Two Lillies

Vaudevillian Lillian Russell, from the collection at the New York Public Library.

In the late 1800s, few women were as infamous as the two Lillies—Lillian Russell and Lillie Langtry. And with their curvaceous good looks, and shocking reputations, it seems likely that few had more fun.

Lillian Russell (1861-1922) was a vaudevillian and a chanteuse, “as tempting as a baked apple dumpling,” as one critic put it. She made her offstage home the racetrack. Rumor had it that she chose her horses by sticking her program with a hatpin at random, though experts believed that Lil knew the horses better than that. She also knew her millionaires, including sidekick Diamond Jim Brady who rode the singer around Central Park on his gold-plated bicycle and once proposed to her by dumping a million dollars in her lap. She declined. (He would have been her fifth husband.) In her later years, Russell leant her sex appeal and her fame to the suffragette movement, marching in 1915’s suffragette parade.

Sultry Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) gave Russell a run for her money. The red-headed British beauty was considered the aesthetic ideal in Victorian England, and, though she was married, became the official mistress of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). The couple appeared at fashionable parties and at the racetrack together, until she appeared at a costume party wearing the same costume as the future King. He was furious. But instead of apologizing, Lillie dropped a piece of ice down his back. He ended the affair.

Lillie Langtry, from the New York Public Library's collection.

Lillie’s creditors rushed in, and she found herself close to bankruptcy. With Sarah Bernhardt as her advisor, Langtry took to the stage. Critics never praised her acting abilities, but her productions always sold out. When she appeared in the US in “As You Like It” in 1882, a journalist pointed out that the only reason the crowd came was “for the sole purpose of seeing how Mrs. Langtry looked in tights.” “There was no denying it,” he went on, “Mrs. Langtry’s legs were a total failure.” It didn’t matter. Langtry made her fortune, eventually buying her own luxe railroad car for touring the States.

Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw all sang her praises. But Gilbert and Sullivan put it best: “Oh, never, never, never since we joined the human race/saw we so exquisitely fair a face.”