Gilbert and Sullivan said of this Victorian beauty, “Oh, never, never, never since we joined the human race/Saw we so exquisitely fair a face”. She was admired by women, desired by men, painted by Whistler, praised by Twain, close friends with Oscar Wilde and Prime Minister William Gladstone, and most famously was the lover of, amongst others, Albert Edward (Berty), Prince of Wales who later became King Edward VII.
Lillie was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in Jersey, (but she used the spelling ‘Lily’ when she was in America in later years), where she received an excellent education for a lady of her day – Greek, Latin, German, art and literature.
Her first visit to London at 16, was not a good experience for the tomboy as she later said that she felt clumsy and didn’t fit in. But as she blossomed into a 5ft 8 inch auburn beauty she started to turn many heads. At 21 she met and married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner and yachtsman. She convinced him to take her to the Channel Islands and then eventually rent a house in Belgravia in London and later on Park Lane.
Within 3 years Lillie was one of the most popular ladies on the London social circuit. She was famous for her little black dress, which caused quite a stir with its simplicity – a real contrast to Victorian London fashion.
She had the most beautiful skin and her sex appeal was electric. She was scooped up by the Pears Company as one of the first celebrities to endorse a product. Her face was used advertise their popular soap and her salary for the campaign was a pound sterling for every pound she weighed – £132. I can’t but imagine how this would work with today’s models!
All the more desirable, her picture was put on postcards and could be seen in army barracks, student dormitories and in many naval office walls. The ‘Jersey Lily’ was to be the first real pinup.
But Lillie was bored with her husband, especially when his money ran out. She had no more use for Edward and she got so much attention from other men. She was especially attracted to wealthy men – men she could be dominated and manipulate, and thus became the mistress of princes and millionaires. Lillie used every relationship to build a personal furtune which included diamonds, houses, stables and money. She was open about her opinion, “Men are born to be slaves”.
One of her high profile relationships was with the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary, who gave her an emerald ring. After an argument she threw the ring into the fire. The Prince anxiously tried to rescue the ring from the flames. Lillie was disgusted, “I couldn’t love him after that.”
When her husband died, poor and in an asylum, she married Hugo de Bathe within 2 years. Along with other investors, she spent her own money to refurbish the Imperial Theatre where she spent the next 20 years. She managed the theatre and continued to write headlines in her many acting roles in London and in the United States.
But, her most famous liaison was with the rather large Prince Albert Edward. He was incredibly attracted to her wit, confidence and her blatant disregard for Victorian morality. Their relationship was no secret and London took every opportunity to gossip about Lillie. But, she believed that any publicity was good – scandals were of course the best!
For a time, Berty was faithful to Lillie. He had a house built in Bournemouth as a place for them to spent time together. They met at friend’s homes and at weekend functions were given adjoining rooms. It was believed that her husband at the time, Edward Langtry, was bribed to turn a blind eye, and Lillie even developed a cordial relationship with Alexandra (Berty’s wife). The intense relationship was swiftly ended after Lillie embarrassed Berty at a party by putting an ice cube down his back.
This really didn’t worry Lillie – she found herself another prince. Louis Alexander de Battenberg, Albert’s nephew. Some believe he fathered her only child, Jeanne-Marie, and it is also said that he was her only true love.
Lillie retired to Monaco in 1918, where she spent the last years of her life enjoying the sun, high society and the casinos. As predicted, she was still a beauty on her deathbed at 74. She died wealthy and alone in 1929.
She courted controversy and one of the famous headlines about Lillie made her giggle: ‘We heard that Mrs Langtry has lost her parrot…That the lady possessed such a bird we were unaware, but we knew she had a cockatoo.’
One of the most controversial and interesting characters to colour Victorian London – she was glamorous, lively and openly used sex to climb the social ladder. But no one can say that the ‘Jersey Lillie’ did not enjoy life and London to the full!