Wild Women Of The West: Lillie Langtry


A huge cloud of steam boiled out of the tremendous stack on the locomotive engine hauling a Union Pacific train up a steep grade outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1888.  Among the many cars being pulled along was one belonging to the celebrated actress Lillie Langtry.  The seventy-five-foot, blue, private car named the LaLee was the theatrical star’s home away from home as she toured the United States performing at various theatres.  The LaLee was designed by Colonel William D’Alton Mann, the inventor of the Mann Boudoir Railway Carriage, a rival of the Pullman coach.  Mann, who was infatuated with the talented beauty, offered to create a luxurious car for her in the summer of 1887.  In early 1888, his plans were submitted to the construction company Harlan and Hollingworth in Wilmington, Delaware, and the building of the LaLee began shortly thereafter.

Born in 1853 on the Isle of Jersey, a few miles off the coast of Saint-Malo, France, Lillie was tall and curvaceous with azure eyes and Titian red hair.  She had been the toast of Great Britain, a professional beauty.  Eminent portrait painters and photographers asked her to sit for them.  Poets recited blank verse about her arresting features.  In America, Lillie had captured audiences with both her looks and acting ability.  She had been performing at venues in the East just prior to her private car being completed.  The moment the vehicle was ready to travel, Lillie and her entourage climbed aboard for a journey west where she was scheduled to appear at the Louis’ Opera House in San Diego.

The railway car which Lillie christened LaLee (Winnebago, Native American for Flirt) cost $65,000 and bore a striking resemblance to Cleopatra’s barge.  “I think the Colonel thoroughly enjoyed planning the car,” Lillie wrote later in her life.  “Being very hard at work rehearsing a new play, I let him have his lead, and, beyond an occasional letter with reference to color or material, he did not disturb me with details, so that, when the finished car and the bill for it burst on my view almost simultaneously.  I am not sure whether joy at possessing such a beautiful perambulating home or honor at my extravagance in ordering it was uppermost in my mind.”

The LaLee was an attention getter.  The exterior of the car was a cobalt blue, Lillie’s favorite color, and on either side were emblazoned wreaths of golden lilies encircling its name.  The roof was white, and there was an unusual quantity of decorative brass, wrought into conventional designs of lilies, and the massive platforms were of polished teak from India.  Most railroad travelers were awestruck by Lillie Langtry’s private car, but not everyone took notice of the LaLee.  For some, it was merely a means of getting from one place to another.  An example of such an attitude occurred during the first extended trip Lillie took with the car.  As the train was leaving Colorado Springs, two men ran down the tracks in hopes of hitching a ride to the next station.  The car they hopped aboard was the LaLee.  They stood on the back platform of the car watching the scenery, blissfully unaware to whom it belonged.

After traveling a few miles, Lillie’s porter, Ben, noticed the men on the platform and invited them to walk through the LaLee to the public coaches.  They were about to accept when the porter explained to them to go quickly as the car was a private one and occupied by a lady.  At this piece of news, the men stolidly declined to enter the car at all, declaring that they had been living for years in the mountains without seeing a woman and had no desire to renew the acquaintance with the opposite sex.  

Lillie overheard the exchange and peaked around the door to get a look at the men.  “Ben tried in vain to break their determination,” Lillie noted in her memoirs, but the men remained steadfast.  “They stood their guns and did not budge until the train drew up at a lonely wayside station,” Lillie continued, “When they dropped off and entered the smoker ahead, thus it is to be hoped, securing immunity from what they evidently regarded as the feminine peril.”  

If the men had ventured through the LaLee they would have seen the interior of the car was as impressive as the exterior.  According to Lillie, “The designer certainly devised a wonderful sleeping room and bath.  The sleeping room was upholstered in Nile green silk brocade, was entirely padded, ceiling, walls, dressing table, etc., with the idea of protecting the passengers in case of a collision.  The bath and its fittings were of silver, and the curtains of both rooms, of rose-colored silk, were trimmed with profusion of lace.  “The saloon was large, and upholstered in cream and green brocade,” Lillie wrote in her memoirs.  “It was made specifically for the LaLee in Lyons, and I was agreeably surprised to find a piano installed therein.  There were two guest rooms, a maid’s room, complete even with a sewing a machine, a pantry, a kitchen, and sleeping quarters for the staff.

“Underneath were enormous ice-chests capable of housing a whole stag, as I discovered later.  For extra safety, Colonel Mann had furnished the LaLee with thirteen floors and eleven ceilings, which comforting precautions, together with the huge refrigerators, made the car so heavy that I was more than once officially warned to avoid semi-tottering bridges.”

The scene at the train depots was always the same when Lillie and the LaLee arrived.  Fans eager for her arrival in San Diego where she was to perform at the Louis’ Opera House on May 4, 1888, congregated at the city’s depot to greet her.  Newspaper reporters were on hand to witness the scene.  From the moment the train stopped, “the crowd strained for a glimpse of the actress alighting from her car,” an article in the May 6, 1888, edition of the Los Angeles Herald read.  “Her appearance will mark a new era in the amusement record of San Diego.”  The crowd pushed forward to admire the LaLee and to stare at the teakwood doors in anticipation of its opening.  Hours passed, and the rose-colored curtains that covered the stained-glass windows of Lillie’s portable palace remained drawn.  The intrepid thespian would not leave the car until it was time to relocate to the dressing area at the theatre.  Until Lillie’s followers had the pleasure of seeing her on stage, they had to be content with the fact that they did have a chance to see the LaLee.

From the time the LaLee began the journey west with the actress nicknamed The Jersey Lilly, people clamored for information about the stylish car.  In late February 1881, the train pulling the private car stopped in Chicago where Lillie was to be performing in the play The Lady of Lyons.  A story in the February 21, 1888, edition of the Chicago Tribune covered Lantry’s arrival and made mention of the opulent vehicle in which she lived.  The headline read, “Mrs. Langtry Suddenly Taken Ill and Is Confined to Her Car.”  The article that followed explained the situation.  “There was a forlorn air about the parlor-car LaLee as it lay huddled up last night in the yard of the Union Depot.  It seemed it was all on one side, all disheveled, all disordered.  On the rear platform there was a dreary litter of empty champagne cases; and on the front platform there hung before the door a red plush sign, ‘Not at Home.’

“LaLee,” [believed to some reporters that the LaLee and Lillie were one in the same] was not a home.  And in fact, at the present time she was in no mood either to flirt or to occupy herself with any diversion at all.  She was ill with neuralgia of the heart, complicated with rheumatism, and she lay in her little sleeping room, which looks like a ship’s cabin, tossing restlessly under the coverlet of violent silk.

“‘Yes, she said wearily.  ‘I am really ill.  I was ill all last week and found it difficult to act.  But I thought it would pass.  I sent a telegraph to Dr. Irwin.  I wanted to be ready in case of need.  I was fairly well yesterday.  Charles Coghlan and some friends came to supper.  They will tell you I was in good spirits all the time and had no thought of this collapse.  The Dr. arrived this morning.  He said at once that I was overworked.  ‘Very much run down’, were his words.  He also said there were symptoms of neuralgia of the heart.  These developed about 6:30 this evening.  I was dressing for the theatre over there by the looking-glass, when I suddenly felt giddy, staggered back, and said: ‘Send for Dr. Irwin, I am very ill?’  Then I lay on the bed until the doctor came.  He at once wrote the following certificate. ‘This is to certify that Mrs. Langtry is so ill that it is impossible for her to appear at the theatre this evening.  She has just attempted to dress, contrary to my services, and fainted.  I now consider it my duty to insist on absolute quiet for the present.  J. A. Irwin, M.D.’”  

On April 12, 1888, Lillie’s car was the subject of an article in the St. Joseph Gazette-Herald.  Mrs. Langtry’s health had long since been restored by the time the article was published.  “Lillie Langtry’s special car LaLee built for her by the Mann Boudoir Car company, at the cost of $25,000,* will be an object of interest in the vicinity of the depot on Monday next.  The walls and ceiling of Mrs. Langtry’s boudoir are upholstered in olive green satin, the elaborate frieze being relieved by a round border of satin.  The bed, which occupies the entire width of the room, is screened by curtains of pink satin, and covered by a counterpane of the same material, embroidered in the center with the initial L.  Between the windows is a dressing-case with mirror, supplied with silver and ivory toilet paraphernalia.  The car is finished in the most elaborate and luxurious manner, and in excellent taste.”   

Lillie relished traveling in her own car.  According to her memoirs, she enjoyed the “American method of travel” and marveled at the beauty of the country.  “The glory of the autumn coloring in America is indescribable,” Lillie wrote in her memoirs.  “The apple orchards of New York State, through which we passed, are especially graven on my memory.  Mounds of fresh-gathered fruit, some golden, some crimson, lay about the trees, many of which still carried their colorful burden.  Certain marvels, such as Niagara, were too awesome to be appreciated at once, but perhaps the first glimpse of the Yosemite Valley, from the top of the hill was the most soul-stirring of all of them.  The Mariposa Grove of big trees filled me with an almost childish astonishment.”

During the time Lillie toured the country in the LaLee, the train and subsequent car wasn’t involved in a single accident.  The actress noted that the LaLee did, however, experience one or two narrow escapes.  “While going south, the couplings gave way unperceived,” she shared in her memoirs, “and the LaLee was left standing for two hours on a single line in a magnolia forest, but, until an engine returned in burning haste to fetch us, the occupants of the car had been sleeping in blissful ignorance of its jeopardy.

“On one or two occasions we jolted off the line, one of these mishaps occurring near a small Texas town.  There was necessarily a considerable delay, and the cowboys lounging around the station improvised a rodeo or exhibition of prowess for my entertainment.  

“There were times the heavy LaLee could not make it up the steep inclines in the Sierras without the aid of an additional engine.  While waiting for officials at a nearby station in Truckee, California, to send a second engine, some of the railroad employees were summoned to help push the ponderous LaLee up the grade out of harm’s way.”

In addition to the mechanical issues and challenges the LaLee faced in certain terrain, the car was at the center of a police investigation at one time.  In June 1888, Lillie’s car was parked at a railyard in Houston, Texas.  After a few days stay at the location, the train was to press on toward California.  An hour or so before daylight, a horse-drawn carriage approached the vehicle.  One of the guardsmen aboard the LaLee attempted to stop the driver of the carriage from getting close to the famous actress’ sleeping quarters.  It was the guardsman’s job to protect Lillie and her property.  The guardsman leapt off the LaLee and stood in front of the carriage until it came to a stop.  The driver was outraged by the behavior, jumped out the vehicle, and began exchanging blows with the guardsman.  The guardsman yelled for another security guard to help him, and the man raced to the fight.  The driver of the carriage managed to get away from the pair and took his complaint about his treatment to the authorities.

Early the following morning the police visited the LaLee with a warrant to arrest Lillie’s guards.  “Mrs. Langtry in her night robes was the first person to open the door when the law came calling,” a report in the June 12, 1888, edition of the Utah Daily Union read.  She had no idea who the men were at first and mistook them as outlaws.  “ ‘O!  I have nothing, Mr. Train Robber,’ Lillie called out.  ‘Please don’t shoot, I have no money.’  This caused a loud laugh, and when informed that they were policemen she seemed much relieved.”  

The police searched the LaLee for the guardsmen in question, and, when they were found, they were arrested.  Lillie’s truculent champions were brought before the judge and subsequently fined $25 for their overly aggressive behavior.  

Lillie Langtry had a huge fan base across the United States.  Some of her most devoted admirers were politicians, artists, and inventors.  Among who idolized The Jersey Lily was Judge Roy Bean, Texas’ Justice of the Peace and the “Law West of the Pecos.”  The eccentric judge was so enamored with Lillie he renamed the town where he lived and held court Langtry.  The saloon where he distributed law and order was called The Jersey Lilly.  At one time he wrote Lillie to let her know about the section of Texas dedicated to her beauty and talent.  The judge invited Lillie to visit Langtry, meet the townspeople, and have a drink at his bar.  The celebrated actress was flattered by the gesture.

“The greatest surprise of all was to have a town named in my honor,” Lillie recalled in her memoirs.  “It was impossible for me to get to Texas at that time, and on writing him my regrets, I offered a present, an ornamental drinking fountain, but Roy Bean’s quick reply was that it would be quite useless, as the only thing the citizens of Langtry didn’t drink was water.

“Time passed and I came and went and toured, and forgot the circumstances.  Then, on a later trip to California [in mid-1903] by the Southern route, the invitation was repeated by the ‘bigwigs’ of the township who besought me to take advantage of passing through Langtry to bestow half an hour on a reception.  The Southern Pacific was willing, and my company and I awaited the new experience with great excitement, working ourselves up to a high point of interest and anticipation as the train having crossed the Pecos River, sped nearer and nearer to my train.

“The afternoon sun was blazing down on the parched sandy plain with its monotonous clothing of sagebrush and low growing cactus, when the Sunset Express came to a sudden stop.  A casual glance from the window of the LaLee revealed no reason why we should pause there rather than at any other point of the continuous grey desert, but the three wooly heads of my devoted staff made a simultaneous appearance in the doorway of the salon, announcing in an excited chorus, the fact that we were actually at Langtry, but, on account of my car being, as usual, placed at the tail end of the long train, we could see no sign of habitation.

“I hurriedly alighted just as a cloud of sand heralded the approach of a numerous throng of citizens ploughing their way the entire length of the train to give me the glad hand.”

The residents of Langtry happily welcomed Lillie to the town.  Cowboys were dressed in their finest leathers and flamboyant shirts, and the women were adorned in their best blouses, skirts, and bonnets.  After the postmaster shared a quick history of the quaint burg, Lillie was escorted to the Jersey Lilly Saloon.  “Trudging through several stands of sagebrush and prickly cactus, we arrived at our destination,” Lillie later recalled.  

“It was a roughly built wooden two-story house, its entire front being shaded by a piazza, on which a chained monkey gamboled, the latter (installed when the saloon was built) bearing the name of ‘The Lilly’ in my honor.  The interior of the ‘Ritz’ of Langtry consisted of a long narrow room. Which comprised the entire ground floor, from whence a ladder staircase led to a sleeping loft.  One side of the room was given up to a bar, naturally the most important feature of the place – while stoutly made tables and a few benches occupied the vacant space.  The tables showed plainly that they had been severely used, for they were slashed as if with Bowie knives, and on each was a well-thumbed deck of playing cards.  It was here that Roy Bean, justice of the peace, and self-styled ‘law west of the Pecos River,’ used to hold his court and administer justice, which, incidentally, sometimes brought ‘grist to the mill.’  The stories I was told of his ready wit and audacity made me indeed sorry that he had not lived over my visit.”

Lillie left the saloon and followed the townspeople to the schoolhouse.  The school mistress presented her with drawings the children had made, and Lillie graciously accepted them.  Before being whisked off toward the cemetery, she promised to send a supply of suitable books for the students.  Once the brief tour of Langtry was coming to a close, Lillie made her way back to the LaLee.  “On nearing the train,” Lillie remember in her memoir, “which was becoming rather impatient, I saw the strange sight of a huge cinnamon bear careening across the line, dragging a cowboy at the end of a long chain.  The LaLee was decorated with a good many cages for my journey through the South.  I had acquired a jumping frog at Charleston, an alligator in Florida, a number of horned toads, and a delightfully trained prairie dog called Bob.  Hence, I suppose, the correct inference was drawn that I was fond of animals, and the boys resolved to add the late Roy Bean’s pet to my collection.  They hoisted the unwilling animal onto the platform, and tethered him to the rail, but happily, before I had time to rid myself of the unwelcomed addition without seeming discourteous, he broke away, scattered the crowd and caused some of the vaqueros to start shooting wildly at the bear.

“It was a short-lived visit, but an unforgettable one.  As a substitute for the run-away bear, I was presented later with Roy Bean’s revolver, which hangs in a place of honor in my English home and bears the following inscription: ‘Presented by W. H. Dodd of Langtry, Texas, to Miss Lillie Langtry in honor of her visit to our town.  The pistol was formerly the property of Judge Roy Bean.  It aided him in finding some of his famous decisions and keeping order west of the Pecos River.  It also kept order in the Jersey Lilly Saloon.  Kindly accept this as a small token of our regards.’” 

After her visit in Langtry, Lillie and the LaLee pressed on toward California.  She so loved the state that she purchased a four-thousand-acre ranch in Lake County.  Lillie and the friends traveling with her to the West Coast, accompanied her to San Francisco to purchase furniture for her new home.  She recalled the “exhilarating” adventure in her memoirs.  “The tour finished and, with the company disbanded, I felt I had earned my holiday, and set off with a party of friends in my private railway car, LaLee, to follow the stacks of furniture which had already preceded me in charge of my English butler, Beverly.

“We started at day-break [to travel to Lake County from San Francisco] and after several hours rail, arrived at the border of a stupendous lake, with ferry boats crossing and recrossing it in every direction.  Our whole train, with the exception of the engine, was run on board one of the above and we were ferried across, a proceeding which occupied about an hour.  On the other side a little more travel brought us to the railway’s end as far as we were concerned.  My nearest station, called St. Helena, was a mere village, and my country town was Sacramento, which lay in a beautiful valley about four hundred miles to the southeast.  

“The depot was crowded inside and out, the whole countryside being massed to receive me, armed with ubiquitous autograph books and presents of flowers, fruit, and candy and offers of hospitality!  There, also, among the quantity of queer-looking wagon and buggies used in those outlandish parts were two private Wild-West coaches commandeered from my ranch, each with six more or less reliable horses attached, and determined-looking drivers in waiting.  

“After signing autographs and entertaining many relays of Californians to an informal reception and tea on my car, we clambered on to the antediluvian stage-coaches which were to convey myself and party, bar accidents, to the promised land.  The seventeen miles we had to drive led us, by a corkscrew road, up and over one of the highest summits of the group.  The way was rough and narrow and, as the only springs of the two coaches were leather thongs, we felt every stone, but the beauty of the well-wooded gorges, green and cool, with rapid rivers hurrying through them, well repaid us for our thumps and bumps.  Then, as we descended the mountain on the farther side, the panorama opened out and, for the first time, I caught a bird’s eye view of my property.

“The huge plateau appeared a dream of loveliness.  Being early July, vast masses of ripe corn waved golden in the light summer breeze, dotted here and there with enormous evergreen oaks.  It was, without exaggeration, entrancing.  In the distance were the boundary hills of the far side of my land, hazy and blue as the Alps sometimes are.  On the down we drove, each turn of the road making us gasp with the new picture disclosed until, threading our way through my vineyards and peach orchards laden with fruit, which covered a great part of the near hills, we reached home.”  

After five theatrical seasons spent in America, Lillie returned to England to continue her profession.  She returned to the States occasionally between 1909 and 1916.  The LaLee was housed somewhere near Lillie’s ranch.  She was able to use the private car in 1909, but, sadly, the LaLee was destroyed by a fire during Lillie’s temporary absence.  According to her biography, the actress was heartbroken.  “After having been a bliss to me through numerous tours, the LaLee was doomed to a sudden and tragic end,” Lillie later wrote about the loss.

The LaLee proved to be an effective publicity device for Lillie Langtry.  Tens of thousands of words were written about it.  It attracted attention everywhere, proudly advertising the presence of its famous owner.  

*The cost of the car’s construction listed here is inaccurate.

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