Dear readers, we’re adding some info on one of the most favorite gold rush women in California and western history. It’s ironic how such a simple and unwitting act on her part changed her entire life. Enjoy. Alton Pryor, the infamous author.
By Alton Pryor
It was a simple black dress that catapulted Lily Langtry to fame.
Lillie (the spelling used by the British) was born Emilie Charlotte LeBreton, October 13, 1853 on the island of Jersey, a part of the Channel Islands. Lily, (a spelling which she didn’t like—she preferred Lillie) as she was known in the United States, won her good looks from both her mother and father.
Her mother, Emilie Davis, was petite and auburn haired. Her father was over six feet tall with piercing blue eyes. Her mother suffered ill health, but her father was robust and larger than life. He was also a womanizer.
At 16 years of age, Lillie fell in love with a handsome local boy. She then found out that the boy was the illegitimate son of her father.
One thing her father did believe in was education for his children. She started taking lessons from her brothers’ tutors in Latin, Greek, math, German, French, music and art.
She disclosed in her autobiography that she was named Lillie because of her lily-white complexion.
Lillie and her mother were elated when Lord Suffield suggested that Lillie’s beauty was great enough to have a London season. The attempt was a dismal failure. They discovered that without connections, navigating London Society was difficult if not impossible. The only ball she attended wa hosted by Lord Suffield.
Lillie felt her peasant ways hampered her. She determined to change things. She applied herself to studying and preparing herself so that if she received another chance, she’d be ready.
Her chance at penetrating the society domain came from an unexpected happening. Lillie met Edward Langtry, a member of a London shipbuilding family. Edward owned an 80-foot yacht called the The Red Gauntlet. Lillie later admitted she fell in love with the yacht but married the owner.
She soon found out that Edward was not as wealthy as he seemed. The Langtry family had gone from rags to riches and then back again. Edward, as a gentleman, did not work for a living. Their only income came from the rents on some Irish properties he owned.
Lillie and Edward moved to Southampton in England, where Lillie became bored and despondent. While Lillie was intelligent and well read, Edward spent most of his time yachting and fishing.
The couple had little in common. Things came to a head when Lillie contracted a serious case of typhoid fever. Lillie convinced her doctor to suggest that she move to London where the climate might help her recuperate.
Edward and Lillie arrived in London in 1876. She soon found that this visit was even worse than her first experience when she failed to break into London Society.
Lillie spent most of her time reading, while Edward took up drinking as a new hobby. About the same time, Lillie’s younger brother, Reggie, was killed in a freak horse accident.
Now in mourning, it was a bleak period for Lillie. She and Edward were visiting the new aquarium in Westminster where they ran into old family friends of the LeBreton. Lord and Lady Sebright invited them to their home.
Edward disdained such society affairs, but Lillie, now fully recovered from her illness, wanted desperately to attend. Still wearing mourning, Lillie wore a plain, figure-hugging black dress.
Amid all the colorful attire of other female guests, Lillie stuck our like a beacon of purity.
Artists Frank Miles and John Everett Millais were among the guests. Miles and Millais sought out Lillie, asking for the chance to paint her portrait. Millais managed to take Lillie into dinner.
Frank Miles, not to be outdone, made a line drawing of Lillie on the spot, immortalizing her moment of discovery.
Lillie proved to be not only well-read but able to converse on a number of topics, proving she was not just another pretty face. She was the hit of the party.
She was then invited to pose for many of the major painters of her day, including Edward Poynter, James McNeill Whistler, George Frederic Watts, and Edward Bourne Jones.
A painting by Millais, in which she wore the simple black dress, was called “A Jersey Lily”. Crowds thronged to see the portrait when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878.
It wasn’t the painting that drew attention to the beauty of Lillie Langtry so much as the photographs. Photography was just coming into its own, and some society beauties were having photographs made that were then offered for sale.
This was a heady time for Lillie. She had gone for obscurity in one instant to a feted and coveted celebrity in the next. Her simple black dress brought her from being a plain Jane to a person of gentility.
Lillie and Edward were soon invited everywhere, and not just by artists but by society. Edward was out of his depth, but Lillie was truly in her element. She continued wearing the black dress to all events.
Her black dress period came to an end when she was invited to a party by Lady Dudley. Lady Dudley’s husband detested the color black. Lillie wore a stunning white velvet creation that hugged her figure.
Wherever she went, Lillie was now mobbed. She became a fashion icon.