"They saw me, those reckless seekers of beauty, and in a night I was famous."
That one night was in 1876. She had been invited to a reception and the dress she wore was simple; serene beside the skirts bobbing like likes of crinoline and the bodices that cut deep, with decorations pursuing the cruel pathways of cloth and bone. All her dress did was follow the full, natural contour of her strong body. The dress was black – she was still mourning the death of her younger brother – and her creamy, unpowdered skin made a handsome contrast. her auburn hair warmed the eyes. She was an untouched palette, attractive to any artist who searched for his subjects in the drawing rooms of Victorian England.
And there were artists in attendance that night. In the morning, copies of her portrait could be seen in shop windows throughout London. In a single night, Lillie Langtry had become famous. Society had found its new Professional Beauty – invited to the most enviable parties, holding the London Season like a bouquet in her arms…she would be its queen until the flowers grew cold.
This photo was taken in 1890. Much had happened since then. She is 37 here; never possessing prettiness, which would have condemned her masculine wit, her features are clear-cut and Grecian. She is still Oscar Wilde's 'Helen of Troy'.
Her affair with Prince Edward (eventually to become Edward VII) had ended ten years ago, his attentions straying to a dark, nimble sprite, Sarah Bernhardt. Once Lillie was free of him, there had been other men. In 1881 she gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Marie – the father's identity still a matter of speculation.
On her friends' advice, she embarked on a stage career. The leap from society to the stage is not such a tremendous one. And talent notwithstanding, there wouldn't be a theater in the country that would turn Mrs. Langtry away. Within months of her daughter's birth she had made her debut. In 1882 she was touring America. That same year she had found another lover, a millionaire, Fred Gebhard, and was his mistress for nine years.
And after him, there was George Alexander ("Squire") Baird, amateur jockey and boxer. He beat her regularly, seeking her forgiveness with diamonds and yachts. She found the bruises acceptable currency, and endured the violence that ran unrestrained across her skin.
A year after this picture was taken, a coarse fist would exploit the face that many had considered the loveliest in the world. She would hide that face, discolored and distorted, and sigh – perhaps – for the days when she was society's precious toy, the gilded lily lying on a velvet pillow.