Today is the birthday of Lillie Langtry, who was once mistress of the Prince of Wales. Buried towards the end of this post is an absolutely astounding quote from her that is really the reason I wanted to write about her today. Bet you can spot it. She was born Emilie Charlotte le Breton on the island of Jersey in 1853. One of her ancestors was Richard le Breton, one of the men accused of murdering Thomas Becket. Her father was a rector and Dean of Jersey. She had six brothers and claimed not to have had any girlhood at all, but rather a ‘tomboyhood’. Her governess found her very difficult to handle and she wound up being educated by her brothers’ tutor. This was quite an advantage, as she got a better education than most girls could expect at that time. Also because she grew up around so many men, she was never intimidated by them.
In 1874, when she was twenty, she married an Irish landowner called Edward Langtry who was ten years older than her. They moved to a house in London. He didn’t really share her wit and intelligence and it seems not to have been a very happy marriage. In 1877 one of her brothers died following a riding accident and Lillie was devastated. She was helped to overcome her grief by Lord Raneleigh, a friend of her father’s. He invited her to a high society reception.
Lillie is always described as being very beautiful. Her chief features seem to have been her perfect skin and violet eyes. Dressed simply in her mourning black and wearing no fancy jewellery, she really stood out from the crowd. She found, to her surprise, that the room was full of people who wanted to meet her. Those people turned out to be Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, actor Henry Irving, James McNiell Whistler and another painter called Frank Miles who would soon become the room-mate of Oscar Wilde. Her pale luminous complexion was a gift to artists and everyone wanted to paint her. The unknown Langtrys found themselves inundated with society invitations.
It wasn’t long before the Prince of Wales heard of her beauty. A meeting was engineered and she found herself sitting next to him at dinner. Her husband was seated at the far end of the table. The Prince was captivated. Soon, the Langtrys were being invited to the Royal Estates in Scotland for shooting and fishing parties. These things got her husband conveniently out of the way whilst the Prince got to know Lillie a little better. Although the Prince of Wales was married, he had quite a lot of affairs with other women. His relationship with Lillie lasted about two and a half years and she became a semi-official mistress. She was more or less accepted by his wife Princess Alexandra but not by his mother, Queen Victoria. Lillie was a lively, intelligent woman who was not at all in awe of the Prince. Once he told her peevishly that he: “spent enough on her to build a battleship.” She replied. “And you’ve spent enough in me to float one.”
They eventually went their separate ways. It may or may not have been after an argument when she turned up to a fancy dress party in the same costume as him. If this did happen, he must have forgiven her because they remained friends. Loss of royal patronage left the Langtrys in a dire financial state. Her husband went away on an extended fishing trip, leaving Lillie to cope with the bills. She had to sell most of her gifts from the Prince to avoid bankruptcy. Also, in 1881, at the suggestion of Oscar Wilde, she took up acting. Although her performances weren’t critically well received, the public loved her and the Prince attended several performances. The following year she was invited to tour the United States where the audiences also loved her. Lillie remained on the stage both in Britain and the US until 1917.
She had a string of other affairs, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter in Paris in 1881, became involved with horse racing and bought a vineyard in California that still bears her name. In 1897 she divorced her husband and became an American citizen. Two years later she married Hugo Gerald de Bathe who was nineteen years younger than her and would one day inherit the title of Baronet. It may not have been a marriage of love, it got him access to money and her a title. They retired to Monaco where they lived apart.
Lillie Langtry was a massive celebrity and she was clever enough to take advantage of it. She is responsible for perhaps the first celebrity endorsement, for Pears Soap. I read that her fee was a pound in money for every pound of her weight. I don’t see that model working so well these days. George Bernard Shaw said of her: “I resent Mrs Langtry, she has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely.” and Oscar Wilde said: “I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America.” It is quite possible that Conan Doyle based the character of Irene Adler on Lillie when he wrote the Sherlock Holmes adventure ‘Scandal in Bohemia’. Irene is one of the most notable female characters in the Holmes stories and is often cited as his romantic interest in derivative works. There are certainly many similarities between Irene and Lillie. Irene was born in New Jersey, she has a string of affairs with aristocrats and Holmes is clearly impressed by her intelligence and resourcefulness.