Lillie Langtry, The Jersey Lily


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Much of history has been written about beautiful women, like Nefertiti, who we talked about recently. They captivate the imagination of the public, both, of course, in their own time and now. We still talk about Cleopatra. Sometimes they're famed more for their effect on powerful men than their own accomplishments - depends on the woman. Our subject for today is Lillie Langtry, who was known as the most beautiful woman in the world in her own time.

Sarah Dowdey: Lillie has a little bit of vaudeville past. We were talking earlier about how interesting it was when we put out a call for favorite vaudevillians how many people suggested it girls. They dominated the suggestions definitely on Twitter, and Facebook, and emails we received. It's just interesting. They're not necessarily the biggest celebrities of their time, or later.

Katie Lambert: No, but they were fascinating.

Sarah Dowdey: People are still captivated by them.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. Whistler called her the loveliest thing that ever was. She was also Oscar Wilde's good friend, the Prince of Wales' mistress, a theater star, a frequent sight in the papers, and the thing that made Sarah laugh earlier, a model in a soap ad, which was possibly the first celebrity endorsement ever.

Sarah Dowdey: She was scandalous and glamorous too. That's what makes an it girl an it girl, I think. George Bernard Shaw wrote of her, "I resent Mrs. Langtry. She has no right to be intelligent, daring, and independent as well as lovely. It is a frightening combination of attributes."

Katie Lambert: To give you an idea of just how people worshipped her, we're going to start off with an odd story, that of Judge Roy Bean. Picture the Wild West. We've got sage brush. We have dust, and we have a saloon in the middle of nowhere in Texas. It's named The Jersey Lily, and there is a picture of our lovely Miss Langtry behind the bar.

Sarah Dowdey: The bar owner, named Judge Roy Bean, who's a pretty interesting guy in his own right - supposedly he fined a corpse, which is a bold thing to do, and he has a bear named Bruno who likes beer.

Katie Lambert: And we like alliteration.

Sarah Dowdey: It's a good combo. Judge Roy Bean loved Lillie Langtry. You've got to remember that she's this English beauty. He's never met her, but he's obsessed with her for some reason. He talks about her all the time. He insists that she's going to come to their town somebody, which is named Langtry. Eventually, she does come. Sadly, he's died by then, but the town gave her his bear and tried to recognize her.

Katie Lambert: The bear was having none of it, for the record. She did not end up with the bear. But this is, of course, a study in contrasts. We have our aristocratic lovely from London and our grizzled saloon keeper, and you have to wonder who was the woman who won so many hearts, so we're going to begin at the beginning with her early life.

Sarah Dowdey: She was born in 1853, and her name was Emilie Charlotte. Later she goes through several other titles, but that's what we're starting with. She was born in the Channel Islands. She was the only girl out of six brothers. Her father was an Anglican clergyman, but maybe not the best one. Maybe a little like Lucrezia Borgia in terms of his profession.

Katie Lambert: Yes. He enjoyed his affairs very much. Her family was very well-educated, but they weren't very well off. Perhaps she was looking for a way to get away. Enter Edward Langtry and his fancy yacht. He was vey flashy, which was something she liked. Remember, she's only 20 years old. She's engaged to him within a week, but it was a bad marriage.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, partly because he acts like he's rich and pretend s like he's rich, but he's not, kind of like "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire." Do you remember that original reality show?

Katie Lambert: And he wasn't a millionaire - spoiler alert.

Sarah Dowdey: But he's also an alcoholic, her quick husband. It's said that they may have never consummated the marriage at all, but regardless of his pretentions and his alcoholism, he does get her away from Jersey, which is what she's going for, and they move to London tighter.

Katie Lambert: And they move into society, or at least, she does. She was very beautiful. She was very pale, which is why she was called Lillie, voluptuous, and also a social caliber. Luckily for her, this was the time you could become a professional beauty.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, if you were beautiful enough and you had this aristocratic pedigree, and you were married - that was very important qualifier -

Katie Lambert: You had to be married.

Sarah Dowdey: You could become this it girl by getting your portrait taken or your portrait taken, and the public would snap up postcards and commemorative things that were made from the images, and you'd become famous. It kind of reminds me of Madam X. I just read a book that our former host, Candace, had recommended, a really good book called Strapless about John Singer Sargent and the painting of Madam Gautreau. We know her as Madam X. Same sort of deal! Just becoming a professional society beauty!

Katie Lambert: Don't give it away yet. I haven't read the whole thing. Once our girl made the right connections, she was in. She could make it to the stratosphere of high society if she wanted to. John Everett Millais and Whistler both wanted to paint her portrait. Millais painted her with a lily, and there we have it, our Jersey Lily.

Sarah Dowdey: She also makes friends with Oscar Wilde who pretends that he's in love with her, in part to avoid being arrested for being gay.

Katie Lambert: We want to do a podcast on him later.

Sarah Dowdey: Let us know what you think about that, if you're interested in Oscar Wilde.

Katie Lambert: We're considering doing a whole series on writers. Again, let us know what you think. Although they had a fake romance, Wilde and Langtry did not have a fake friendship. Our favorite detail about the story was that he would walk around the streets holding a lily in her honor and once slept on her doorstep. We want to mention that she stood by him through all his troubles, which not many people did.

Sarah Dowdey: She was also friends with Gladstone, who read Shakespeare to her, and was pretty much idolized by everyone who was someone in town.

Katie Lambert: Now, of course, it's time for a prince because how much higher in London's society could you get? The Prince of Wales, to be exact, the future King Edward the Seventh, who'd seen her portrait, as had all of London, and asked to be introduced! Sir Allen Young, an explorer, obliged in 1877, and things took off from there.

Sarah Dowdey: The Prince of Wales was married, of course. He was happily married to Princess Alexandra, who was also really popular with the public. They had a good relationship, except when it came to sex, and he was known to be a pretty serious womanizer, so it's not too surprising that he reaches out to this popular woman about town. He's really enchanted by her. She doesn't seem quite so enchanted by him, though. The only thing she wrote about him was that he smelled like cigars, probably because he smoked about 12 a day.

Katie Lambert: That's not even counting all of the cigarettes he enjoyed.

Sarah Dowdey: I guess that would be pretty memorable.

Katie Lambert: She was the first mistress he had ever made public, which made her different, and the world was insatiably curious about her. She's a total celebrity now.

Sarah Dowdey: She starts to move in even higher circles than she had been. She goes to balls at Buckingham Palace, and meets the most important people, a nd even is presented at court, which is pretty hard to believe.

Katie Lambert: Now that the London public is so obsessed with her, those portraits of her are selling like hotcakes.

Sarah Dowdey: Flying off the shelves.

Katie Lambert: Yes, and she had a head for business and told them she wanted a commission on all those pictures in the contract. So she's at least coming to a bit of money.

Sarah Dowdey: But Lillie has another relationship that is slightly more discreet than this one, but a little more glamorous. That's with Prince Louis of Battenberg. He's, interestingly, the prince's nephew.

Katie Lambert: Yes, the prince introduced them, actually.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a little gross.

Katie Lambert: Keeping it in the family.

Sarah Dowdey: Unlike his uncle, this prince is young and very attractive. To add to his appeal, he could've ruled Bulgaria, but he chose not to.

Katie Lambert: So he's very glamorous. Her situation with Prince Louis was a bit more precarious than the one with the Prince of Wales because she got pregnant, and he was in the Navy, so they just sort of sent him away to a far-off land, and tried to give her some money to perhaps take care of this situation. It was passed off as the Prince of Wales' baby, and not the other one's, and people just kind of kept silent about that one. She had a girl, Jeanne Marie, and was handed off to her brother's family. She referred to her mother as her aunt for the rest of her life, and they were never particularly close.

Sarah Dowdey: A side note on Prince Louis, he ends up having to resign his very high post in the Navy when people get caught up in World War I fervor and accuse him of being a German spy. So he has a glamorous career for the wrong sort of reasons in his future.

Katie Lambert: Our other guy in Lillie's life is really interesting. His name is Arthur Henry Jones, and we have no idea who he is. It's interesting because you don't really know how she felt about either of her princes. She seemed rather ambivalent toward the Prince of Wales.

Sarah Dowdey: The cigar smoking.

Katie Lambert: And didn't say much about Prince Louis, but this guy, she wrote something like 65 letters to that were found stashed away in some little spot. They're very passionate letters of love. This was apparently someone she did care about very much, but the trail ends there.

Sarah Dowdey: It doesn't take long for Lillie's it girl status to start to wane. The crown price moves on to other loves, and she's got to look for a job. It's time to make some money.

Katie Lambert: It doesn't help that her husband, Edward, has gone off to the U.S. Again, he's an alcoholic. He's gone bankrupt at this point. He's not sending her any money. She has to figure out what to do, so she's looking for suggestions. According to one article I read, someone suggested she become a vegetable farmer. Then Oscar Wilde suggested actress, which makes sense.

Sarah Dowdey: Seems like a better fit for Lillie.

Katie Lambert: Than vegetable farmer, yes.

Sarah Dowdey: The prince, they're no longer together, but he's very happy to use his connections to help her out. He's moved on to Sarah Bernhardt, and that in itself is a pretty good connection to the stage, I'd say.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. It was a big deal for a society girl to get on the stage. It simply wasn't done, but she did. Her debut was in 1881 at the Haymarket Theater in London. The critics said she was absolutely terrible, but people loved her. She sold out the house pretty much every night, p robably just coming to see who this personality of Lillie Langtry was.

Sarah Dowdey: At this point, she's also tapped to be the face of Pears Soap, probably figuring if she can sell just postcards with her picture, maybe she can sell soap too. She also tours the U.S. and appears in vaudeville, which brings us around to our introduction again.

Katie Lambert: While she's there, she finally divorces Langtry, who seems like a total Darnley. Sadly, his later life is terrible. He dies in an asylum after being picked up as a bum, basically drunk in a gutter, and was declared insane. But people often try to paint her as this woman who left a guy who'd lost his money to go become famous and pursue her dreams on the stage. Clearly, that's not really how that all worked out.

Sarah Dowdey: So while critics might not have a point with how she treated her husband, they do have a point with the money angle. Lillie really likes money, and she's willing to do some things to get it.

Katie Lambert: Maybe let some scruples go by. While she's in the U.S., she met a very rich man named Freddie Gebbhard, who bought her a place in Manhattan, and generally just kept her in style. She didn't want to marry him, but she did like the perks that came with being in a relationship with him.

Sarah Dowdey: She makes a pretty good amount of money on stage, in vaudeville, and her soap advertisements too. When she makes enough money, she stops performing. She retires, and she goes on to do a bunch of fun stuff, like write novels, and get into horse racing, and do kind of a lot of gambling in Monte Carlo. She goes a bit overboard with that.

Katie Lambert: She managed a theater for a while and also got her wish for marrying up. She married a baronet, Hugo De Bathe, whose family almost disowned him over the whole thing. They lived apart and didn't seem faithful to each other, but, you know, she had the pedigree she wanted now.

Sarah Dowdey: She dies in Monte Carlo in 1929. A New York Tribune article noted that an era had ended. So that about wraps up our podcast. We have a few more literary references about her.

Katie Lambert: Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes books may have been based on her. "Lady Windermere's Fan" was definitely written for her. Again, you can hear about her in a Who song. Oscar Wilde wrote a poem about her in the 1880s called "Roses and Rue," which I think is completely ridiculous. There's a line matching "flower" with "shower," but he did have a couplet I liked. "I remember I never could catch you, for no one could match you." No one at the time could match Lillie Langtry. That brings us to our listener mail. William wanted to give us a note on our recent podcast on feudal Japan. He said, "You mentioned in passing about how the Samurai helmet kind of looks like Darth Vader's helmet. This is no coincidence. George Lucas based parts of his "Star Wars" story, mainly the Jedi, on Samurai concepts such as the code of honor, the master apprentice aspect, and, of course, light sabers, but Darth Vader's helmet was indeed designed to be reminiscent of the Samurai helmet." Thank you, William. I can't wait to tell my little brothers about that. They'll like it. If you'd like to give us some suggestions, feel free to email us at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. We also have a Twitter feed at MissedinHistory, and a Facebook fan page, so come join us, and check out our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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