Now and again the name Lillie Langtry pops up in various contexts. A mare by that name is the mother of Coolmore’s fantastic filly Minding, and there is the Lillie Langtry Stakes at Goodwood. There have been books and TV-series bearing her name. But the story of the real Mrs Langtry surpasses all fiction. It’s as if her life had been taken straight out of a major soap opera. Born in a rural family she climbed society’s highest echelons and enchanted men with her beauty and wit.
Lillie Langtry was the Kim Kardashian of her era. Always in the spotlight, hanging out with the jet-set, and a member of the Professional Beauties. The PBs were married women of high birth and spotless reputations that London’s social life revolved around. Lillie was also a commercial genius and supposedly the first woman to endorse a product—she was the face of Pear’s Soap. She also had her own theatre company and, most importantly, was one hell of a horse-woman, with her own racing stable in Kentford outside Newmarket and a farm in Northern California complete with a breeding operation and a training track.
Lillie’s first success at the races came when she was still a teenager in her native Jersey. She and her brother Reggie bought a mare with the appropriate name Flirt for £4, fixed her up, and went on to win a seller at the local race meet at Gorey Commons. Later, when she moved to London with her husband, Ned Langtry, as one of the Professional Beauties, she got invitations to private boxes at all the great race meets; Goodwood, Ascot and Epsom. Lillie loved the racing and she was a good handicapper and made some money at the bookies.
As one of the PBs, Lillie was surrounded by men and two of Lillie’s most ardent admirers thought that the gift of a horse would strengthen their chances of attracting her attention. They offered Lillie a horse and riding lessons. She played along and the first time one of them helped her up on the horse, she pretended to faint and fell down on the other side into the arms of the other. But after she revived and galloped off they realized she was no beginner. The horse, Redskin, became a favorite and she rode him on the Rotten Row every day. The Rotten Row in London was what where anybody who was anybody was showing off their newest horse, their newest carriage, and their newest outfits.
During Lillie’s morning rides she was sometimes accompanied by Albert, The Prince of Wales, who later was to become King Edward. They shared a common interest in racing and were often seen together at the races. After a day of racing at Goodwood when Lillie’s husband Ned was out fishing with one of the Prince’s friends, Lillie and the Prince were both invited to stay at Lord Rothschild’s summer house near Goodwood. What happened that night we will never know, but after that Lillie was always invited wherever Bertie went.
“What happened that night we will never know, but after that Lillie was always invited wherever Bertie went”
This relationship lasted for some years, but after a big party were Lillie was supposed to have dropped a piece of ice down the Prince’s neck it ended. After that the credit she had enjoyed as the Prince’s official mistress quickly dried up and tradesmen, seamstresses, and milliners presented Lillie with a mountain of unpaid bills and demanded to get paid immediately, if not sooner. What to do?
Lillie followed her catch-call “Get on with it” and decided to go on the stage. During her years in high society she had met with actors, writers, and other artists so she had the necessary contacts. The public was willing to pay for a glimpse of the Famous Fallen Beauty and she was an immediate hit.
She toured the UK and the public clamored for tickets to her shows. Eventually she formed her own company and was invited to the USA where she had her own luxury rail-way carriage built for her convenience. Of course she went racing both on the old tracks in New York and Saratoga and also on the tracks around the country. She was often seen together with the young heir Freddie Gephard who also enjoyed racing and had his own stable.
Her theater company was a big success and by June 1884 Lillie had about $125,000 to her name. She decided to spend it on horses, so she and Freddie went off to buy a few horses for his racing stable. But she also wrote to her solicitor George Lewis in London about starting a stable of her own. So far she had only been a part-owner of Freddie’s horses, but now she was ready to get her own.
In the summer the traveling circus reached San Francisco where they stopped for a while and had some time off. Lillie and Freddie went looking for a property where they could breed horses and found it at a ranch in Guenoc Valley. They hired a ranch manager, Charles W Aby, who had managed Lucky Baldwin’s ranch at Santa Anita, outside Los Angeles. But when Lillie and Freddie’s horses were shipped out from New York to California tragedy struck. The train with 16 horses on board derailed. 11 horses died on the spot and the rest were badly injured and had to be put down. Freddie’s champion Eole, the winner of the Woodland Vase and other big races, was among the horses that were killed. After that the California-operation never really got off the ground and Lillie lost some of her interest. In the end, she and Freddie broke up and Lillie went back to England.
One day at the races she was placing a bet with a bookie when a man came up to her and told her that his horse was going to win the race. He bought her a win ticket on it and when the horse won he invited her out to dinner. Not that he ate a lot himself for he was the notorious Squire Abington, real name George Baird, the leading amateur rider. He rode just as well as the pros, but he was too tall to make low weights. He survived on various concoctions that were supposed to help him keep his weight low. God knows what they might have contained. Abington was not only a very good rider, he was also a stinking rich dropout from all the schools he had attended, a promotor of boxers, and a beater of women and horses. But with a yearly income of close to £250,000 he could afford to be an asshole.
Abington had a string of 150 horses at Moulton Paddocks outside Newmarket—a state of the art establishment. He also kept a string of prize-fighters in his house in London, which cost him £1,500 a week in keep. Add to that the cost of bailing himself and the pugilists out of trouble with the law and buying expensive gifts for the women he beat up. As one of his contemporaries put it, he was a dyed-in-the-wool swine. But for some reason women are attracted by such swine and Lillie was. After being used to twirling men around her little finger, this was something different. Good horse-men have always been attractive to good horse-women. Abington and Lillie often went racing and she enjoyed watching him training his horses in Newmarket.
Lillie still had a string of horses in California trained by Doc Aby, but they didn’t seem to win any races. So the Squire offered to get her one. A good one. Lillie got all excited and one night when they were having dinner in London a man came up to their table and started to talk about buying horses. The man offered £8,000 for Abington’s star Milford, but he wouldn’t sell and gave Lillie the horse instead.
“He is a son of Saraband and should be a winner. He’ll stay at Moulton Paddocks and my trainer Moreton can train him for you.”
In May 1892, Milford was ready for his first race—a big race for 2-year-olds at Kempton and it was time for Lillie to register her colors with Weatherby’s. She was wearing a fawn dress and a turquoise brooch the Squire had given her so that was it. The Squire even filled out the form, “turquoise with fawn hoops and turquoise cap”. She registered them under the nom-de-course Mr Jersey, even though it was possible for women to own their own horse. I suppose Lillie wanted to able to enjoy some privacy—at least for a while.
Milford lived up to the high expectations—he made almost £10,000 as a two-year old and was one of the leaders of his crop. And there was Meddler, he won the Middle Park on his last outing as a two-year old and the Squire promised he would run in the Derby under Lillie’s colors before he set off to the US with his fighters. The trip was a disaster, the American fighters gave the English a sound beating and the Squire’s hard living took its toll as he died of pneumonia March 18th. Unfortunately he had forgotten to sign the will he had made, in which he left Lillie a large sum of money. Now she was left with a yacht, a stable full of horses, and a host of other expenses that she had to take care of. Of course, she still made large sums herself, but she did have to reconsider her style of living. The money Milford had made she had spent on new horses so, with the Squire gone, she had to find her own establishment. She bought Regal Lodge in Kentford outside Newmarket and turned over the training of her horses to Sam Pickering. The death of the Squire meant that she was not going to get Meddler. She tried to buy him at the dispersal, but was prevented by the representative of the family. Meddler was favorite with the bookies for the Derby, but never got to the race—seemingly due to administrative trouble over the ownership. Lillie was able to buy Lady Roseberry at the sale, but she was not of the same standard as Meddler.
So after the a crazy period with the Squire, Lillie resumed her life. Her affairs were in a mess, but with the help of a new business manager, she managed to sort things out. Lillie had almost a year off from the stage and she spent a lot of it at Regal Lodge, where she enjoyed following her horses and their work. But to regain her place in society was another story. She was snubbed by all the hostesses and ostracized in the circles she used to belong to. At the Goodwood meet she visited with the Rothschilds, nobody paid her any attention—until she ran into Bertie. The Prince rushed to meet her when he saw her and, walking at his arm, she was all of a sudden best friends with all the ladies who complimented her on her dress and were so happy to see her again. The Prince and Lillie’s friendship was solid and lasted the remainder of his life.
Sam Pickering had done a fairly good job with Lillie’s horses. Lady Roseberry won the Lanark Cup, the Jockey Club Cup at Newmarket, and ran second in Lillie’s special race, the Cesarewitch. Milford didn’t train on, but she had Nobleman and several “platers” that did their part to pay for the rest. She had a “satisfactory season, and realized more and more the fascination of the national sport of England”.
And then she moved her horses—to Mr William Robertson. They hadn’t won often enough and Lillie aspired to be the Queen of the Turf. Seconds didn’t count.
Bertie, by now Edward VII, had had a good year in 1896, with Persimmon who not only won the Derby but also the St Leger and the Jockey Club Stakes and now Lillie was out to beat him in 1897. She had Merman, whom she had bought from Australia and shipped back to England—a big gamble even for somebody as fearless as Lillie. She had already had a misfortune with the mare Maluma, who she bought from New South Wales and who had fared badly during the trip over the Red Sea and never been the same horse again. But she was persuaded that Merman was worth it and that he would take a cooler route around the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived sound and in good shape and later the same year Lillie also imported a horse named Chesney, but his trip didn’t pan out quite as well. The ship carrying him was wrecked and Chesney had to swim eight and a half miles to shore, landing at Three Anchor Bay. Talk about a hard horse.
Lillie now had a string of 35 horses and she was at the stables every morning to oversee their training. She knew her business having been around horses since her childhood in Jersey and then she had learned a lot from the Squire who, besides being crazy, had been a very good horseman.
“The man offered £8,000 for Abington’s star Milford, but he wouldn’t sell and gave Lillie the horse instead”
Merman made it to the races and was ridden by Tod Sloan, the great American rider famous for introducing the ‘monkey on a stick’ seat. He lost at Nottingham and then he went for the Lewes Handicap. Lillie got an a tip from a Lord William Beresford to try to run him bare-foot since he was probably used to that in Australia. The idea sounded preposterous, but after his dismal performance in his first outing Lillie convinced her blacksmith to give it a try—and it worked. He won the race easily and from there on it was barefoot for Merman. Next time out was Lillie’s race, the Cesarewitch at Newmarket.
Her Brayhead had won the Liverpool Cup and she decided to work Merman with him to get an idea just how good Merman was. He easily beat Brayhead in an early morning work and Lillie decided to have a big bet on him in the Cesarewitch. Merman with Tod Sloan won the race and paid a good price and Lillie had made over £39‚000 at the bookies. After the race Bertie escorted her into the Jockey Club enclosure—a sanctum previously only open to men. “A toast to Ms Langtry, all hail to Mr Jersey” and the champagne bottles were opened. And that evening there was a big party at the Regal Lodge with a cake complete with a picture of Merman on it. And as Lillie was celebrating her win, her estranged husband Ned died in the asylum. To top it off the wreath that the florist made for Ned’s funeral had flowers in Lillie’s racing colors, fawn and turquoise. Not in very good taste.
“Now she stood with a yacht, a stable full of horses and a bunch of other expenses that she had to take care of”
But now Lillie was free to marry again and found a new young man who unfortunately didn’t think women should have racehorses. It seems Lillie felt that she now had to settle down and live a “normal” life. So here ends our story of the fabulous Ms Langtry.
If this has made you curious there are still a lot of places where you can find mementoes of her life. The reason I found about her is that I lived in her gardener’s house in Kentford when I worked at the headquarters of racing in Newmarket, UK. And if you haven’t visited Newmarket—hurry. It is fantastic.