‘I resent Mrs Langtry, she has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely’.
- George Bernard Shaw
‘I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America.’
- Oscar Wilde
Lillie Langtry was a great and unique beauty. She was considered such a one, in fact, that it became her career. She was a professional beauty – a profession that could only have been devised during her heyday, the gilded, steely 1880’s. It was a subtle democracy: a way for society to feast on demure helpings of scandal, and for the tiny rivulets of respectability to trickle into the demimonde.
The PB’s face and form were her invitation – the key to unlock any door, to gain entrance to any party. Her image was seen daily, on the postcards and photographs that were displayed in shop windows: desire pressed under glass. She decorated any room – she gave it cache, and was that new acquisition required by the clever and discerning hostess.
Yet to our eyes, Lillie seems strange, almost coarse-looking. Her face is broad, with a bone structure that is unsubtle and a profile that is strong and indelicate. Her eyes are pale and distant. Her torso is powerful and buxom, disappearing into a waist that is as cinched and twisted as a bound foot. She seems to our modern sensibilities, graceless and unfeminine.
But we are only looking at a photograph. Lillie Langtry’s beauty dates to an earlier time – her profile and build were considered classical Greek – ‘Praxitelean’ – her followers likened her to a goddess. Oscar Wilde proclaimed her “The New Helen of Troy”. Her Amazonian physicality alienated her from her dainty contemporaries.
Photographs do not share with us her famous coloring; we can only envy those who witnessed it first-hand: the blue eyes; rich, milky skin and auburn hair that set around her neck like bronzed sunlight.
In addition, Lillie’s intelligence set her apart – it set a fine balance, crossing a vast ocean of wit to journey from ribald, to masculine, to a winking modesty. She was daring, sly and feral. No photograph would dare show that.
All things considered, she was irresistible.
It is common knowledge – among those who make it a point to know such things – that Lillie Langtry was the first officially recognized mistress of King Edward VII: an admirer of lovely and witty women. She became good and lasting friends with his modest but pretty wife, Alexandria.
But Lillie herself had many lovers, as is the wont of a lovely and witty woman. For her wanderings she has – then as now – been labeled infamous, immodest, a courtesan, a jeweled whore. But I find this wild labeling, however, to be unfair.
I believe that Lillie was a romantic; she fell in love often, and with great generosity: as if her latest love would be her last and greatest. Would we not do the same? What would we do, what would we give, if we thought we had reached our final love, our final day?