The first time her acting company toured the West Coast, Lillie Langtry skipped San Diego. That flea-bit Podunk wasn’t up to snuff. In 1888, she booked May 4 and 5, at the Louis Opera House, but only so she could tour the newly-completed Hotel del Coronado across the bay.
In the seven years since her debut, Langtry had become the highest paid actor in the world. People praised her grace and beauty, and reviled her scandalous affairs, rumors of which sold many a ticket. Few paid to watch her act. They wanted to see the “world’s most beautiful woman” glide and breathe in sumptuous costumes that flattered her 18-inch waist.
Langtry knew American critics were a den of rattlers. In those days, they prided themselves in “roasting” actors without mercy. One wrote of Lillian Russell, Langtry’s chief rival, “she has no beauty below the chin.”
Langtry took salvos in every city. The play she chose, a pundit opined, “is prurient rubbish for bald-headed men to gloat over Mrs. Langtry’s nether extremities.”
An unnamed critic even roasted her appearance: “How did the British beauty appear before American eyes? A rather tall and plump figure” — she was five-eight, 130 pounds — “large feet, large hands; a bad walk… Why should the American people rush to see a court favorite? For the same reason they rushed to see Jumbo” — the elephant.
“I don’t want them to write what they don’t mean,” said Langtry. “But [American critics] are absolutely abusive. I think Gordon Bennett’s remark’s a wise one: ‘Actors and actresses should be cleaned with a feather duster, not smashed with a meat axe.’
“Perhaps,” she added, “acting is often better judged by those who, instead of dissecting the technique of the actor, allow themselves to appreciate the sincerity of the emotion portrayed.”
Langtry, of course, encouraged reproach. She toured America in the Lalee (East Indian for “flirt”), a gaudy private railroad car. The crowd awaiting her arrival at the California Southern depot was almost as excited to see her 75-foot long, sky blue “perambulatory home” as to watch the Jersey Lily set foot in San Diego.
They heard about the seven rooms — the bedroom in Nile green silk brocade — and the car’s 13 layers of padding, which made it too heavy to cross small trestles. The Lalee, Langtry boasted, had a “family resemblance to Cleopatra’s barge, minus the purple sails.”
The crowd also strained for a glimpse of “Freddie.” Langtry’s infamous lover, Freddie Gebhard, was the playboy-heir to a fortune in dry goods. They said he traveled the country begging for her hand, even though she was still married to Edward Langtry — whom, she said, had taken up fishing and strong drink “full time.”
Years later, on an Atlantic cruise, Langtry met the novelist W. Somerset Maugham. She told him Freddie was “the most celebrated man in two hemispheres.”
“Because I loved him.”
That, Maugham wrote, “was the proudest thing I ever heard a woman say.”
A whistle blocks away heralded the noon express from San Bernardino. Soon wheels screeched, and the crowd bowled forward. Langtry at last! Truly, as the Sun proclaimed, “her appearance here marks a new era in the amusement record of San Diego!”
Regular passengers, surprised by the welcome, filed out of the forward coaches into a sea of parasols, long-stemmed roses, and ribbons flowing in the breeze: the women in Sunday best hats; the men, hats off, hair gleaming with pomade.
But the Lalee’s imported teakwood doors didn’t open. The rose-colored curtains remained drawn behind stained glass windows. The engine chugged, steam spat from the sides, and the train lurched and gathered speed as it headed to National, the 22nd Street railyard.
Among the regular passengers getting off, Langtry’s company carefully hefted large, well-traveled trunks onto flat wagons at the far end of the platform. She performed the previous night before 1200 at the San Bernardino Opera House, the most elegant venue in Southern California. Her crew had less than seven hours to convert the dimly lit, acoustically awry Louis Opera House into a playable space for the 8:30 curtain.
The crew swept the hardwood floor and cleaned all 880 straight-backed chairs (an improvement over last year’s benches, but not by much). They opened the black-painted windows to evict offensive odors. They inspected the theater’s props and arranged the flats. These were generic locales — drawing room, garden — and the best money could buy from New York. Crewmen dusted the chandelier and the drop curtain’s painting of Coronado Beach.
Most important: they inspected every gaslight and the calcium followspot. San Diego had no Fire Marshall. It would be a year before asbestos curtains and stage sprinklers became the law in theaters. And last night, two blocks from the St. James Hotel, where Langtry would stay, a blaze caused over $300,000 in damages.
Gaslights cast a dreary, yellowish pallor on the skin. The crew checked to determine how much white powder the actors would need to brighten their faces.
Far more important to Langtry: someone must spread out the costumes in her private dressing room, iron out wrinkles, and, of course, set the red carpet in readiness.
Wherever she went, just before going on Langtry shouted “roll out the red carpet!” And someone unfurled it from her dressing room to the stage. She adopted the tradition out of necessity: un-swept backstage floors left grimy rings on the hems of her gowns. Hence, many say, the origin of the expression “roll out the red carpet!”
But the Louis Opera House had no private dressing room – only a dressing “area” backstage. The “artists” changed behind screens. Since they performed almost nightly, Langtry’s company became accustomed to, well, imperfections. But no dressing room? When Langtry heard the news, the diva roared and heads almost rolled.
About an hour after the train came and went, a closed carriage arrived at the St. James Hotel. The bottom two floors of San Diego’s first skyscraper had a brick veneer; round tin plates on the top three gleamed like a star. When Langtry exited the carriage, she didn’t have to worry about dust soiling her hem: hotel employees sprinkled F Street, between Sixth and Seventh, every few hours.
Part one: The Jersey Lily comes to San Diego