The Jersey Lily comes to San Diego

Part one of two: Becoming an actor

Lillie Langtry, 1884
  • Lillie Langtry, 1884
  • Image by J.M. Mora

“LANGTRY!” One word heralded the cultural event of 19th-century San Diego. Local ads shouted: “Lillie Langtry, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, will perform at the Louis Opera House May 4 and 5. Tickets on sale May 1 at 10:00 a.m. sharp at Wells Drug Store.”

The Jersey Lily was coming to town! The news incited imaginations and raised eyebrows. They said the British actress never did things by halves. But was half the gossip about her epic love affairs, the Prince of Wales among them, even half true? And was she, as Oscar Wilde claimed, “the new Helen of Troy”?

Langtry had a vague local connection. San Diego’s first mayor, Joshua Bean, served one year in 1850. He tried to sell city hall — illegally — to himself and Cave Couts. He fled north, shortly thereafter. His brother Roy, who ran a saloon, went east to Texas and became judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos.”

Bean saw Lillie in Chicago on her first American tour, in 1882. He fell in such bug-eyed, bottomless love he renamed his saloon/courtroom in the coincidentally named Langtry, Texas, the “Jersey Lily” (the painter got the spelling wrong) and his home across the street “the Opera House,” in hopes she’d perform there some day. He even trimmed his porcupine-spiked beard to resemble the Prince of Wales.

Bean wrote her often. She replied at least once with an offer. Since Langtry, Texas, was so barren, she wanted to donate a drinking fountain. The judge regretfully declined. “If there’s one thing folks don’t drink in Langtry, it’s water.”

So, Lillie Langtry was coming to San Diego in 1888. What did the world’s most beautiful woman look like? Could she match her image in paintings, magazines, and penny postcards? And, for those who fretted about such niceties, could the goddess on loan from Mt. Olympus act? Or was she just the latest P.B. (“professional beauty”), famous for gracing Victorian salons, up-market social occasions, and private boudoirs?

Born Ellie Charlotte Le Breton October 13, 1853, on the Isle of Jersey, a British possession off the coast of France in the English Channel, Langtry started out expecting neither fame nor fortune. Her six brothers “lost no opportunity of impressing on me what a miserable handicap it was to be a girl, a silly creature, given to weeping at the slightest provocation.” So she learned to “steady my nerves, control my tears, and look at things from a boy’s point of view.”

She married Edward “Ned” Langtry when she was 20. She fell in love with his 80-foot yacht, The Red Gauntlet, she said. “To become mistress of the yacht, I married the owner” against her parents’ wishes.

In April 1877, the Langtrys received an unexpected invitation from Lord and Lady Seabright to “a Sunday evening at home.” The reason: Lord Ranelagh swore she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She must take part in the London Season.

“London society,” Langtry wrote, “has a high and holy mission to amuse itself. And the only amusement it has yet discovered is that of meeting itself.” Thus, the months-long London Season, during which debutantes came out in high style and sought husbands. The “marriage market” brought “together people who know each other, in order that they may say, ‘How do you do?’ as many times as possible within an hour.”

Young debs changed outfits at least four times a day. The entire wardrobe had to be bought at La Maison Worth in Paris. The cost: around $20,000 — almost half a million dollars by today’s standards. A deb spent over an hour changing clothes. One of her gravest worries, a wag said, was “where to put the ruby.”

That and having to stuff herself into constricting corsets. Beauty at that time meant hourglass waists and a look of complete uselessness for doing any task. Lady Violet Bonham-Carter recalled her coming out: “Overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, one was magically transformed from a child into a grown-up person. Eager as I was to be grown up, I found the rite bewildering and painful.”

Overnight, Lillie Langtry became a goddess. Not to the manner born: corsets baffled her, as did more than one fork in a table setting. She and Ned rode to the Seabrights’ in a straw-strewn four-wheeler dwarfed by regal state carriages and bewigged coachmen. Ned’s wasp-waist coat barely equaled the servants’ livery. Lillie swore she looked “like a sewing maid.”

She was in mourning. Her favorite brother Reggie had passed away. She wore a simple, square-cut dress; no jewels or ornaments (“I had none”); no corset or hoops or whalebone stays; no folds to her skirt; auburn hair twisted in a bun.

At the drawing-room entrance, Lady Seabright announced the couple. Feeling “very un-smart and countrified,” Langtry tried to slither to a chair in a corner. Chatter ceased. Everyone fixed on the newcomer. Some stood on chairs for a better view. Then eager grandees demanded introductions. Lady Seabright led “one distinguished person after another to my corner.” Dozens of invitations came on little cards drawn from slim silver cases. Of the occasion, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Mrs. Langtry rose from Jersey like Venus from the foam.”

Overnight, her “unruly twist” of hair became the “Langtry Knot” and all the rage. Tiaras and sequins went out of style, as did satin pads, petticoats, and brocaded velvet. Black became the color du jour, which made the rest of the 1877 season look funereal.

“I thought London had gone mad,” she wrote, “for there can be nothing about me to warrant this extraordinary excitement.” From that moment, wrote an admirer, “everything she touched became history.”

“What woman would not want to be beautiful if she had the chance?” But, Langtry wrote decades later, “Life has taught me that beauty can have its tragic side.

“It is like great wealth in that respect. It promotes insincerity, and it breeds enemies. A really beautiful woman, like a very rich man, can be the loneliest person in the world. She is lucky if she knows her friends.”

Continued: Part Two: Langtry comes to San Diego

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