. Lillie loved what the Prince offered her, an entre into a world that she could only dream about, that for a brief time was hers. Being the Prince's first 'official' mistress, brought fame but it also brought just as many problems. Lillie spent those years dancing on a tight rope.
Days I Knew - Lillie Langtry's autobiography (available on Alibris)
Edward the Caresser - Stanley Weintraub
Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals - Laura Beatty (available on Alibris)
Cupid and the King - Princess Michael of Kent
The King in Love, Edward VII's Mistresses - Theo Aronson (excellent book, available on Alibris)
Death at Epson Downs by Robin Paige - features Lillie Langtry and Jennie Jerome Churchill as characters
Lillie - This is the miniseries on Masterpiece that started my interest in Lillie Langtry. It stars Francesca Annis as Lillie, Denis Lil as the future Edward VII, Anton Rodgers as Edward Langtry, and Peter Egan as Oscar Wilde. Note: Francesca Annis played Lillie in an earlier miniseries about Edward VII starring Timothy West. It was just a few scenes but it led to her getting her own miniseries.
The Langtry Hotel in Bournemouth - This is the house that Edward VII had built for Lillie which is a luxury hotel where one can stay.
The Langtry Estate Winery - Lillie bought this estate on one of her tours of America in 1888 sight unseen. She sold it in 1906, and the estate was run as Guenoc for a number of years until recently when it changed it's name back to the Langtry Estate Winery. You can buy Lillie wines.