CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
During the early 1880s, the population of Ottawa, while growing rapidly, totalled less than 30,000 souls, far smaller than Toronto, Montreal or Québec City.
But being the capital of the new Dominion of Canada, and therefore home to the Governor General and Parliament, what the community lacked in numbers it made up in political and social clout. The town also boasted a small but wealthy group of industrialists who had mostly made their fortunes in the forestry industry. Because of these political and economic elites, Ottawa enjoyed the amenities of a far larger city, including the luxurious Russell Hotel, Ottawa’s premier hostelry, and the Grand Opera House, a top-quality hall for theatrical and other performances.
With such facilities, Ottawa was equipped to welcome the international celebrities of the age, including the witty Oscar Wilde, the divine Sarah Bernhardt, and the incomparable Mrs Lillie Langtry. Mrs Langtry, a.k.a. 'The Jersey Lilly,' captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more than forty years. She made three visits to Ottawa during her career, the first occurring on Nov. 8 1883.
Mrs Lillie Langtry was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 1853, the daughter of a prominent clergyman. While brought up in a liberal, loving family, island life was confining for the beautiful young girl, known to everyone as 'Lillie'. To get off the island and experience a taste of adventure, she married Edward Langtry in 1874, a widower ten years her senior. The couple settled in London. Sadly, the marriage quickly soured. Husband Edward drank heavily, and lived beyond his means. Although he had two racing yachts, his family’s wealth had been largely dissipated by the time it reached him. High living quickly went through the remaining fortune.
Lillie Langtry’s society career was launched when she was introduced to the artist John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a non-conformist group of Victorian artists who aimed to revive a medieval, artistic aesthetic. Attracted by her great beauty and charm, she became the muse of the Pre-Raphaelites, posing for Millais, George Francis Miles, and others, including Sir Edward Poynter. Oscar Wilde also became a close friend and mentor, introducing her to his friends in the Aesthetics Movement, including the American artist, James Whistler.
Mrs Langtry arrival in society coincided with photography going mainstream, and the beginning of a mass celebrity culture. Joining the ranks of the “Professional Beauties,” her photograph graced the store fronts and middle-class sitting rooms of Britain. As part of this elite group, Langtry gained an entreé into the dining rooms and ball rooms of the aristocracy ever eager to seek out the latest sensation. Male admirers, known as 'Langtry’s lancers', followed her as she rode daily in Hyde Park, a popular society past time that provided an opportunity to see people and be seen.
In 1877, she caught the philandering eye of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, the oldest son of Queen Victoria. The married prince and Mrs Langtry began a well-publicized affair that raised her to the pinnacle of British society. Although the relationship cooled after a time, and the prince looked elsewhere for extra-marital affection, they remained close friends. On his coronation as Edward VII in 1902, Mrs Langtry, along with other former mistresses, attended the ceremony at Westminster Abbey in a special box, known sotto voce as the 'King’s Loose Box.' After the prince, Mrs Langtry went on to have many other affairs that brought her considerable notoriety, including one with Prince Louis of Battenberg, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. Prince Louis is reputed to have been the father of Mrs Langtry’s only child, a daughter, Jeanne Marie, though she was also in a relationship with another man at the time.
In 1881, with the Langtrys close to bankruptcy, Lillie embarked on a stage career on the advice of Oscar Wilde, after taking acting lessons from the English actress Henrietta Hodson, the mistress and later wife of the politician Henry Labouchère. (As an aside, Labouchère’s uncle, also Henry, was the person who conveyed Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa as the capital of Canada to Sir Edmund Head, the Governor General, in 1857.) The theatre was a daring career decision. In the late nineteenth century, acting was not viewed a proper vocation for gentlewomen. Actresses were often looked upon as little more than prostitutes. Mrs Langtry’s stage career, which was supported by the Prince of Wales, helped to change attitudes. She also broke convention by handling all her bookings herself, as well as hiring a theatre troupe.
Mrs Langtry went on to have an illustrious stage career on both sides of the Atlantic that lasted several decades. While her acting was uneven, especially during the early years of her career, her beauty and notoriety brought people out in droves to her performances. Her fame also led her to become an advertising pioneer. As one of the first, if not the first celebrity endorser, she allowed the producers of Pears’ soap to use images of her, in various stages of undress, in its advertising. She also provided a testimonial that her flawless complexion was due to Pears’ soap. Langtry promoted other products during her long career, including cigarettes, hair tonic, dresses and accessories.
Needless to say, her marriage with Edward Langtry, never strong owing to his excessive drinking, suffered further due to her affairs and notoriety. They mostly lived apart while she pursued her acting career and a series of liaisons in the United States and in Britain. After twenty-three years of marriage, Lillie got a divorce in 1897. Edward died shortly afterwards. In 1899, she married 28 year-old Sir Hugo de Bathe, eighteen years her junior, against the wishes of the groom’s parents. This marriage also foundered. Lillie Langtry died in Monaco in 1929, and was buried is St Saviour Church in Jersey.
Lillie Langtry’s first visit to Ottawa in November 1883 occurred at the start of her long stage career. She and her company performed the appropriately named play The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan in front of an audience described as “large and fashionable.” It was unclear, however, whether people had shown up to watch the classic comedy or just to catch a glimpse of the famous Mrs Langtry. Tickets for reserved seats, which had gone on sale at Nordheimer’s Music Store for $1.50 each a week ahead of the production, were quickly snapped up. The performance was held with the patronage of the Governor General and the Marchioness of Lansdowne, though, oddly, the vice-regal couple arrived someway into the first act, perhaps an indication of a certain reserve towards the notorious actress. Also in the audience were Lord Melgund, an aide of the Governor General, as well as several Cabinet ministers. The performance was the first of a series of evening and matinee shows that ran over three days. In addition to The School for Scandal, Langtry and her troupe put on She Stoops To Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. This was a reprise of the first play in which Langtry performed in 1881 at the Haymarket Theatre in London.
The Ottawa Evening Journal, gave Mrs Langtry rave reviews for her performance as Mrs Teazle in The School for Scandal, saying that she “played with an artistic delicacy we have seldom seen equal.” In her role as Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops To Conquer, the Journal said that she displayed “versatility as an actress” and a “genuine appreciation of the requirements of the character.” The review looked forward to seeing Mrs Langtry in a dramatic role and opined that “from the little we have seen we believe she possesses many of the qualities which go to make a leading actress.”
Mrs Langtry returned to Ottawa and the Grand Opera House for a one-evening event on Good Friday, April 12 1895. Billed as the 'Society Event of the Season', she appeared in Gossip, a play by Leo Ditrichstein and Clyde Fitch, supported by the American actor Eben Plympton. Ticket prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.50. Advertisements for the show noted that electric cars would be at the Opera House to take theatre goers home after the production; the Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company had opened for business five years earlier.
As soon as the performance date was announced, there was controversy. Churches objected saying that a Good Friday show “was an insult.” At a prayer meeting, The Rev. W. Witten of the Reform Episcopal Church stated that “he would rather [people] went to the theatre Sunday than Good Friday. Those of his people who did go could not expect to come to church on Sunday and take part in communion.” Of course, the controversy only heightened the excitement, and provided Mrs Langtry with free advertising.
Fittingly given the name of the play, there was also much talk about what Mrs Langtry was going to wear for the production. Her new gowns were designed by Mme Laferrière of Paris and were “modelled after the style to prevail the coming summer.” Ottawa was even more agog over her jewels. According to the Journal, the coronet she wore in Gossip, which was made up of 2,000 diamonds “of the first purity and brilliance,” and twenty-five large Oriental pearls, was valued at $180,000. Her necklace of rubies and diamonds were said to be worth $25,000 while a jewelled broach consisting of a 44 carat ruby surrounded by diamonds was appraised at $300,000, an immense sum today let alone 120 years ago.
In a curt review the day after the performance, the Evening Journal reported that while there was a large and appreciative audience, Mrs Langtry was disappointing in the first act though she “showed a marked improvement” as the play progressed. The most attractive feature of the play was the dresses.
Lillie Langtry’s last appearance in Ottawa occurred in May 1900. This time she appeared at the Russell Theatre in a production of The Degenerates by the English dramatist Sydney Grundy. With the patronage of the Governor General, Lord Minto, and Lady Minto, the play was held as a benefit, with all profits going to the fire relief fund.
She played to a full house and received numerous curtain calls. At the end of the performance, she made a short patriotic speech and recited a poem by Rudyard Kipling titled “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” in support of British soldiers then fighting in the Boer War. The first lines of the poem read:
When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia:” When you’ve sung “God Save The Queen,” When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth: Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?
Quite a few coins were thrown on stage in response. At that time, some 1,000 Canadian volunteers organized into the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, were fighting in South Africa.
The Journal claimed that Mrs Langtry, now 47-years-old, had the looks and figure of a woman of 25—“years seem to have left no impression on her.” However, the comment may have been more gentlemanly than factual. Two months earlier, it was reported that in New York, Mrs Langtry had insisted that all the gas jets in the theatre in which she was about to perform be covered with tinted mosquito netting because the glaring lights brought into “unpleasant evidence ‘crow’s’ feet.” After the netting caught fire, the gas lights were replaced with electric lights with the bulbs softened with pink fabric.
Although Lillie Langtry made several more North American tours, she never again appeared in Ottawa. She retired from acting in 1917. The life of Lillie Langtry has been the subject of numerous books. In 1978, London Weekend Television produced an excellent mini-series on her life titled Lillie, starring Francesca Annis as Lillie Langtry.