Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lillie Langtry

Almost since the advent of film, motion pictures have propelled actors into dizzying heights of fame. Stars from eighty years ago are still remembered today, even though their last films may have been made in the Twenties. Among the most famous actresses in history, however, only made one movie. Her fame rested entirely on her work on stage, the many paintings and photographs of her, as well as her sometimes scandalous private life. She was Lillie Langtry, the "Jersey Lily."

Lillie was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in Jersey, Channel Islands on October 13, 1853. Her father was Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey. Her mother, Emile, was well known for her beauty. Lillie was the only daughter in a household full of six brothers. As a result she was very much a tomboy, riding horses bareback and joining in with her brothers in their shenanigans. It also instilled in her an independent streak she maintained for her whole life. Indeed, she proved far too much for her French governess to handle and as a result was educated by her brothers' tutor. She was nicknamed "Lillie," short for Emilie, while still young. By her teens she was already acknowledged as the most beautiful girl in Jersey.

It was in 1874 that she married Irish landowner Edward Langtry, the brother in law of her brother William. She eventually persuaded Langtry to take her to London. It was when the couple was invited to the home of one of her father's friends, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, that her beauty was first noticed in London. Before the end of the evening artist Frank Miles had already sketched her; the sketches would appear on a series of very popular postcards. Her intelligence and beauty earned Lillie invitations to many other soirées and parties. She soon became the toast of London.

She also became very popular as an artist's model. In 1878 Sir John Everett Millais painted her portrait, entitled A Jersey Lily (even though in the painting Lillie is actually holding a Guernsey lily, as no Jersey lilies were available). She also sat for architect and artist Sir Edward Poynter and appeared in works by painter and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Talk of Lillie's already legendary beauty eventually reached the ears of Albert Edward the Prince of Wales. In 1877 the Prince arranged a dinner party at home to which Lillie was invited. Lillie was seated beside the Prince, while Edward Langtry was seated at the other end of the table. Like many men of the time, Prince Albert was enchanted by Lillie. It was not long before she became his mistress. So enamoured of Lillie was the Prince, that he even started work on the Red House (now the Langtry Manor Hotel) in Bournemouth, Dorsetas their own private love nest. He even let Lillie design it. The affair would not last, and ended in 1880. Reasons given for the end of Lillie's affair with the Prince of Wales vary. According to one report, Lillie incurred the Prince's ire when she wore the same outfit as him to a fancy dress party and Lillie, headstrong as ever, refused to apologise. Other reports claim that Lillie's place in Prince Albert's heart had been taken by actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had arrived in London in 1879. Regardless, the affair was over by 1880.

It was that same year that it became apparent that Edward Langtry was deep in debt, although it is unclear if he was actually bankrupt. Regardless, Lillie soon realised she needed a means of supporting herself. With only a few options open to women at the time, Lillie entered the theatre at the suggestion of Oscar Wilde. It was iin December 1881 that she made her debut in the play She Stoops to Conquer. Although reviews of Lillie's acting were often mixed at best, it brought her even more fame. Indeed, such was Lillie's fame that she became of the first actresses, perhaps the first, to make commercial endorsements. Lillie endorsed products ranging from Pears soap to American Eagle tobacco.

It was in 1885 that Lillie Langtry toured with her own company, becoming famous in the United States as she was in the United Kingdom. Men were just as enchanted with her in the States as they had been in Britain. Among her fans was Judge Roy Bean. Not only did he name his saloon "the Jersey Lily" in her honour, but he also named the town of Langtry, Texas in her honour as well. After the judge's death, Lillie would visit the town named for her. It was in 1887 that Lillie became an American citizen. A year later she divorced Edward Langtry. In the States she would become involved in both a winery and thoroughbred horse racing. She would return to the London stage in 1897. In 1901 she retired from the stage, only to appear on vaudeville later. In 1916 she made her only film appearance.

Lillie Langtry died in Monaco on February 12, 1929 at the age of 75. She was buried in the graveyard of the church where her father had been rector, St. Saviour's Church in Jersey.

Lillie would ultimately prove to have the greatest influence on pop culture of any actress of her era. It is widely believe that the character of Irene Adler, the one person to best Sherlock Holmes, was based on her. She has appeared as a character in several movies, including The Westerner (1940), The Trials of Oscar Wilde, and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (where she was played by Ava Gardner). She has also appeared on television programmes, including episodes of Edward the Seventh and Oscar. In 1978 London Weekend Television dramatised her life in the mini-series Lillie. She also appeared as a character in the Western novel Slocum and the Jersey Lily by Jake Logan and the Victorian novel Death at Epsom Downs by Robin Paige.

It also seems fairly clear that the song "Pictures of Lily" by The Who was written for her. In the book Lyrics by Rikki Rooksby, Pete Townshend claimed that the song was inspired by a postcard of an old Vaudeville star he referred to as Lily Bayliss, that a girlfriend had hung on his wall. That having been said, there was no Vaudeville star named Lily Bayliss, only theatre manager Lilian Bayliss, whose looks would not be likely to inspire a song about pin up pictures. It seems more more likely that the "Lily" of the song is Lillie Langtry, particularly given the lyric "She's been dead since 1929." Certainly, the young man of the song would not be the first to become enamoured by pictures of Lillie.

Lillie Langtry is still well known today, when many actresses of her time are forgotten. She pioneered celebrity commercial endorsements, and was a woman who made her own way at a time when few women did. Celebrated for her beauty, she created the sort of hysteria that only a few movie stars and rock stars would later. That she did so is a tribute not simply to her beauty, but her intelligence and independence as well.


Unknown said...

wow, I've always been familiar with her name but I never really knew much about her! Was she ever recorded on video while she was still in her prime (I mean like little reels, like The Sneeze - just tiny bits of tape) or is that one film the only moving footage of her?

What an interesting life!!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Sadly, that one film is the only footage we have of Lillie Langtry. I don't even know if it still exists. At any rate, I've never found it on the net!