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She shared her bed with two royals and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Oscar Wilde, so it is little wonder that Lillie Langtry’s decision to buy an
unremarkable farmhouse just outside Newmarket in 1895 caused a stir. The vivacious Victorian actress’s overwhelming passion was horses so relocating to the heart of racing country and establishing her own stables was a dream come true.
A mere farmhouse would not be suitable for entertaining society guests, though, so Langtry’s first task was to transform the Kentford property into a veritable pleasure palace. She gutted the building and added a huge extension to triple its size. The finest oak panelling and marble fireplaces were imported from Portugal and Italy, and the facade was half-timbered in the fashionable Arts and Crafts style.
The main dining room was designed as a theatre, complete with miniature stage and a Proscenium arch, enabling her to perform for the rich and famous who visited regularly. As a nod to her dalliances with the Prince of Wales – a notorious philanderer lampooned as ‘Edward the Caresseri’– and his nephew, Prince Louis of Battenberg (father of Earl Mountbatten), she had the royal crest cheekily mounted on the smoking-room chimney. The grounds included an Italianate sunken garden with a fishpond where people were invited to take tea on the upturned end of a Doric column.
All of this was a far cry from the statuesque, blue-eyed beauty’s roots. Born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in 1853, the only daughter of seven children to the episcopal dean of Jersey, her family were not poor but did not live in the lap of luxury. The Channel Islands were also
remote, limiting the young woman’s prospects.
Realising her looks were a passport to the British mainland, Langtry did not waste time in snaring a wealthy husband. When a 26-year-old Irish landowner called Edward Langtry berthed his large yacht, the Red Gauntlet, on the island in 1874, she entranced him and they wed only five months later. The bride insisted he sail her away to England and they initially settled in Southampton. By 1876 the couple had moved to London and she was introduced to society after painter Frank Miles spied her at the theatre and begged her to sit for a portrait. ‘From that time I was invited everywhere and made a great deal of by many members of the royal family and nobility,’ Langtry told newspaper reporters. After the Miles portrait, she sat for John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones and William Powell Frith.
In 1877 Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales (later to become
Edward VII), arranged to sit next to her at a dinner party. Although married to Princess Alexandra and a father of six, he quickly became infatuated and took Langtry as his mistress for almost three years. The long-suffering Alexandra accepted the relationship and even gifted Langtry a terrier dog called Caesar.
Before that liaison was over, she had a short affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg and fell pregnant with a daughter. To this day, it is not clear who the father was, but Earl Mountbatten always claimed Jeanne Marie was his half-sister.
By 1881 poor cuckolded Edward Langtry was going broke so his wife’s close friend, Oscar Wilde, suggested she embark upon a theatre career. Critical opinion of her talent was mixed, but her notoriety guaranteed a packed auditorium, encouraging her to start her own company. It toured the UK and America with great success.
While in New York, Langtry started a
People
A very racy lady
Kim Smith recalls how legendary Victorian actress Lillie Langtry built a pleasure palace at Kentford, near Newmarket, to indulge her love of horses
 Lillie Langtry on stage. For a time she had her own theatre company
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