Posted in History, Museum, Theatre History

Lillie Langtry – Victorian and Edwardian Socialite, Actress and Businesswoman

Lillie Langtry, The Sketch, August 30th 1899.
 “It is amusing to think how I first graduated from a professional beauty to the rank of an amateur, and finally to that of an actress.”
(Mrs Langtry, April 1885)
 

Lillie Langtry (née Emilie Charlotte Le Breton) was born at St. Saviour’s rectory on the island of Jersey, 13th October 1853 and died in Monte Carlo on 12th February 1929.  She is buried in St. Saviour’s churchyard.   Lillie’s life was a complex tapestry of fame, fortune, international travel, scandal, love and loss.  She possessed a strong independent spirit and charm that saw her through many of life’s ups and downs.   She also had good business acumen and was also a successful racehorse owner, winning Cesarewitch twice with her horses Merman (1897) and Yutoi (1921).  

In 1874 she married Edward Langtry and following their move to London became the toast of high society.   One of her many admirers, and a gentleman with whom she had a three-year affair, was Albert Edward, Prince of Wales.  Albert Edward succeeded Queen Victoria to the throne in 1902 and took the title of Edward VII.   They first met at a dinner party on 24th May 1877, her husband was also in attendance.   The affair began later on that same year and lasted until 1880.  

In 1877 Edward purchased a plot of land in Bournemouth’s East Cliff area and commissioned The Red House to be built.  This house became the couple’s private love retreat.  Lillie designed the house.   The building is now a charming and beautifully kept hotel called Langtry Manor.   We recently spent a fabulous Sunday at Langtry Manor, indulging in a traditional afternoon tea, followed by a guided tour of some of the house’s historic features and finishing-off on the first floor in the mini-museum of Lillie’s life.

  

The Red House, now Langtry Manor hotel, Bournemouth, Dorset.
 
 
View of the Dining Hall at The Red House, from the peephole Albert had installed.

Albert installed a peephole on the first floor so that he could check on arriving guests and decide whether he wanted to greet them or not.

Lillie's initials E.L.L. (Emilie Le Breton Langtry) carved into the inglenook oak fireplace, Dining Hall, Red House.
Lovely mini-museum on the first floor containing memorabilia connected to the life of Lillie Langtry, including a small display with relevant artefacts and pictures from 1877.
 
Lillie used her diamond ring to scratch her initials and intertwined love hearts on one of the side windows at The Red House.

In April 1879 Lillie began an affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg (1854-1921) and on 8th March 1881 Lillie gave birth to her daughter Jeanne-Marie in Paris which was rumoured to be the Prince’s child.  The child was brought-up as Lillie’s niece and told who her father was on the eve of her wedding day.  In July 1879 she also began an affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury and in June 1880 the pair had planned to run away together    The birth of Jeanne-Marie began a turbulent period in Lillie’s life.  Her husband Edward was declared bankrupt in the same year and the scandal created by rumours surrounding Jeanne-Marie’s father and Lillie’s many indescretions, resulted in Lillie being ostracized by society.  

Never one to be down for long, the enterprising Lillie became an actress and joined Bancroft’s company at The Haymarket Theatre, London.   Lillie made her professional début on the 15th December 1881 as Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer (Oliver Goldsmith).  She then founded her own theatre company.  She became an American citizen in 1897.  Lillie loved America and toured the country many times between 1882-1889.  Lillie finally divorced her husband in 1897 and married Hugo Gerald de Bathe in 1899.  Edward died destitute in 1899.

Lillie also endorsed Pears’ Soap.  The following extract is from an 1884 advert:

‘Pears’ Soap – specially prepared for the delicate skin of ladies and children.  Prevents redness, roughness and chapping.  Fair white hands, bright clear complexion, soft healthful skin.  Mrs L. says, “Since using Pears’ Soap on the hands and complexion I have discarded all others.’

Lillie endorsed many beauty products. From the display at Red House (now Langtry Manor hotel).
 

I came across the following in a Scottish newspaper in April 1885 describing a visit made by a journalist to Lillie’s house in Eaton Square, London:-

‘The door of Mrs. Langtry’s house in Eaton Square is opened by a young Celestial named Wang-Fo, endowed with a pigtail of exceeding length and a surcoat of pale purple silk.  There are colossal footmen in attendance, but the picturesque substitute for a boy in buttons is Wang-Fo, a Chinaman in whom there is apparently no guile, and who was picked-up in ‘Frisco by Mrs Langtry, who, with the beautifully confiding nature of woman, believes him to be the son of a sometime wealthy merchant in that lively city – in short, the son of better days.  Wang-Fo politely inducts the visitor into a morning-room, furnished with a capacious couch of black satin…..In the drawing-room overhead hangs her own portrait, by Mr Poynter, R.A….. Presently appears Mrs Langtry, robed in an elegant costume which would prove very trying to a less beautiful complexion.  It is of steel-gray brocade with a mysterious scarf-like garnish of soft cachemire of the identical shade.  No other colour except her own hue of pale ivory, and hair of blonde-cendree, is visible upon Mrs Langtry, except a little cream-coloured Valois colour and the tip of a tiny black satin shoe, embroidered with gold.  Under one splendidly moulded arm the actress carries a purely white English terrier with a suspicion of the bull-dog in his head and fore-legs [Billy].’

If you are in Bournemouth I thoroughly recommend a visit, stay, meal or afternoon tea at Langtry Manor, Derby Road, East Cliff, Bournemouth, BH1 3QB, Tel: 01202 553887, www.langtrymanor.co.uk, e-mail: lillie@langtrymanor.com.

 
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2 thoughts on “Lillie Langtry – Victorian and Edwardian Socialite, Actress and Businesswoman

  1. I have a photo of Lillie Langtry, ca. 1880 – wearing a perfectly savage corset. I love my sepia photos, but I somehow wish that this one was in color – to bring out her creamy skin, blue eyes and auburn hair. She must have been startling in person.

    I’m a very long way (Los Angeles) from Langtry Hotel – such a shame!

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    1. Hello in Los Angeles. Thank you so much for your comment. How lovely that you have photo of Lillie. I think she was a stunning looking woman who had a magnetic personality, I would love to have met her. I am preparing another post this week on the Langtry Hotel which I think you may also find interesting. They hold a frequent Edwardian Banquet and I have a couple of charming photos to go into the posting. The posting will also include recipes from the period and lots of interesting information about Edwardian and Victorian dinner parties. Best wishes. Emma.

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