Impossibly beautiful and an absolute charmer, Lillie Langtry captured the imagination of 19th-century London. A mistress to no fewer than five members of high society, her many trysts resulted in a vast fortune and serious clout among London’s upper class—but it made her many enemies as well. Join us on Lillie Langtry’s infamous pursuit of fame and fortune...and witness her dramatic downfall.
Langtry inherited two particular traits from her parents that shaped her life. Her mother, Emilie Davis, gave Langtry her beauty. Her father, the Very Reverend William Corbet Le Breton, gave her…well, his philandering ways and penchant for having extramarital affairs. A dangerous mix of beauty, wit, and charm, it’s no surprise that Langtry’s life included a string of boy toys and broken hearts.
The only girl out of seven children, Langtry quickly realized that she needed to act like a boy to keep up with her brothers. She learned to hide her tears and to think fast on her feet, just like any bonafide young man growing up in her time. Of course, being a boy also meant getting into all kinds of trouble that no respectable girl would find herself in, and Langtry was more than happy to participate.
Langtry and her younger brother Reggie had a particular prank that they loved to pull on the nightly visitors of the St. Saviour churchyard. Balancing on stilts and throwing a white sheet over themselves, the two pranksters “haunted” the churchyard, giving visitors quite the scare! They probably would’ve gotten away with it too—if not for a very angry local's chilling threat: He said he'd “fill them with cold lead” if they kept it up.
The pranks stopped, but Langtry’s troublemaking ways were just beginning.
While her brothers had a tutor who educated them in languages, math, music, and art, Langtry had a French governess who taught her needlework and household management—or at least, she tried to. Langtry hated her lessons and her governess, so her father eventually gave up and let her get the same education as her brothers. Better educated than most women of her time, her beauty and brains meant what happened next wasn’t exactly surprising.
At just 14 years old, Langtry caught the attention of the 23-year-old Lieutenant Charles Spencer Longly. Stationed on her home island of Jersey, Langtry’s beauty enraptured the young man—although Langtry herself felt more or less indifferent to his affections. Despite her indifference towards him, Longly proposed to the young girl, but he didn’t exactly get the answer he was hoping for.
The proposal didn’t go well. Langtry’s disinterest aside, 14 years old was still a bit too young for anyone to marry, and Longly was told as much. Brokenhearted, Longly did the only logical thing he could—he requested for a new assignment all the way back in England, as far away from Langtry as possible. Langtry kept receiving proposals from other men in town, but she wasn’t interested in staying in Jersey—she had her sights set on the big city.
At the time, well-connected girls like Langtry completed their education in London, where they joined the members of high society for social events and parties. At sixteen, Langtry felt ready, so she left Jersey for the lights of London. She brought along her mother and a splendid ball gown made just for her. She was ready to make some waves, but her first experience with high society was a complete disaster.
Langtry’s debut didn’t exactly go smoothly. At the social events she attended, her small-town upbringing meant she stuck out like a sore thumb. Her ball gown, which she wore with so much pride, was downright dowdy when compared to the fashions of London. She “felt like a clumsy peasant” and “could scarcely wait until the evening came to its abysmal end.”
She returned to Jersey, disappointed—but her fortunes soon turned.
Four years after her disastrous London trip, our Lillie met Edward Langtry, the owner of an 80-foot luxury yacht called, “The Red Gauntlet.” Dazzled by the yacht, Edward’s wealth, and the influence it gave him, Langtry quickly attached herself to him by the hip, and the two started going out on frequent sailing trips together. And although Langtry primarily admired him for his wealth, Edward felt differently.
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Edward couldn’t have been more in love if he tried. The couple loved racing their yacht together and once, Langtry fell asleep during a race. Edward, respecting her need for her beauty sleep, finished the race but didn’t fire the victory cannon—which he needed to do to formalize his win. Two of the slower boats drifted past him, and he lost, just because his lady love needed some shut-eye!
Unfortunately, this show of devotion didn’t impress Langtry’s parents.
Described as “a pudgy chap, his weak mouth overhung with a walrus mustache, and his conversation powers…limited,” Lillie's family clearly thought she could do better than Edward Langtry. Yet, the more they disapproved, the more Lillie became determined to marry him. After just six weeks of meeting each other, the couple wed, spending their honeymoon in style on the Channel Islands.
Their happiness wouldn’t last, however…
The couple moved to Southampton to celebrate their new life together, but things took a turn for the worse when Lillie contracted typhoid fever. For about a month, Langtry was dangerously ill, with only her husband to care for her. Langtry eventually recovered, and she convinced her husband that moving to London would do wonders for her health—in reality, Langtry was eager to try her hand at London high society again.
Did things turn out better this time? Not exactly...
The move to London turned out to be a terrible idea. Invitations to social events were few and far between, so Langtry often stayed in bed with nothing to do but read. Meanwhile Edward, a lover of nature and the outdoors, was now trapped within the manmade walls of the big city, and turned to heavy drinking to cope.
Bored and depressed, the couple languished away in their rented London home—and yet somehow, things could still get worse.
In 1876, Langtry received terrible news: Her younger brother, Reggie—the sweet boy who used to pull pranks with her as a kid—fell victim to a riding accident. She raced back to Jersey as quickly as she could, but she couldn't make it in time for the funeral. Feeling guilty, Langtry spent the next couple of months mourning in her own way—which caught the attention of some very important people.
Still in mourning, Langtry attended her next high society party in a simple black dress and plain hairstyle. In a room full of ladies bedecked in exquisite ball gowns, Langtry’s quiet beauty and black dress made her stand out—something that all the artists attending the party noticed. Some secretly started creating sketches of the mysterious young woman, which shot her into stardom.
Over the course of the party, George Francis Miles, another guest, quietly created several sketches of Langtry. He sold the sketches in London shops—and suddenly, they appeared everywhere. She was on postcards, and her image was plastered all over storefronts to attract attention. Artists fought over the right to have her as a model for their portraits.
Langtry gladly modeled for many artists as her fame grew—with one particular portrait causing quite the stir.
Wearing her now-signature black dress, Langtry sat down to model for painter Sir John Everett Millais, who sought to capture the color of her pale white skin and tall stature on canvas. The painting, called “A Jersey Lily,” along with her unusual skin color, gave her a new nickname, “The Jersey Lily.” The Royal Academy displayed the painting, and it was so popular that Langtry soon had royalty fawning over her.
Langtry was at another high society party with her husband when she met Queen Victoria's own son, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward. AKA, the future King of England. Besotted with the images of her that had grown so popular, the prince arranged for a seat next to her at dinner—with her poor husband being seated on the other end of the table.
Langtry found the attention overwhelming at first, but "Bertie" soon charmed his way into her heart—and the most famous public affair of the time began.
It was obvious to everyone—including to both Langtry’s husband and the prince’s wife, Princess Alexandra—that Langtry was now the prince’s mistress. Langtry’s husband fell deeper into drink and left for long periods of time to go fishing. Princess Alexandra, meanwhile, chose to ignore the affair—and even treated Langtry very kindly. The princess’s seeming acceptance of the affair meant that Langtry had nothing left to fear...right?
Langtry came to realize that she would never be able to emulate the social grace of a high society lady, but having the backing of the prince meant that it didn’t matter. She continued to make social gaffes—once even asking Ulysses S. Grant what he did for a living, not realizing he was President of the United States. She stopped caring about what others thought of her, but there was one particular person she was hoping to impress.
One of Langtry’s wishes was to meet Queen Victoria—a bold move, considering the affair! The prince did arrange the meeting though, and the queen wasn’t exactly happy to be meeting Langtry. In fact, the monarch was rather cold to her. That didn’t matter though: Meeting the queen meant Langtry was now flooded with invitations to meet some of the most important people in London.
However, her quick rise to fame meant an even quicker crash down to rock bottom.
Langtry’s popularity started to wane when Sarah Bernhardt, a French stage actress, arrived in London. Her “golden voice” and talent on stage brought her as much acclaim as Langtry’s beauty did—something even the prince took notice of. As her Bertie lost interest in their affair, Langtry’s party invitations dried up, her funding from her rich friends and patrons disappearing along with them.
With that, creditors started swooping in.
With the money gone, Langtry's creditors moved in. Her husband turned out not to have as much money as she expected, and the creditors declared them bankrupt. When they came knocking to collect their dues, Langtry’s husband left on a very, very long fishing trip, leaving Langtry to sell off her own possessions to pay them back. With no support from her husband, Langtry found comfort in another man’s arms.
Prince Louis of Battenberg was the next prince to fall victim to Langtry's charms. Dealing with her husband’s abandonment and their bankruptcy, Langtry didn’t exactly have the time or mental energy to cultivate a lasting relationship with him, so their affair was short-lived. Unfortunately, Prince Louis was sent away to serve in the navy when news of what happened next reached his family’s ears.
The affair ended when Langtry realized she was pregnant. With the question of who the baby’s real father was up in the air, Langtry moved back to Jersey to hide the pregnancy from the circles of gossiping society ladies in London. The baby, she decided, would be born in secret. Of course, keeping a pregnancy private in a small place like Jersey was next to impossible, so she got a bit of help from an old friend.
Although the Prince of Wales was no longer interested in Langtry as a mistress, he still considered her a good friend—and he was not one to abandon his friends. Giving her some money, he convinced her to ride out the rest of the pregnancy in Paris, where no one knew of her or her story. Grateful, she took the cash and did as he suggested—except there was one tiny, little wrinkle in her plan.
Langtry needed a plan to make it seem as if her husband was the father of her child. Trying to muddy the timeline of the pregnancy as much as possible, Langtry sent him away to America to inspect and value some land. He did actually own some land in Northern Ireland, so the suggestion wasn’t completely out of left field. Unfortunately, he finished his work early, and no amount of stalling from Langtry kept him away for long enough.
Langtry had a girl, who she named Jeanne Marie. It was clear from the timing of her birth that Langtry’s husband was not the father, and their relationship started falling apart. By this time, her husband’s drinking was out of control, and Langtry was clearly not interested in the relationship any longer. The two separated, but that was not the end of things—at least, not for her husband.
Lillie tried, repeatedly, to petition for a divorce, yet her husband denied her each time. Soon, wild stories started circulating about him—which Lillie didn’t exactly try to disprove. The wildest of these rumors claimed that he would stalk her to all the towns she visited, but never approached her. Instead, he asked the people near her to report back to him on how she was doing.
Her husband didn’t take these creepy rumors lying down.
Under pressure from the public and from Langtry’s lawyers to go through with the divorce, her husband soon took to the papers to tell his side of the story. He denied the claims made against him, dismissing them as “attacks on his good name,” and stubbornly declared that “she shall never untie… [the] altar knot as long as I live.”
Whatever the truth may be, Langtry had no choice but to move forward—after all, her story was just beginning.
Leaving Jeanne Marie behind with her mother, Langtry returned to London. By this time, she was rather strapped for cash, so a good friend of hers, none other than the poet Oscar Wilde, suggested that she give acting a try. A bit of an eccentric himself, Wilde saw no issues with Langtry turning to acting—she had the looks and the wit, after all—but the rest of society didn’t see things the same way.
In Langtry’s time, acting was a less-than-reputable occupation, and high society ladies certainly didn’t seek employment as actresses. Langtry had to make herself seem respectable, so she cozied up to the Prime Minister of the time, William Gladstone. Known for his moral fiber, her association with him was enough to make her new occupation legitimate in the eyes of high society.
Her real roadblock, it turned out, was the theater critics.
Langtry began her new life as an actress, under the tutelage of veteran actress Henrietta Labouchère. Her debut performance in the stage show, She Stoops to Conquer, was a hit—at least it was with the audience. Critical opinion was less than stellar, and most did not take her seriously at all. This may have been enough to end her acting career prematurely, if not for some serious royal help.
While the passion between them was gone, it was clear that Langtry left a lasting impression on the Prince of Wales. When he realized she had a new venture, the prince supported her the best he could by attending her performances. Of course, where the prince went, crowds followed, and with her acting improving under Labouchère’s training, she gained enough of a following that she took her career to the next level.
In 1882, Langtry left for America for a theater tour with her newly formed theater company. She was definitely nervous about going international at first, but she was worried for nothing. Langtry overwhelmed the American theaters with the crowds she pulled in, and her shows smashed box office records again and again. America loved her—and Langtry, in turn, would find love in America.
Up until she was 18 years old, Jeanne Marie, the daughter who Langtry left behind in Jersey, never knew the truth of her parentage. She believed that Langtry was her aunt and that Langtry’s ex-husband was her father. When she became engaged, someone accidentally let slip that her parents weren’t the people she thought they were. The cat was out of the bag, and a stunned Jeanne Marie finally heard the truth.
Jeanne Marie's fiance told her the truth: Her “mother” was actually her grandmother, her “aunt” was her real mother, and her father was probably Prince Louis of Battenberg—although Langtry’s numerous affairs made this an educated guess at best. Angry and humiliated, Jeanne Marie wrote to her “aunt,” letting her know that she knew the truth—and that they were no longer family.
And so, Langtry’s circle of friends and family continued to dwindle.
Historically, Langtry had a type—and that type was “rich.” So, when she met the incredibly wealthy Frederick Gebhard in America, Langtry started yet another affair. Her tryst made the news, which guaranteed her shows sold out every night—everyone wanted to see the face of the young lady who caused men to lose their wits.
Her husband still wouldn’t grant her that divorce, but what did that matter now that she was fabulously rich?
Langtry's new, lavish life with Gebhard began. For his first act, Gebhard took her on long trips to Europe, and the two traveled extensively. Next, he bought her a townhouse in New York, a city known for its notoriously expensive real estate. And finally, Gebhard outright bought her a private railway carriage—which she designed, of course—setting him back a cool $1,000,000. Langtry had hit the jackpot.
With her new wealth, Langtry invested in American industry and real estate. This allowed her to become an American citizen—which let her legally dissolve her marriage to her husband. With the divorce finalized, Edward Langtry faded into obscurity. Lillie continued living her new life with Gebhard, determined to put her ex-husband behind her.
Shortly after, news of his passing reached her ears—and her reaction was brutal.
In 1897, Langtry’s ex-husband was on a passenger ship on the Irish Sea when he fell and hit his head. A friend of his sent him off to a doctor when they docked—but Edward never made it. The head injury proved fatal. When Lillie received the news, it didn't bother her too much. She later sent a letter of condolence to another widow that read, "I too have lost a husband, but alas! It was no great loss.” Ouch.
Langtry continued to expand her fortune. She took an interest in thoroughbred horseracing and quickly amassed a stable of horses that she used to race and earn prize money. During this time, Langtry met George Alexander Baird, a rich Scotsman who was active in the horseracing circuit. The two of them—let’s say it together!—started an affair. This affair, though, proved dangerous for Langtry.
Baird didn’t have the best reputation. Known for his aggressive behavior and his constant conflicts with authorities, Baird had a bad temper, kept company with some unsavory characters, and was a jealous man—a nasty combination. Often violent towards Langtry, Baird once gave her two black eyes, sending her to the hospital for ten days. Lillie was furious, and swore off Baird for good—well, at least for a few days...
Langtry hid at home for days after the incident while her eyes healed. Baird begged her for forgiveness, sending her jewels and money, which usually worked with Langtry. This time though, she was having none of it, and planned on pressing charges against him. Baird was rapidly running out of ideas on how to woo back the Jersey Lily…until he remembered the one thing she couldn’t resist.
Baird hit upon a surefire way to win her back—he bought her a yacht. This yacht, named “The White Ladye,” delighted Langtry, but her friends disapproved—both of the yacht and at how easily Langtry forgave Baird. She went so far as to tell a friend, “I detest him, but every time he [attacks me], he gives me a check for £5,000.”
Many of her friends left her, and the American gossip columns took to calling the yacht “The Black Eye.” Yikes.
Eventually, Langtry affairs had all fizzled out—Gebhard married someone else and Baird lost his battle with pneumonia. At the age of 45, Langtry gave up her life as an actress and settled down with Sir Hugo de Bathe, a man 19 years her junior. He was, as you may have guessed, flush with cash, which worked well with Langtry’s M.O.
Once Langtry had her hands on de Bathe’s fortune, the romance quickly fizzled away.
With her finances secured, Langtry spent her spare time at the gambling tables in Monte Carlo. As if being impossibly beautiful wasn’t enough, Langtry turned out to be fairly lucky too, and won her fair share of bets. In fact, in 1907, Langtry became the first woman to break the bank at Monte Carlo, winning more money than what the casino was able to pay her.
With her relationship in tatters, Langtry needed all the wins she could get.
By the time she was in her fifties, Langtry and de Bathe basically lived separate lives. Langtry resided in a villa in Monaco, and de Bathe lived half an hour away near Nice, France. They occasionally bumped into each other at parties, and de Bathe sometimes called on her to be his date to various social events. Langtry didn’t let this go unpunished—in her final years, she saw to it that de Bathe paid for his neglect.
At 75 years old, the aging Langtry caught bronchitis, and the end loomed near. Three months before her passing, Langtry, in a fit of vengeance, changed her will. She left numerous items and monetary gifts to a local museum, her daughter and her grandchildren (despite their estrangement), and to Mathilda Peat, a loyal paid companion.
De Bathe, her husband, didn’t get a single penny. In the end, Langtry got the last laugh.
Langtry, with her awe-inspiring beauty and ambitious goals, inspired many of the modern day characters we love today. Famously, Langtry was said to be the inspiration for Irene Adler from Sherlock Holmes, who was one of the few who managed to outwit the famed detective. Her fascinating life and string of relationships have been the subject of many television productions.
With so much drama in her life, it wouldn’t be surprising if she continued to capture the imagination for years to come.
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