Lillie Langtry, circa 1888
The first time her acting company toured the West Coast, Lillie Langtry skipped San Diego. That flea-bit Podunk wasn’t up to snuff. In 1888, she booked May 4 and 5, at the Louis Opera House, but only so she could tour the newly-completed Hotel del Coronado across the bay.
In the seven years since her debut, Langtry had become the highest paid actor in the world. People praised her grace and beauty, and reviled her scandalous affairs, rumors of which sold many a ticket. Few paid to watch her act. They wanted to see the “world’s most beautiful woman” glide and breathe in sumptuous costumes that flattered her 18-inch waist.
Langtry knew American critics were a den of rattlers. In those days, they prided themselves in “roasting” actors without mercy. One wrote of Lillian Russell, Langtry’s chief rival, “she has no beauty below the chin.”
Langtry took salvos in every city. The play she chose, a pundit opined, “is prurient rubbish for bald-headed men to gloat over Mrs. Langtry’s nether extremities.”
An unnamed critic even roasted her appearance: “How did the British beauty appear before American eyes? A rather tall and plump figure” — she was five-eight, 130 pounds — “large feet, large hands; a bad walk… Why should the American people rush to see a court favorite? For the same reason they rushed to see Jumbo” — the elephant.
“I don’t want them to write what they don’t mean,” said Langtry. “But [American critics] are absolutely abusive. I think Gordon Bennett’s remark’s a wise one: ‘Actors and actresses should be cleaned with a feather duster, not smashed with a meat axe.’
“Perhaps,” she added, “acting is often better judged by those who, instead of dissecting the technique of the actor, allow themselves to appreciate the sincerity of the emotion portrayed.”
Langtry, of course, encouraged reproach. She toured America in the Lalee (East Indian for “flirt”), a gaudy private railroad car. The crowd awaiting her arrival at the California Southern depot was almost as excited to see her 75-foot long, sky blue “perambulatory home” as to watch the Jersey Lily set foot in San Diego.
They heard about the seven rooms — the bedroom in Nile green silk brocade — and the car’s 13 layers of padding, which made it too heavy to cross small trestles. The Lalee, Langtry boasted, had a “family resemblance to Cleopatra’s barge, minus the purple sails.”
The crowd also strained for a glimpse of “Freddie.” Langtry’s infamous lover, Freddie Gebhard, was the playboy-heir to a fortune in dry goods. They said he traveled the country begging for her hand, even though she was still married to Edward Langtry — whom, she said, had taken up fishing and strong drink “full time.”
Years later, on an Atlantic cruise, Langtry met the novelist W. Somerset Maugham. She told him Freddie was “the most celebrated man in two hemispheres.”
“Because I loved him.”
That, Maugham wrote, “was the proudest thing I ever heard a woman say.”
A whistle blocks away heralded the noon express from San Bernardino. Soon wheels screeched, and the crowd bowled forward. Langtry at last! Truly, as the Sun proclaimed, “her appearance here marks a new era in the amusement record of San Diego!”
Regular passengers, surprised by the welcome, filed out of the forward coaches into a sea of parasols, long-stemmed roses, and ribbons flowing in the breeze: the women in Sunday best hats; the men, hats off, hair gleaming with pomade.
But the Lalee’s imported teakwood doors didn’t open. The rose-colored curtains remained drawn behind stained glass windows. The engine chugged, steam spat from the sides, and the train lurched and gathered speed as it headed to National, the 22nd Street railyard.
Among the regular passengers getting off, Langtry’s company carefully hefted large, well-traveled trunks onto flat wagons at the far end of the platform. She performed the previous night before 1200 at the San Bernardino Opera House, the most elegant venue in Southern California. Her crew had less than seven hours to convert the dimly lit, acoustically awry Louis Opera House into a playable space for the 8:30 curtain.
The crew swept the hardwood floor and cleaned all 880 straight-backed chairs (an improvement over last year’s benches, but not by much). They opened the black-painted windows to evict offensive odors. They inspected the theater’s props and arranged the flats. These were generic locales — drawing room, garden — and the best money could buy from New York. Crewmen dusted the chandelier and the drop curtain’s painting of Coronado Beach.
Most important: they inspected every gaslight and the calcium followspot. San Diego had no Fire Marshall. It would be a year before asbestos curtains and stage sprinklers became the law in theaters. And last night, two blocks from the St. James Hotel, where Langtry would stay, a blaze caused over $300,000 in damages.
Gaslights cast a dreary, yellowish pallor on the skin. The crew checked to determine how much white powder the actors would need to brighten their faces.
Far more important to Langtry: someone must spread out the costumes in her private dressing room, iron out wrinkles, and, of course, set the red carpet in readiness.
Wherever she went, just before going on Langtry shouted “roll out the red carpet!” And someone unfurled it from her dressing room to the stage. She adopted the tradition out of necessity: un-swept backstage floors left grimy rings on the hems of her gowns. Hence, many say, the origin of the expression “roll out the red carpet!”
But the Louis Opera House had no private dressing room – only a dressing “area” backstage. The “artists” changed behind screens. Since they performed almost nightly, Langtry’s company became accustomed to, well, imperfections. But no dressing room? When Langtry heard the news, the diva roared and heads almost rolled.
About an hour after the train came and went, a closed carriage arrived at the St. James Hotel. The bottom two floors of San Diego’s first skyscraper had a brick veneer; round tin plates on the top three gleamed like a star. When Langtry exited the carriage, she didn’t have to worry about dust soiling her hem: hotel employees sprinkled F Street, between Sixth and Seventh, every few hours.
Langtry entered the gingerbread edifice without making a grand entrance. In her room, she did something fans would not have expected: she worked out. Back in 1881, she didn’t have to. But now, at age 35, she “trotted” for two miles every morning in heavy woolen clothes — making her one of the first female joggers (the one time Freddie ran, he failed to keep up and said, “You’re worse than a jockey exercising his horse”). She also did rigorous calisthenics and lifted dumbbells. Daily exercise was one of Langtry’s best kept secrets: she never wanted the public to know the effort required to maintain her “far-famed beauty.”
Tickets for the two performances went on sale May 1 at Wells & Co. Drug Store. Both sold out by day’s end. The best seats, those with a view of the small stage, went for $2.00; the rest, $1.50 (regular high prices at the Louis and Leach Opera Houses averaged 50 cents). On Friday, May 4, two hours before the curtain, San Diegans witnessed a sight new to most: dapper gents paced the wooden sidewalk in front of the Louis, east side of Fifth between B and C. They waved tickets and shouted prices like carnival barkers. San Diego’s first scalpers demanded, and received, inflated fees.
Inside, Langtry’s company made last-minute adjustments. The theater would be so full, the air so thick, they decided to open all the windows, even at the risk of uninvited guests.
As “the elite of the city in full plumage” began to arrive, local producer A.M. Plato ordered the orchestra shoved from in front of the stage off to the side. Center aisle seats became more of a premium.
Opera glasses were a must for the $1.50 seats. Though he had a chair well forward, Joseph Surr brought powerful binoculars. By contrast, W.H. Davenport paid extra for a front row seat, writes the Union, so “the Lily could see him.”
The curtain was late. The house had a slight rake. But once the room filled up, chairs scraped the hardwood floor as spectators jostled for sightlines. The curtain rose at 8:45. Just before, a reporter noted that A. M. Plato’s slicked down hair, parted in the middle, was “standing on end.”
The play was A Wife’s Peril. Arthur Shirley’s “comedy-drama with a moral” was standard touring fair. “Flower pure” Beatrice Fane (Langtry), wife of civil engineer George, may have a tainted reputation. In Act four, “intimate” friends save the day.
Within minutes after the drop curtain rose, the room heated up. Fans and flapping leather souvenir programs made it hard to hear the actors. Then the spotlight tracked to a wing, where Langtry stood, head lowered. She slowly raised it and smiled at the actor playing her husband. The fanning ceased amid gasps and “oh’s” never before heard on a San Diego stage, followed by simian hoots of like magnitude.
Her she was! — but much, much taller than expected, her large eyes even bluer than in magazines. She stood still, portrait still, giving onlookers time, as someone once said, to see a “portrait photograph in three dimensions.”
While many gritted their teeth at the hateful symbol of declasse morals, the Union reporter saw “a perfect Amazon in physique, a model of the old, known style.”
About half way through the second act, a boy climbed up to a window from the outside. On seeing Langtry his mighty “hooooo!” became a shriek as he slipped and almost tumbled into the house seats.
Langtry, by now used to the oddest of interruptions — flowers hurled at her feet during a performance, marriage proposals hurled at her heart, hecklers — looked visibly shaken. She paused, then found her focus and finished the scene.
By intermission, the Louis was an oven. In probably another local first, no audience ever exited a theater with more speed: for fresh air, or an uncrowded restroom in the vicinity, or to guzzle bracing snorts at the nearest saloon.
The second half went smoothly, if you don’t count when George Fane imitated killing a woodcock and someone in the audience shouted “murder!”
And, not counting “the impatient ones who almost spoiled the effect of the last scene” (Union), the evening was a huge success. During curtain calls, Langtry broke one of the strictest rules of 19th century theater: never stare directly at the audience, ever. Surrounded by bouquets of flowers, she looked individuals in the eye and thanked each personally.
“The American public demands specialists,” writes Clara Morris of late 19th century theater. “One woman to tears, another to laughter, and woe betide the star who, able to act both comedy and tragedy, ventures to do so.”
A Wife’s Peril was safe, commercial fare. Langtry played a good woman wronged. Her character for the next night did wrong after wrong with relish. In C.F. Phillips’ As in a Looking GlassLillie Langtry, Lena Despard is an “adventuress.” She destroys everyone in sight. In the end, basking in her conquests, her enraged ex-lover, “wicked” Jack Fortinbras forces a confession. She ends her life with poison.
To perform the “deliciously despicable” Despard in her native tongue, the great Sarah Bernhardt had Looking Glass translated into French. In America, critics and preachers denounced its grisly immorality. New Orleans Times-Democrat: “The story has not a single line of humor to heighten its depressing gloom.” Many came to the Louis on Saturday night to see why Langtry would play such a “troubulous” monster — who, in Act three, even smokes a cigarette onstage!
Shocked second-nighters watched Despard concoct sullen-eyed schemes in service of her motto: “money is all.” In New York, where Langtry played Despard to Maurice Barrymore’s Jack, Looking Glass may have evoked some stern reactions. But in San Diego, a bastion of society back-stabbing at will was unthinkable. It was as if Lady Macbeth — whom Langtry would play a year later — had been loosed upon the Gilded Age.
When Despard swallowed the poison and Langtry contorted, instead of oh’s and ah’s, the crowd gasped relief, almost as one.
Most reviewers praised the costumes and the skillful handling of the poison scene (“with better effect than commonly seen on the ordinary stage”). Other reactions came later.
On May 7, the San Diego Beesaid San Diegans should have learned an important lesson from Langtry’s appearance: “Among our present needs, there are none more pressing than the construction of a good opera house.” Langtry’s company showed that “our inability to properly accommodate them or those who wished to see them and hear them” was gravely inadequate.
The next day, the San Diego Union urged Victorian rectitude: “the life which the distinguished actress portrayed exists nowhere except in the haunts” where respectable people never go. Even the final comeuppance failed. “Morals, after a course of stage debauchery, are like seltzer after champagne; they temper the dissipation, perhaps, but do not eradicate its bad effects.”
By 1888, Langtry made a fortune playing endangered ingenues. People wondered, why Lena Despard? Portray a woman with a reputation worse than hers? Or maybe she chose the role to fulfill the true role of the actor. In Wife’s Peril, the audience watched Lillie Langtry throughout. In Looking Glass, she disappeared. The people who came to see Langtry couldn’t take their eyes off Lena Despard.
- Lily Langtry: “It is easy to imagine the marvel of it all to a country girl like me, who hadn’t been allowed by my brood of brothers to think much of myself in any way.”
- Mark Twain: “She meets a stranger as an equal, and although her beauty is blinding, she doesn’t rely on feminine charm. She is what she is, and she expects you to take her or leave her. She is good company with her friends, but it would be hell to be married to her. She’s too damn bright!”
Beatty, Laura, Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks, and Morals (London, 1999).
Clayton, Merle, “Lillie Langtry’s Westward Tilt,” San Diego Magazine (February, 1975).
Earnest, Sue Wolfer, An Historical Study of the Growth of the Theatre in Southern Calfornia (1848-1894), doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, 1947.
Gerson, Noel, Because I Loved Him: The Life and Loves of Lillie Langtry (New York, 1971).
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).
Morris, Clara, Life on the Stage: My Personal Experiences and Recollections (New York, 1901).
Rather, Lois, Two Lillies in America: Lillian Russell and Lillie Langtry (Oakland, 1973).
Sichel, Pierre, The Jersey Lily (Englewood, 1958).
Articles in the San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, Los Angeles Times, New Orleans Times-Democrat, and others.