Lillie Langtry, née Emilie Charlotte Le Breton (1853-1929) – One of the most famous actresses of the 19th century, Langtry was born in Jersey, an island off the coast of Normandy, France on October 13, 1853. She was the only daughter of the Dean of Jersey.
Having six brothers, she was a “tomboy” in her youth and never received a formal education. However; a French governess, who served as a tutor to her brothers during the day, helped her during the evenings. In her early teens, she accompanied her mother to a number of social functions and soon met a wealthy thirty-year-old Irish widower and landowner named Edward Langtry. In 1874, the two married. Not long after the pair moved to London, many say, at her insistence.
It appears that Lillie may have married Edward Langtry for his money, but if that was the case, she was disappointed, as Edward soon became bankrupt. Having a great interest in the theatre, Lillie became an actress, appearing in her first play at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1881. This same year, she also gave birth to a daughter, whose father was not Lillie’s husband, but rather was reportedly Prince Louis of Battenberg (later 1st Marquess of Milford Haven) who married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Victoria in 1884.
Lillie left her daughter, Jeanne Marie Langtry, in the care of her mother and the girl allegedly thought that Lillie was her Aunt up until the eve of her own wedding day.
Promiscuous from the start, Lillie had a number of affairs during her marriage, almost always to prominent and wealthy men, the most notable of which was the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s son Albert Edward (“Bertie”), the future King Edward VII.
In the meantime, Lillie’s theatrical career was booming, as crowds flocked to see her beauty. Making her debut in New York in 1882, she found her American audience to be even more adoring. Five years later she became an American citizen and divorced her husband.
When a transcontinental tour of the U.S. brought her to Texas, she picked up an ardent admirer by the name of Judge Roy Bean. Though he never met her, Bean struck up a correspondence with the popular actress, named his saloon in Langtry, Texas, the “Jersey Lilly,” and when the small village became eligible for a post office, he claimed he called the town Langtry, in her honor. But, old Judge Roy Bean was known to have told a lot of tales and this was just one of them. The town was actually named after a railroad engineer named George Langtry.
Making a great deal of money touring the U.S., Lillie invested in land, purchasing a 6,500-acre ranch in Lake County, California, where she raised horses and had a winery. In 1889, she married a man 19 years her junior – Hugo de Bathe, who would inherit a baronetcy and become one of the leading horse race owners in the world.
Lillie Langtry continued her intercontinental tours until she was sixty-five and made one moving picture in the U.S. She resided during her final years in Monaco, with her husband living separately from her a short distance away. She died there in 1929 and was buried in the graveyard of St. Saviour’s Church in Jersey – the church of which her father had been rector.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
Adventures in the American West