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Glorious Goodwood's Glamour Gal – Lillie Langtry

Blog | By Graham Sharpe | Jul 29, 2020

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra, 1891

  • THE MEMORY of one of the most glamorous and scandalous women of the late 1900s/early twentieth century will be commemorated on Saturday, August 1, at the first race meeting with spectators to be held at an English racecourse since March, when the final day of the annual 'Glorious Goodwood' festival features the Lillie Langtry Stakes.
    This race was named after the British actress, who was a mistress of King Edward VII. Langtry also owned the horse, Merman, winner of the Goodwood Cup in 1899. As a woman she was not allowed to register the horse under her own name and instead used the pseudonym Mr Jersey. However, she wasn't present to see her horse triumph at Goodwood - she was attending a marriage - her own!
    But during her lifetime, which began when she was born Emilie Le Breton, the only daughter of a clergyman and sixth of his seven children in the Channel Island of Jersey in 1853, she was also honoured by a rather different 'sporting' event - the staging of a 'rat-pit' in the foyer of London's Haymarket Theatre, at which the friends of her then beau, the wealthy and colourful, 8 year younger sportsman known as The Squire, George Alexander Baird, were 'invited to try their dogs against cagefuls of London sewage rats.'
    On March 9, 1874, 20-year-old Lillie had married 26-year-old Irish landowner Edward Langtry, a widower, who was wealthy enough to own a large sailing yacht. Lillie insisted that they should move to London, and in 1876 they rented an apartment in Eaton Place, Belgravia, before moving to Norfolk Street, off Park Lane to accommodate the by now growing demands of Lillie's society visitors, via whom she was soon sought after by prominent artists, and as a great beauty.
    Lillie soon became the best known actress and most celebrated beauty of her day, owing some of her notoriety to her next, intimate relationship, with the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII.
    The future monarch was so enamoured of her charms that they shared a love-nest in Bournemouth, which would later become the Langtry Manor Hotel, where guests were invited to attend grand dinners in the presence of actors taking the roles of the 'Jersey Lily' as she became popularly known.
    Lillie's liaison with the Prince lasted from late 1877 to June 1880. Although remaining friends with him, Lillie's physical relationship with the Prince ended when she became pregnant. The father was probably an old friend Arthur Jones, who accompanied her to Paris for the birth of the child, Jeanne Marie, in March 1881.
    In July 1879, Langtry had begun an affair with the Earl of Shrewsbury, and in January 1880, the couple were planning to run away together. But In the autumn of 1879, a scandal-mongering journalist Adolphus Rosenberg wrote of rumours that her husband would divorce her and cite, among others, the Prince of Wales as co-respondent, which resulted in the end of thar relationship.
    Lillie met The Squire at Newmarket races in April 1891 when he insisted that she change her intended bet to place her money on his horse, Quartus instead - which promptly won at odds of 5/2 . He then handed her a roll of cash and told her to back his runner, Macunas, in a later race - which also won. Having accepted his invitation to dine together, she was soon infatuated, and they became lovers.
    But Baird died in his early thirties, in 1893. The racing paper, The Sporting Life, reported on March 22 of that year in 'a despatch from Nice' that 'Mrs Langtry heard of the death of Mr Baird while cruising in the Mediterranean on the Whyte Ladye. She made for this port with all haste, and displayed great anxiety to return to England immediately.'
    Whether she was more concerned over his wealth or his health was hotly debated. However, Baird left everything to his family, resulting in Lillie reportedly becoming 'greatly distressed.'
    During travels in the United States, Langtry became an American citizen, and on May 13, 1897, divorced her husband, Edward Langtry, in California.
    After the divorce, Langtry was linked to one Prince Louis Esterhazy - both had an interest in horse racing. However, in 1899, she married 28-year-old Hugo Gerald de Bathe.The wedding took place in St Saviour's Church, Jersey, on July 27, 1899 on the same day that her Merman, won the Goodwood Cup.
    In 1900 Merman was entered for one of the sport's greatest events, the Royal Ascot Gold Cup, where it would be ridden by American jockey, Tod Sloan, who had popularised the favoured riding style of US jockeys, of pulling up their knees and crouching over their horse's neck, which seemed to distribute their weight more evenly during races. Lillie and her trainer, Robinson,feared the horse wasn't fit enough, but Sloan convinced them to take their chance, and the 20/1 long-odds outsider duly won, leaving the jockey bemoaning that fact that he was paid only 'the usual five-guinea fee' adding bitterly, 'And the stewards blame jockeys for betting!'
    Lillie was very keen on the Sport of Kings, racing and owning horses under the slim pseudonym of Mr Jersey to conceal her identity, as it was not the done thing for ladies to own racehorses. In this guise she saw her horse Milord, given to her by The Squire, win at Royal Ascot and go on to land ten more victories, while Merman in 1897 at odds of 100/7, and Yentoi in 1908 at 100/6, both won one of the longest races in the calendar, the Cesarewitch.
    Lillie's racing colours were turquoise and fawn hoops, with a turquoise cap.
    Langtry was years ahead of her time by using her celebrity to earn large amounts of money by endorsing commercial products such as cosmetics and soap.
    Lillie died aged 75 on February 12, 1929, in Monte Carlo, before being returned to be buried in Jersey. She had asked to be buried in her parents' tomb at St. Saviour's Church. Due to blizzards, transport was delayed. Her body was taken to St Malo and across to Jersey on February 22 aboard a steamer. Her coffin lay in St Saviour's overnight surrounded by flowers, and she was buried on the afternoon of February 23.
    Her beauty continued to make an impression long after her death - not only did Pete Townshend of The Who use her as his inspiration for their 1967 hit record, 'Pictures of Lily'. but in 1978, her story was dramatised on television in Lillie, starring Francesca Annis,
    But perhaps her ultimate accolade happened in 1994 when, in an episode of The Simpsons, entitled, 'Burns Heir', Mr Burns is depicted as owning on his estate, the 'Lillie Langtry Theater'.