Within a month of meeting each other; the Prince of Wales and Lillie were an item, and Lillie was regarded as the Prince’s first official mistress. They were soon seen everywhere together, which their respective spouses hated but could do little about. The pair were physically attracted to each other and had a passionate relationship, but the Prince and Lillie also found kindred spirits in each other as both had come from cold families lacking in love and suffered from low self-esteem.
The Prince of Wales and Lillie liked to spend time together in private away from prying eyes, and so he gave Lillie the gift of a house in Bournemouth, which she decorated to suit their tastes and kept the best room for the Prince. Here the couple could relax and enjoy each other’s company – Lillie often amused the Prince by doing things like wearing lingerie trimmed with royal ermine. Lillie’s husband, left at their London home, was not amused by this sort of behaviour and soon turned to alcohol and became bankrupt. It appears he even tried to divorce Lillie at this time, but the proceedings were eventually stopped – maybe the Prince of Wales intervened to preserve Lillie’s public reputation.
Of course, the Prince of Wales was never a one mistress kind of man, and he soon found new women to entertain him and as he entered into a heavily-publicised relationship with actress Sarah Bernhardt; he paid less and less attention to Lillie Langtry. Lillie was now in a difficult situation; her husband was bankrupt, and the patronage of her lover was waning by the day. The Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde both suggested that Lillie should become an actress in order to help with her financial difficulties. Though Lillie had never acted before, Oscar Wilde set her up for some training from the actress Henrietta Labouchére, the training and Lillie’s fame were a winning success because her career took off straight away.
Lillie went from local amateur dramatics to the West End in a matter of years. She was a sensation, and each performance led to offers of future roles, her greatest success was playing Rosalind in ‘As you like it’. Most of the opening nights were attended by the Prince of Wales, and though their relationship was more or less over, the pair remained close and always wrote to each other and visited each other when they could.
At the end of her relationship with the Prince of Wales, Lillie ended up having a fling with his cousin Prince Louis of Battenberg. She also fell pregnant around this time, and Prince Louis was immediately packed off back to the navy after this and Lillie had to flee back to Jersey with her daughter whom she left on the island with her mother.
In 1882, Lillie parted ways with the Haymarket acting company and formed a company of her own which toured around the UK as well as the US for many years, Lillie gained fame in her own right in the United States as an actress. Lillie took her career as an actress and a businesswoman very seriously and continued to undertake training to improve her acting over the years. She also became the manager of the Imperial Theatre in London, truly breaking the mould for how a society woman should conduct herself in this era. During these years, Lillie was involved in a relationship with a man called Frederick Gebhard with whom she became interested in thoroughbred horse racing. This relationship led to Lillie and Frederick purchasing neighbouring ranches in California, where Lillie gained American citizenship. While in the United States, Lillie was finally divorced from her estranged husband Edward Langtry who died just months later in an asylum.
It was not long before Lillie was married again; she was much like the Prince of Wales in the way she moved swiftly between relationships. Her second marriage was to Hugo Gerald de Bathe; the pair were wed in 1899. Eight years later, Hugo’s father died, and he inherited his baronetcy, making Lillie ‘Lady de Bathe’, and the couple inherited a number of properties and vast amounts of land. Throughout her marriage to Hugo, Lillie continued to act and even appeared in a film in 1913. Little is known of Lillie and Hugo’s marriage, but in later years they lived rather separate lives; Hugo mostly in Venice and Lillie in Monaco, though the pair sometimes attended events together.
Lillie continued to be a fashionable socialite and always drew a crowd wherever she went, even in her later years. As well as performing on stage, working as an artists’ muse, managing stables and running a theatre, Lillie’s fame made her an early form of social influencer and her face was used for the first kind of celebrity endorsements of products such as Pears soap and Browns Iron Bitters.
Lillie’s final stage performance took place in 1917 after almost four decades on the stage. Lillie died in Monte Carlo on 12 February 1925 at the age of 75, leaving much of her remaining wealth to her best friend, Matilda Marie Peat. Lillie’s husband Hugo outlived her and remarried. Lillie left behind a huge legacy in the world of theatre and continues to be remembered in print and film to this day. Lillie also wrote her own memoirs which we can use to look deeper into this fascinating lady who was so much more than a mistress of the Prince of Wales.1