With all of London’s elite flocking to share time with Mrs. Langtry, she made some famous and influential friends. One of the closest in her circle was the flamboyant and eccentric Irish poet and play-write Oscar Wilde, who deemed her the “New Helen.” He said of her, “Yes, it was for such ladies that Troy was destroyed, and well might Troy be destroyed for such a woman.” He also said, “I would have rather discovered Lillie Langtry than America.”
She was also close to the American artist James Whistler and the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her popularity was so unprecedented that it became known as “The Langtry Phenomenon.”Lillie’s most enduring and influential relationship was one she shared with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, (“Bertie”) the eldest son of Queen Victoria, later known as King Edward VII. Bertie, married to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and father of their six children, had taken several mistresses — all beauties of the London social set. When the Prince heard Mrs. Langtry would attend a dinner party given by his friend Sir Allen Young, he made sure to instruct the host to have Mrs. Langtry seated next to him. Her husband was to be seated at the other end of the table. From the moment he met her, the Prince made it clear that if he attended any event, Mrs. Langtry must be invited.
The love affair began. The Prince was so enamored of Lillie that he flaunted their relationship in public and even presented her to his mother, Queen Victoria. He soon went so far as to buy a plot of land at Bournemouth’s East Cliff and told her to design a home to serve as their private “love nest.” Lillie took on the project with great enthusiasm. She added many touches that advertised their fondness for one another. One of the most interesting was a statement prominently displayed over the fireplace mantel that read, “They say what they say? Let them say.”
The Prince and Mrs. Langtry entertained friends at “The Red House” often, and upon the guest’s arrival they would be welcomed with the greeting, “and yours my friends,” meaning the home was theirs too. The house is still standing and has become The Langtry Manor Hotel. It is a favorite venue for weddings.
Princess Alexandra accepted her husband’s “friendship” with Lillie graciously. Such was Lillie’s charm and likability that the two women became friends. Later, after the Prince, then King Edward VII, passed away, Alexandra reportedly returned all the love letters Lillie had sent him.
As all things eventually come to an end, the relationship between Lillie and the Prince cooled when during a masquerade ball, Lillie came dressed in the same costume as the Prince. After the Prince chastised Lillie for showing a lack of decorum and respect, she poured ice down his back in front of all the guests. Needless to say, she not only fell out of favor with the Prince, but with all of London society.
Things at home were also in a state of disrepair. Edward Langtry, Lillie’s husband, had trouble keeping up with his socially demanding wife, and spent less and less time fishing and sailing and more and more time drinking. He was also falling into a financial hole with his spending on yachts and Lillie spending on her lifestyle. The relationship and their finances were in shambles.
On the verge of bankruptcy, Lillie realized she needed work and turned to a great love of hers, the theater. Her friends, including Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde, encouraged her to try her charms on the stage. Although not incredibly talented, Lillie’s outgoing attitude, intelligence and sparkling wit made people love her once again. Her acting career blossomed, and she gained more popularity than ever. A great lover of theater himself, the Prince again became enchanted with Lillie and came to many of her performances. It was clear he had forgiven her. Until his death in 1910, they remained great friends.
In 1879 Lillie began an affair with Prince Louis of Battenburg, the nephew of the Prince of Wales. At the same time, she also embarked on a relationship with Arthur Clarence Jones, a childhood friend from Jersey. In 1880, she became pregnant. The only known fact of the paternity of the child was that it was not Langtry’s husband. She insisted the child was Prince Louis’. Many others believed the father was Arthur Jones. When Louis confessed to his family his relationship with Mrs. Langtry and the birth of their child, he was assigned to one of Her Majesty’s warships. Bertie, still fond of Lillie, gave her some money, and she moved to Paris with Arthur Jones. In 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie. Lillie’s mother raised the girl and she would be known in public as Lillie’s niece. Jeanne Marie did not learn the truth about her parentage until her wedding day in 1902. The news put a strain on Lillie and Jeanne Marie’s relationship that would last the rest of Lillie’s life.
In 1881 Lillie announced that her theater company was to tour the United States. When she arrived in New York, hundreds of soon-to-be fans who had heard of the English beauty greeted her. Her first performance was a total sellout, and she donated much of the proceeds to charity, further endearing her to the American audience. Disaster struck when the theater burned to the ground. The only thing that remained standing was a sign depicting Lillie’s name. Undaunted, Lillie viewed the mishap as a foretelling of better things to come. She moved her company to another theater and continued to play to full houses and drew attention wherever she went. Having fallen in love with America, she repeated her tours to the U. S. several times.
Lillie always had many ardent suitors at home and abroad. One of her most prominent American suitors was Freddie Gephard, a wealthy New York industrialist who showered her with gifts, including a private railway car he named ”Lalee.” Lillie used the private railcar to travel across America on her theater tours. Gephard was also a horse breeder and well known on the racing circuit. Lillie’s early love of horses prompted her to breed thoroughbreds. She purchased a 6,500 acre ranch in Lake Country, California, next door to Freddie Gephard’s ranch.
Another American admirer, Judge Roy Bean of Texas, had fallen in love with one Lillie’s many pictures. In honor of her he renamed his bar/courthouse “The Jersey Lilly Saloon.” Bean never met Lillie, but had a town named for her, Langtry, Texas. By the time she could visit the town, Bean had passed away.
During her stay in America Lillie endorsed many American products and set up several companies, including a winery. Lillie had become a millionaire in her own right. But, disaster reared its ugly head again. While being transported across country, fourteen of Lillie’s race horses were killed after the train derailed.
After picking up the pieces again and having toured America for six years, Lillie longed to return to England. It was during this time she took up with George Alexander Baird, a millionaire, amateur jockey and pugilist. She also purchased more race horses and wanted them to compete, but the Jockey Club in London forbade women owners. Never one to be told “no”, Lillie registered as “Mr. Jersey.” Her horse Merman won the Cesarewitch and Ascot Gold Cup, the Goodwood Cup and the Jockey Club Cup. Her relationship with Baird ended when he died in 1893.
After many years of asking Edward for a divorce and his constant refusals, Lillie became an American citizen and could finally secure a divorce. A few years later, Edward, destitute and a hopeless alcoholic, was committed to an insane asylum and died.
In 1899, Lillie finally settled down and married Hugo de Bathe, a wealthy race horse owner fifteen years her junior. Upon the death of his father, Hugo inherited a baronetcy and Lillie became Lady de Bathe. Now middle aged, Lillie’s fame had not diminished. She still dressed in the latest fashions and was still in demand for portraits and photographs. She was the lessee and manager of London’s Imperial Theater and acted in plays well into her seventies. She starred in one U.S. film called The Crossways. She owned and raced horses and owned thousands of acres in property. In her golden years, Lilly lived in Monaco at her cliff top Villa named “Le Lys” where she became a prize winning gardener.
From the boisterous tomboy of Jersey, Lillie Langtry became a historical icon. Her beauty was only surpassed by her superior wit and intelligence, charm and graciousness. From the moment she entered London society both men and women, from royalty to commoners, admired and idolized Lillie for half a century. She was loved abroad just as much. The Jersey Lilly was a woman before her time and was unstoppable in her quest for a full, exciting and fulfilling life.