Lillie Langtry, 1884
“LANGTRY!” One word heralded the cultural event of 19th-century San Diego. Local ads shouted: “Lillie Langtry, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, will perform at the Louis Opera House May 4 and 5. Tickets on sale May 1 at 10:00 a.m. sharp at Wells Drug Store.”
The Jersey Lily was coming to town! The news incited imaginations and raised eyebrows. They said the British actress never did things by halves. But was half the gossip about her epic love affairs, the Prince of Wales among them, even half true? And was she, as Oscar Wilde claimed, “the new Helen of Troy”?
Langtry had a vague local connection. San Diego’s first mayor, Joshua Bean, served one year in 1850. He tried to sell city hall — illegally — to himself and Cave Couts. He fled north, shortly thereafter. His brother Roy, who ran a saloon, went east to Texas and became judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos.”
Bean saw Lillie in Chicago on her first American tour, in 1882. He fell in such bug-eyed, bottomless love he renamed his saloon/courtroom in the coincidentally named Langtry, Texas, the “Jersey Lily” (the painter got the spelling wrong) and his home across the street “the Opera House,” in hopes she’d perform there some day. He even trimmed his porcupine-spiked beard to resemble the Prince of Wales.
Bean wrote her often. She replied at least once with an offer. Since Langtry, Texas, was so barren, she wanted to donate a drinking fountain. The judge regretfully declined. “If there’s one thing folks don’t drink in Langtry, it’s water.”
So, Lillie Langtry was coming to San Diego in 1888. What did the world’s most beautiful woman look like? Could she match her image in paintings, magazines, and penny postcards? And, for those who fretted about such niceties, could the goddess on loan from Mt. Olympus act? Or was she just the latest P.B. (“professional beauty”), famous for gracing Victorian salons, up-market social occasions, and private boudoirs?
Born Ellie Charlotte Le Breton October 13, 1853, on the Isle of Jersey, a British possession off the coast of France in the English Channel, Langtry started out expecting neither fame nor fortune. Her six brothers “lost no opportunity of impressing on me what a miserable handicap it was to be a girl, a silly creature, given to weeping at the slightest provocation.” So she learned to “steady my nerves, control my tears, and look at things from a boy’s point of view.”
She married Edward “Ned” Langtry when she was 20. She fell in love with his 80-foot yacht, The Red Gauntlet, she said. “To become mistress of the yacht, I married the owner” against her parents’ wishes.
In April 1877, the Langtrys received an unexpected invitation from Lord and Lady Seabright to “a Sunday evening at home.” The reason: Lord Ranelagh swore she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She must take part in the London Season.
“London society,” Langtry wrote, “has a high and holy mission to amuse itself. And the only amusement it has yet discovered is that of meeting itself.” Thus, the months-long London Season, during which debutantes came out in high style and sought husbands. The “marriage market” brought “together people who know each other, in order that they may say, ‘How do you do?’ as many times as possible within an hour.”
Young debs changed outfits at least four times a day. The entire wardrobe had to be bought at La Maison Worth in Paris. The cost: around $20,000 — almost half a million dollars by today’s standards. A deb spent over an hour changing clothes. One of her gravest worries, a wag said, was “where to put the ruby.”
That and having to stuff herself into constricting corsets. Beauty at that time meant hourglass waists and a look of complete uselessness for doing any task. Lady Violet Bonham-Carter recalled her coming out: “Overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, one was magically transformed from a child into a grown-up person. Eager as I was to be grown up, I found the rite bewildering and painful.”
Overnight, Lillie Langtry became a goddess. Not to the manner born: corsets baffled her, as did more than one fork in a table setting. She and Ned rode to the Seabrights’ in a straw-strewn four-wheeler dwarfed by regal state carriages and bewigged coachmen. Ned’s wasp-waist coat barely equaled the servants’ livery. Lillie swore she looked “like a sewing maid.”
She was in mourning. Her favorite brother Reggie had passed away. She wore a simple, square-cut dress; no jewels or ornaments (“I had none”); no corset or hoops or whalebone stays; no folds to her skirt; auburn hair twisted in a bun.
At the drawing-room entrance, Lady Seabright announced the couple. Feeling “very un-smart and countrified,” Langtry tried to slither to a chair in a corner. Chatter ceased. Everyone fixed on the newcomer. Some stood on chairs for a better view. Then eager grandees demanded introductions. Lady Seabright led “one distinguished person after another to my corner.” Dozens of invitations came on little cards drawn from slim silver cases. Of the occasion, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Mrs. Langtry rose from Jersey like Venus from the foam.”
Overnight, her “unruly twist” of hair became the “Langtry Knot” and all the rage. Tiaras and sequins went out of style, as did satin pads, petticoats, and brocaded velvet. Black became the color du jour, which made the rest of the 1877 season look funereal.
“I thought London had gone mad,” she wrote, “for there can be nothing about me to warrant this extraordinary excitement.” From that moment, wrote an admirer, “everything she touched became history.”
“What woman would not want to be beautiful if she had the chance?” But, Langtry wrote decades later, “Life has taught me that beauty can have its tragic side.
“It is like great wealth in that respect. It promotes insincerity, and it breeds enemies. A really beautiful woman, like a very rich man, can be the loneliest person in the world. She is lucky if she knows her friends.”
Langtry’s reign lasted two years. Long before, she grew tired of being mobbed and treated as a “breathing canvas.” In 1879, Sarah Bernhardt became her official rival. Sharing the pedestal with the famous French actress, and eventually having to step down, came as a relief: “I’m so tired,” Langtry wrote, “of being made love to.” Not to mention constantly hearing the expression “utter utter!”
Langtry said of Bernhardt: “like all great beauty, it did not blaze upon the vision but grew upon acquaintance. And hers being a combination of intelligence of feature and of soul remained with her until the end of her life.”
Langtry’s private life became as legendary as her beauty. When she had an extended affair with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), she was London’s first “public mistress.” He gave her daily gifts, always quite expensive. He even built the Red House at Bournemouth for their seaside retreat. They say he once complained, “I’ve spent enough on you to build a battleship.” To which she replied, “And you’ve spent enough in me to float one.”
“Lillie’s involvements were not consecutive but simultaneous,” writes a biographer. During these and other affairs, Ned looked the other way, went fishing, and took to drink.
When she ceased to be the rage and bills came due for her “colossal extravagances,” Langtry needed to earn a living. She was accustomed to the spotlight and apparently unhurt by slanderous gossip — “What does it matter what people say,” she asked late in life, “so long as they don’t actually know?” Her next step, in hindsight, was obvious, since she’d been doing it for several years: she took Oscar Wilde’s advice and became an actor.
“Why shouldn’t I? I don’t mean without hard study, for I should love it as an art and should wish to excel.” After all, she added, [Laura] Nelson makes 100 a night in America, and you’ll admit she isn’t overburdened with intellect.”
Except for ancient Greece and the Age of Shakespeare, theater had never been more popular than in mid-to-late 19th-century England. Audiences were so intensely passionate they even broke into riots — as when several London companies raised ticket prices and thousands protested for 67 straight nights, often shutting down a performance.
And they had their idols. When the great actor Henry Irving began touring the United States, fans worried that contact with barbarians abroad would impair the “purity of his accent.” They much preferred he stayed home and drank “from the well of English undefiled.”
Although she didn’t fancy the idea of “exhibiting myself on the boards” for people she had charmed by standing still, Langtry chose to “walk the new and thorny path of the actor.” But what kind? Bernhardt was flamboyant. Slim, and never wearing make-up, she relished grand entrances and could sling-shoot arias of emotions. She made anguish Anguished, they said, and could project her large, dark eyes through the back row. (Bernhardt was just as flamboyant off-stage: she demanded payment in gold and slept in a coffin.)
Her rival, Eleanora Duse, abandoned the “Grand Style.” She acted from inside-out in the “reserved force” — also called the “repressed” — style of acting that later became realism.
Langtry opted for neither. Only years of study and devotion to craft would determine that. She took lessons from Henrietta Hodson at the poet Alexander Pope’s former villa near Twickenham. Her husband, Henry “Labby” Labouchere, was a member of Parliament. Since the legislature was not in session, he became a self-appointed theater critic.
An avid reader, Langtry had no problem memorizing. Her first difficulty was “inflection”: how to “get behind” the meaning and phrasing of someone else’s words. “This was such a constant worry, I began to wonder if it could be my native language I was speaking.”
On the few occasions when he watched rehearsals, Labouchere always corrected her. “Why do you do this?” he’d shout, then gather himself, as if recovering from a blow to his portly mid-section, and enunciate the line syllable by precious syllable.
They said one of Langtry’s best features was her regal bearing. Labouchere didn’t think so. When she tried to move a certain way or adopt a certain pose, she grew stiff and affected. She was “naturally self-conscious,” she said, but not like this. Now she was not Lillie Langtry. Someone else was in her body; her gestures were stagey, Grand Style imitations; her every step, as if testing for thin ice.
To prove his points, Labouchere waved his arms like swords in grotesque imitations. “Consider yourself a beautiful hound,” they say he told her, “and proceed accordingly.”
All this to play Lady Clara in A Fair Encounter, a two-character, 20-minute comedy, opposite Henrietta Hodson. The piece was just a curtain-raiser for a full-length play to follow. After “more hard work in a fortnight than I had believed possible,” she debuted at the Twickenham Town Hall, November 19, 1881.
Standing in the wings, clutching a dozen roses, she couldn’t remember a word of her first speech. Instead, “every criticism of both my host and hostess flitted through my brain.” She minced onto the tiny stage “without the vestige of what would happen next.” After Hodson prompted her several times, “I recovered my wits and my words, and the encounter proceeded to a languid finish without further incident.” Throughout the piece, however, Langtry feared mental lapses with “such nervous dread” she “resolved never again to tempt Fate on the stage.”
Hodson, convinced Langtry had un-tapped talent, talked her back. In fact, Langtry would play Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer in London — next month!
In Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy, aristocratic Kate falls for Sir Charles Marlow. Since he can only relax among the lower classes, she disguises herself as a sultry barmaid and wins his heart. Knowing Langtry’s reputation and how she unknowingly “stooped” to conquer London society, Hodson cast her perfectly.
They rehearsed on the lawn at Twickenham, pacing back and forth, scripts in hand or safely nearby: Langtry as the two Kates, Hodson as everyone else. “It was harder work than I had ever thought strong enough for,” she recalled. “It made me devoutly wish that I was sitting comfortably in the auditorium looking on, rather than taking part in the play.” They paced so much, Labouchere complained they were ruining his lawn.
It was also hard work because Langtry had never been stage-struck. The dream of fame didn’t buoy her spirits. She already knew stardom like few others, ever. “One advantage,” she wrote later, “I suffered no pang of disillusionment.”
Langtry recalled the grueling rehearsals at Twickenham with a positive eye. They taught her the “rough side” of theater, which she called, possibly in Labouchere’s honor, “the mutton chop of adversity.” They also prepared her for the grind of appearing “on the stage in the same play, speaking the same words, wearing the same gowns at the same time every evening.”
Unlike the society she was leaving, she wanted to become a “worker.” This was the most all-encompassing work she’d ever found.
On December 15, 1881, Langtry made her London debut at the Haymarket Theatre in a matinee, a one-performance-only benefit gala. Hodson surrounded her with some of England’s finest talents and packed the house with England’s most famous faces.
This was the Seabrights’ “Sunday evening at home” in reverse. Instead of an unknown in a frumpy black dress, everyone at the 900-seat theater, including the Prince of Wales and his wife in the royal box, knew her. “My best friends, too, with their attendant swains, crowded into the front rows of stalls, all more or less tittering and amused and not at all inclined to take me seriously.”
She was risking, she said, “the fame of beauty” for the “fame of achievement.”
But though she acquired some basics of acting, she had not yet “learned that most necessary accomplishment which only comes by practice: the habit of looking into the auditorium without seeing the audience.” She recognized faces everywhere.
When she went on, Langtry had only one thought: to please Hodson for all her efforts. “I forgot everything else, and it was, doubtless, this feeling which carried me through that performance credibly and without stage-fright.”
Looking back, she realized what an undertaking it was “for one who had no previous experience of the stage to get through a part like Kate and hold the audience. Happily, the afternoon passed without a hitch.” Bouquets piled at her feet. Things became dreamlike, and she vowed to devote all her energy to “the pleasurable striving after the unattainable” — to acting.
When she made the decision, her friend William Gladstone gave her advice: “He said: ‘In your professional career, you will receive attacks, personal and critical, just and unjust. Bear them, never reply, and, above all, never rush into print to explain or defend yourself.’ And I never have.”
Next time: Langtry Comes to San Diego.
- Lillie Langtry: “I was absolutely idle, my only purpose in life being to look nice and make myself agreeable.”
- Langtry on her instant fame: “I felt apologetic, and inclined to disclaim aloud any hand in bringing out the strange attitude of all classes in London towards me.”
- Lillie Langtry: “The unexpected has occurred so persistently in my life that I willingly accept the theory that there is a destiny that shapes our ends.”
Beatty, Laura, Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals (London, 1999).
Clayton, Merle, “Lillie Langtry’s Westward Tilt,” San Diego Magazine (February, 1975).
Dudley, Earnest, The Gilded Lily (London, 1958).
Earnest, Sue Wolfer, An Historical Study of the Growth of the Theatre in Southern California (1848-1894), doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 1947.
Hillsdon, Sonia, The Jersey Lilly: The Life and Times of Lillie Langtry (Jersey, 1993).
Langtry, Lillie, The Days I Knew (New York, 1925).
MacMullen, Jerry, “Gorgeous Lillie Langtry,” Historical Sketches Appearing in the Sunday Edition of the San Diego Union (San Diego, 1961).
Sichel, Peter, The Jersey Lily (London, 1958).
Articles in San Diego Union, San Diego Bee, San Diego Herald, San Diego Sun, and others.