Café Society: The Life of Lillie Langtry
A beloved hostess and famed beauty, the history of Lillie Langtry is tied to Chelsea. Discover how her past residence at The Cadogan, A Belmond Hotel, is inspiring a brand new dining experience based on her sophisticated travels around Europe.
THE BIRTH OF A BEAUTY
Born the only girl of seven children on the seaswept island of Jersey, Lillie moved to London aged 23 and immediately became known for her poise and beauty. Indeed, at one of her first events in the capital at the home of Lady Sebright, the host reportedly remarked to her: “you’ll be the talk of London tomorrow.”
She was known for her tumbling tresses of auburn hair, deep blue eyes, black dresses and porcelain skin—as well as her effervescent personality. Lillie capitalized on her popularity to offer one of the earliest examples of celebrity endorsement in advertising, a Victorian influencer of soaps and cosmetics. She often appeared in pictures and postcards as an early example of a pin-up, too, with her astute eye for fashion earning her plenty of admirers.
Not only was she beautiful, but she was also the life of the party. In the 1958 book ‘The Scandalous Jersey Lily’, we learn that the young socialite was a hoot to have at soirée; she popularized the game of sliding down a staircase on a silver tray. A keen traveler, she charmed all she met as she swept through the grand cities of Europe with her group of debonair, bohemian friends and adoring devotees.
THE LIGHT OF LONDON
An urbane sophisticate who wasn’t ashamed to use her looks to ascend the social ladder, she had frequent flirtations and affairs with London’s elite. Frances Maynard, who would soon become the countess of Warwick, said of Lillie: “How can words convey the vitality, the glow, the amazing charm that made this fascinating woman the center of any group she entered?"
Among her suitors were the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII and ruled 1901-1910, as well as the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg. The former was a known philanderer, entering into several trysts with Lillie in the late 1870s while married to Princess Alexandria of Denmark.
Lillie was close friends with fellow Chelsea bon viveur Oscar Wilde. In 1881, she was encouraged by the scribe to try her hand at acting. By just the next year, after a string of successful performances, she had started her own touring acting troupe. While the critics were less than kind, Lillie was enormously popular with audiences, and often travelled to New York to act in plays. At the turn of the 20th century, she became the manager of London’s Imperial Theatre.
Upon her passing in 1929, The Guardian wrote: “She was a woman who knew how to make the most of her graces. She knew all the niceties of artistic dressing. Her own grace and graciousness and her ability to please her fellow-creatures she retained to the end. She danced with the vitality of a young woman when she was seventy.”
While she herself was an actress, after her death she was played by Lilian Bond, Ava Gardner and Francesca Annis in The Westerner (1940), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) and Lillie (1978) respectively.
LILLIE AND THE CADOGAN
The Cadogan's rich history intertwines with Lillie’s story. She lived at 21 Pont Street from 1890–1897 with eight servants, and when the building became a hotel and started operating as The Cadogan in 1895, she retained her quarters. Her lodgings’ original staircase and mosaic floor remain, acting as a private entrance for some of the guests staying at the hotel. As a home-away-from-home for international travelers and Chelsea’s refined residents, the hotel echoes the same rip-roaring spirit as the legendary parties Lillie used to host in these walls.
To honour Lillie, the iconic Chelsea hotel has unveiled a brand new restaurant, named The LaLee. As The Cadogan’s General Manager Xavier Lablaude says, the menu is entirely inspired by her lively travels around the continent: “The LaLee will take guests on a culinary journey to the grand cities of Europe.”
The LaLee offers a whimsical cocktail list dedicated to her life and tastes. This includes a childhood-inspired Jersey Punch to a Cobalt & Tonic that shimmers with tones of her favourite colour purple. With these, guests can transport themselves back to Lillie’s era of light-hearted sophistication. Or they can feast on a range of European classics, from aubergine parmigiana to a delectable Paris-Brest dessert. “Lillie’s love of entertaining will be at the forefront, and we’ll serve dishes with a touch of tableside theatre,” Lablaude adds. “We want to pay homage to the cuisine she adored during her epic travels.”