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Lillie plays the field

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley examines the life of the notorious actress Lillie Langtrey

05 September, 2019

Lillie Langtrey – detail from a photographed by William Downey in 1885

When Sherlock was almost seduced by a surprisingly naked Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in BBC’s 2012 episode A Scandal in Belgravia, Benedict Cumberbatch was only sharing an attraction that preceded him by over 140 years.

The author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle very likely based his character of Irene on the actress Lillie Langtry (1853-1929). Indeed, the life of the alluringly real “Jersey Lillie” has been portrayed on screen many times, notably by Jenny Seagrove, Francesca Annis and Ava Gardner.

In an age renowned for its “Professional Beauties”, Lillie stood pre-eminent. A besotted Oscar Wilde described her as “Helen, formerly of Troy, now of London.” Even the 78-year-old French writer Victor Hugo greeted her with: “Madam, I can celebrate your beauty in only one way – by wishing I was three years younger.”

Lillie made full use of her pulchritude and, while certainly enjoying sex for its own sake, saw it mainly as her passport to fame and riches. She once remarked that “Men are born to be slaves.”

Her flamboyant sensuality and indifference to gossip were a probable inheritance from her father. He was the Very Reverend William Le Breton, Dean of the Channel Island of Jersey, who, in spite of his position, fathered many of the island’s illegitimate children.

In 1873, she made her first move into London society by marrying Edward Langtry, a playboy yachtsman with a moderate but, under Lillie’s tutelage, rapidly dwindling fortune.

After numerous liaisons with the artistic and aristocratic denizens of London, she came to the attention of Bertie, Prince of Wales. By 1877, she was his lover and for a time he was besotted by her. He once complained: “I’ve spent enough on you to buy a battleship!” Lillie replied: “And you’ve spent enough in me to float one!”

Their mutual sexual appetite was a standing joke to insiders. On one occasion, they were the guests abroad HMS Thunderer, captained by Bertie’s great friend Lord Charles Beresford. All the cabins were below deck and had to be supplied with oxygen through airshafts. One afternoon, while Bertie and Lillie were dallying below, Beresford shut off the air supply. Half-dressed and gasping for breath, the pair were forced to scramble on deck. An innocent-faced Beresford disclaimed all knowledge.

When Lillie became pregnant, the list of her lovers was too long to be able to pick out the father. A story circulated that Bertie and Prince Louis of Battenburg tossed a coin to decide the paternity – Prince Louis won.

The affair with Bertie faltered when he met the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Then, when an over-exuberant Lillie pushed a spoonful of ice cream down his neck at a crowded ball, Bertie ended their attachment.

On Wilde’s advice, Lillie moved on to a career in the theatre. Despite being dislodged from the Prince of Wales’s bed by Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie studied and admired her French rival and they soon became friends.

Sarah’s young son Maurice was very keen on boxing and once persuaded the two actresses to try the sport in a New York hotel bedroom. According to Lillie: “We entered into it with great gusto, Maurice giving timely aid to one or other as it was needed, and we were both much the worse for wear at the finish.”

She became the mistress of several exceptionally wealthy individuals, notably the American Freddie Gebhardt (she became an American citizen in 1897 and divorced the hapless Edward Langtry), and an English racehorse owner and debauchee named George Baird.

Lillie herself became part of Baird’s licentious lifestyle, once being ordered by him to come downstairs from her bedroom to witness a drunken orgy. She was the victim of several beatings at his hands, her only consolation being Baird’s insanely extravagant presents by way of apology. On one occasion he hurled a bundle of paper at her head – the bundle consisted of £50,000 in notes.

On another, after hitting her in the face, he bought her a 220ft yacht named the White Ladye (it was popularly renamed the Black Eye). Baird died suddenly after a massive drinking spree.

Using the money and knowledge gained from these two lovers, Lily became wealthy enough to compete in the male-dominated world of racehorse ownership. In 1897, she became the first woman to own a winner of the Cesarewitch race. In 1899 she re-married to become Lady de Bathe.

Her cousin, Philip le Breton, provided Lillie’s connection to Camden when he became the chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works and in charge of London’s open spaces – it was he who insisted that Hampstead Heath remained uncultivated to provide Londoners with a glimpse of countryside. Lillie lived in Leighton House in Swiss Cottage (demolished to make room for the Alexandra Road estate); her name remains in the form of the Lillie Langtry tavern in Abbey Road.

In 1925, she wrote a heavily bowdlerised autobiography called The Days I Knew. When criticised for its blandness, Lillie replied: “You don’t really think I would ever do such a thing as to write my real reminiscences, do you?”

• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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