Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pictures Of Lily

Apropos of nothing: while researching a project unrelated to this blog, I read up on Lily Langtry ("Lillie" in Britain, usually; "Lily" in America), and without giving her the full-blown Monkey treatment, here's a bit of what I learned:

Born in 1853 the daughter of a disgraced Anglican minister, Emilie Charlotte Le Breton married the wealthy Irish landowner Edward Langtry at the age of twenty and entered London society after sitting for a portrait for painter Frank Miles.

"I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America," said Oscar Wilde. "I resent Mrs Langtry," added George Bernard Shaw. "She has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely."

Known as "the Jersey Lily"—the official flower of her home island of Jersey—Langtry came to the attention of the Prince of Wales. "Bertie" to his friends, later King Edward VII, the Prince was overly fond of married women and made Langtry his unofficial official mistress, appearing publicly with her at Ascot and the theater, going so far as to introduce her to Queen Victoria.

Encouraged by the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, Langtry cashed in on her notoriety and launched a stage career. Although the critics were savage—"There was no denying it," wrote one, "Mrs. Langtry's legs were a total failure"—the public loved her. She toured America several times and acted more or less continuously until her retirement in 1915. Langtry made one movie, His Neighbors Wife, in 1913 (presumed lost).

Langtry was apparently so beautiful, the notorious Judge Roy Bean fell in love with a picture of her, naming his saloon the Jersey Lily. "The purtiest woman in the world," he said.

She and the Prince of Wales eventually had a falling out, according to legend because she dropped a piece of ice down the back of his shirt, but more likely because he couldn't afford her extravagant tastes. "I've spent enough on you to build a battleship," he once complained. "And you've spent enough in me," she allegedly replied, "to float one."

After that, Langtry broke a series of hearts. She became pregnant in 1880 and though it's unclear who the father was—although it certainly was not Edward Langtry—she convinced Prince Louis of Battenberg he was the father. Upon hearing the news, the queen had him assigned to the warship H.M.S. Inconstant. The royal family paid Langtry off and she moved to Paris with yet another man and gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie.

Langtry eventually divorced and remarried, became an American citizen, invested in race horses and wineries, and settled in Monaco, living in a house a discreet distance from her husband, Sir Hugo Gerald de Bathe.

As the man sang in the song, Lily died in 1929, but she still crops up periodically in the culture, most famously as played by Lillian Bond in the 1940 Oscar-winning film The Westerner. In addition, Ava Gardner played her in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in 1972 and Stacy Haiduk portrayed her as the "immortal leader of a sect of vampires" in the, presumably, fictional 1996 television series, Kindred: The Embraced.

Unsubstantiated are claims that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character Irene Adler ("A Scandal in Bohemia") on Langtry, and that she inspired the Who's 1967 single "Pictures of Lily" about a teenage boy who, well, whatever to the pictures of Lily hanging on his bedroom wall. You can't prove it by me one way or the other. Sounds plausible, though.

Wait, what did I say about not giving her the full Monkey treatment?


FlickChick said...

I have always been fascinated by Lillie (as were so many others). Wouldn't it be nice if her film foray had survived? Thanks for an interesting post.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

One of her wineries, Guenoc, north of Calostoga, still makes very nice wines.

Yvette said...

Great tribute, M.M. Lily was also portrayed (beautifully) by Francesca Annis in a PBS Masterpiece short series a while back.