She was idolized and courted by the elite artists and aristocrats of her day, and virtually mobbed whenever she set a foot outdoors. Her beauty and wit was celebrated by contemporary luminaries such as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, the latter, reputedly, once slept on her doorstep just to catch a glimpse of her.
She was the most beautiful woman on Earth.
In the words of Wilde, she was born “like Venus from the Jersey foam” on the British Channel Island of Jersey on the 13th of October 1853. Her parents were Emilie Davis and William Corbet le Breton, the Very Reverend Dean of the isle. She had inherited her mother's spectacular beauty and golden-red hair, and her unblemished alabaster skin earned her the nickname Lillie, which she far preferred over her given name Emilie Charlotte.
Nonetheless, she had six brothers and no sisters and she quickly learned she had to handle herself as a boy to fit in so she became something of a tomboy. Instead of needlework and housekeeping, she was tutored in math, music and arts, Greek, Latin, French, and German. She also learned to speak in public, when she had to fill in for her mother who had had frequent bouts of bad health.
As a 14-year-old, she was given her first marriage proposal by the 23-year-old son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lieutenant Charles Spencer Longly, who was devastated to learn she was too young to marry. Many broken hearts would follow.
After a short but miserable stint as a London debutante, she moved back to Jersey, and much to her parents dislike she married the Irish playboy (that is, drunkard) and diplomat Edward Langtry. For a while she lived an uneventful life on his yacht, but after she became affected with typhoid fever she and her husband moved to London to recover. Although the couple knew practically no one her beauty would soon open the doors to debonair London high society.
At a party she caught the eye of fellow Jerseyite, the famous painter Sir John Millais. She was mourning the loss of her brother at that time and her sadness and simple black dress was a stark contrast to the flamboyant and colourful company. Millais took her to dinner and almost before they parted rumours of her beauty had spread like wildfire—assisted by sketches of her drawn by the young Frank Miles.
She was instantly the most coveted guest at the salons and every artist and photographer wanted to take her portrait. The portrait made by Millais, “The Jersey Lily”, was so popular it had to be roped off at the Royal Academy to protect it.
It didn't take long before she met the the future King Edward VII, the Prince of Wales familiarily known as ‘Bertie’. Bertie was infamous for his unfaithfulness to his wife, Princess Alexandra, and for his womanizing ways. Yet, with Lillie it was different: He fell completely in love with her, and she with him. The love affair betwixt the two was a public secret and a cherished romantic scandal.
Their spouses suffered in silence.
After drunkenly embarassing the Prince in public, the affair ended abrubtly and Lillie fell from favour. Also, her now elaborate life style wasn't sustainable and she and her husband faced bankruptcy. Her husband abandoned her, and alone and shunned by Bertie, she threw herself into the arms of Bertie's nephew, Louis, the Prince of Battenberg. Again unfortune struck as she became pregnant with Louis' child. Prince Louis was ordered back to the navy by Queen Victoria and Lillie was sent to Paris to deliver the child in secrecy. The child was born in 1881 and named Jeanne Marie.
It was about this time Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie's friend and the new sparkling star in London, advised her to take up acting, which she did. By all accounts she was a mediocre actress, but her beauty could easily fill the seats of any theatre many times over and she gradualy regained her social status. Soon after, she went on her first tour to America where her popularity soared to unheard levels: The New York Stock Exchange closed extraordinarly when she first visited New York and her performances broke all box office records. She earned heaps of money and toured the States several times. She loved America and became an American citizen. She also became lovers with the immensely wealthy Freddie Gebhard and finally dissolved the marriage to poor Edward Langtry.
On the sad news that her father had died poor, she once more crossed the Atlantic. She now settled in England and continued to perform for some years. She also found time to participate in some New York vaudeville and a movie. When she retired she was a multi-millionairess and her hobby was appropriate: She bred racing horses and began to gamble. She was a high roller, in fact, she was the first woman to break the bank at the Monte Carlo Grand Casino in Monaco where she spent her last years, not long from the house of her final husband, Hugo de Bathe, a man nineteen years her junior.
The superstar of her generation became front page news all over the world for the last time when she died in 1929 at the age of seventy-five from illness.
Lillie Langtry didn't wear the corsets that were otherwise mandatory in her time; neither literally or figuratively speaking. Yes, she was blindingly beautiful, but more than this, she gained a sincere admiration and respect for her wit and intelligence in a Victorian age characterized by little recognition of these qualities in a woman. Lillie Langtry lived a life most spectacular.