Broadly speaking, the boundaries of Mayfair are drawn by Regent Street, Oxford Street, Park Lane and Piccadilly. Although nightingales no longer sing in Berkeley Square, and Mayfair is not quite so fashionable as it was when a team of zebras pulled Alfred Rothschild's carriage along Piccadilly, it still is charged with an ambience of extravagant luxury for those who know where to look. As a prominent London television news analyst advised us, one must look "up" to see what made London beautiful.
"Look up, and look back," we say. What remains of the Piccadilly and Park Lane grand mansions is now covered by the false fronts of shops at ground level. You must "distance yourself" on the opposite side of the street to glimpse their upper-story grandeur, just as you must look back a hundred years to imagine the glitter of lives lived within their heavy stone walls.
Originally the May Fair was an annual event that took place in an open area between Berkeley Street and Park Lane. In George III's time it was suppressed because it created a public nuisance, the area around Shepherd Market being especially deplorable, Then the aristocrats arrived. First came the town houses of the landed gentry, a few of whom still maintain residences here. Next came the hotels for aristocrats who didn't live in town. Most of the town houses are gone or have been divided into elegant flats, but the hotels remain.
We begin on the north side of Piccadilly Circus. Walk a short distance to tiny Air Street, which cuts through to the front of the Café Royal.
1. Café Royal
68 Regent Street
This distinguished restaurant has been frequented by celebrities since it opened in 1865. Its Domino Room was a regular meeting place for Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, Frank Harris, Walter Sickert and other luminaries of the 1890s, but most especially for Wilde and Whistler during the productive years of their friendship. The two made a striking pair - little, dapper Whistler with his shock of curly black hair interrupted by the celebrated white lock he called his mèche de Silas (often mistaken for a floating feather), his tuft of a mustache, and his monocle in one eye, and tall, portly Wilde, fancied up in a bronze-coloured suit with its back custom tailored to resemble the outline of a cello, and a sunflower smiling from his lapel.
Whistler was impressed with the "N" engraved on the Café Royal's wineglasses, which were supposed to have come from the Tuileries in 1870, but no matter how many were broken, more appeared. He also loved the menu, especially the poulet en casserole, accompanied with a wonderful Coute Mallard wine which he had discovered there. While the wine flowed, he and Wilde would argue ceaselessly about art. Neither one let his mind dwell on politics, theology or science. (Wilde said: "There is hardly a person in the House of Commons worth painting, though many of them would be better for a little whitewashing.")
Both fancied themselves apostles of beauty. Whistler, twenty years older, experienced, and with a wit equal to Wilde's, was irresistible to the new graduate in search of a prophet, while Whistler, for his part, was flattered by homage from the young Wilde, whose name was on everyman's tongue as the most promising poet and man of letters of his generation. Moreover, whose companionship could be more amusing? Or stimulating?
While they agreed over the relative importance of art, they disagreed as to what comprised art. To Whistler there was only one art-painting. Wilde placed literature before all other arts and resented that in England only painters were referred to as "artists," while others were called by the art they practiced-musicians and writers.
There was no homosexual attachment between the two; it was strictly a relationship of the intellect, while it lasted. But inevitably it proved of short duration: two oversized egos in competition. After one of Whistler's brilliant sallies, Wilde said, "I wish that I had said that, Whistler."
"You will, Oscar, you will," Whistler answered. As the friendship cooled, he accused Wilde of poaching his every remark and of preaching doctrines in his lectures which Whistler had expounded for years, an accusation Wilde could never deny. "It is only the unimaginative who ever invents," Wilde said. "The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything." Whistler, on the other hand, was too vain to realize that his own theories of art had been adopted largely from Gautier.
As Wilde began to learn that his nature was incompatible with the bonds of domestic life, his tall, bulky figure, bundled in his famous astrakhan-collared green coat, was seen more often than not lounging and smoking at a corner table in the Café Royal, where he lamented to confidantes, "The only way a woman can possibly reform a man is by boring him so completely that he loses all interest in life." Since he was not about to lose interest in life, the Café Royal became Wilde's escape from boredom.
Another habitué, who often dined with Wilde, was Aubrey Beardsley, labelled as a "decadent" in the context of nineteenth-century artists revolting against the harsh sexual repression of the Victorian Age. An English parallel to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's scenes of Parisian nightlife, Beardsley's daring drawings, designed as covers for the scandalous The Yellow Book, depicted sensual women from history and myth, along with actresses, dancers or prostitutes from the theatres and cafés of London's West End. Among his finest drawings are a study of a group of waiters at the Café Royal, and another titled The Fat Woman, that shows a demimondaine sitting at a café table.
Wilde admired the young Beardsley and went far in promoting his career, even assigning him the commission to illustrate his play Salomé for publication in 1893. The drawings turned out to be more controversial in their sexuality than the play, and the resulting notoriety prompted Whistler and publisher John Lane, in the process of conceiving The Yellow Book as a vehicle for avant-garde literature, to appoint Beardsley its first art director. Perhaps because of Whistler's association with the magazine, a resentful Wilde was not invited to join its coterie of writers, among whom were the American Henry James, Max Beerbohm and Edmund Gosse. Wilde predicted a short life for the quarterly. He was right.
2. The Royal Academy of Arts
Walk back to Piccadilly and proceed a short distance west to the imposing Royal Academy of Arts, formerly Burlington House. Its prestigious annual summer exhibition has focused since the eighteenth century upon contemporary works not yet exhibited. Through the years there have been bitter altercations about the choice of work selected for this show, and also the places where paintings are hung. Whistler finally had a painting accepted by the Royal Academy in 1863, a portrait called At the Piano, which engendered mild recognition, but not enough to counteract the ridicule occasioned by his more abstract canvasses that followed.
Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts.
An invitation to attend the private viewing of the annual exhibition and the Academy soirée that followed was as highly coveted by society as an invitation to show his work was by an artist.
After returning from his first American tour in 1883, Wilde found himself low on funds, so he was pleased to accept a local lecture contract, one that included a talk he titled "The House Beautiful," to be presented at the Royal Academy's art school. Whistler was consumed with jealousy that the Royal Academy should consider Wilde authoritative on art. The lecture was a huge success, nevertheless, and Wilde repeated it on a tour throughout the British Isles.
Private View of the Old Master Exhibition 1888 of the Royal Academy of Arts, painted by H.J. Brooks in 1889. J.E. Millais, Holman Hunt, and John Ruskin are among those pictured, (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London).
It was while on this tour in Dublin that Wilde became engaged to Constance Lloyd. He had met her several years earlier through a friend of his mother's. They were immediately attracted to each other, but his American tour had intervened. In describing his fiancée to friends, Wilde said that "she could draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her."
3. Burlington Arcade
This covered shopping street is as pleasant (and expensive) today as it was in 1819 when built by Lord George Cavendish. Its thirty-eight shops are protected by top-hatted beadles (security men) dedicated to seeing that patrons adhere to rules established in the nineteenth century, which outlaw whistling, hurrying or singing within the confines of the arcade.
4. Rothschild Row
At the time Wilde was enchanting nineteenth-century hostesses with poetry and bon mots, the western end of Piccadilly was commonly known as Rothschild Row. "All that one should know about modern life is where the Duchesses are; anywhere else is quite demoralizing," says Wilde's protagonist in An Ideal Husband. Well, Mayfair is where the duchesses were in his time, so it might be amusing to pause in another of our favourite pubs, the Rose and Crown, around the corner from where Piccadilly meets Park Lane, and ruminate a bit upon the former aristocracy of Rothschild Row.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, this international banking family was so rich and powerful that not only did it dominate Mayfair, it controlled the financial balance of all Europe. The London branch of the family, like the Vienna, Naples and Paris branches, made countless contributions to mankind, subsidized more art dealers than anyone in Europe, and championed more causes.
Sir Nathan Meyer Rothschild was the first Rothschild to settle in London. Like his brothers spread around Europe, Nathan was more interested in making money than in spending it. After a concert in his home at 107 Piccadilly presented by Louis Spohr, he congratulated the well-known composer, then jingled some coins in his pocket. "That's my music," he said.
By 1865 Sir Nathan's "music" had earned him a knighthood. Until 1885 he was a member of Parliament, and later became the first Jew to be admitted to the House of Lords.
But he never forgot the long climb upward. Alighting from a hansom cab one evening, he gave the driver what he felt to be an adequate tip. "Your lordship's son always gives me a good deal more than this," said the driver.
"I daresay he does," responded Nathan, "but then, you see, he has a rich father. I haven't."
Nathan and his wife Hannah had seven children. Most of them or their descendants lived in the grand houses of Rothschild Row. Lionel, Nathan's son and heir, built number 148, adjacent to Wellington's Apsley House, which his son Nattie later inherited. Mayer, Lionel's brother, moved into number 107 after Nathan's death and left it to his only child, Hannah Rothschild Rosebery. Louise, the widow of Lionel's brother Anthony, lived a golden sovereign's toss away at 19 Grosvenor Gate. Alfred, the most extravagant of Lionel's sons, built his ostentatious mansion nearby at One Seamore Place. Leo, his sporting brother who married a relative of the rich Sassoon family, lived barely off Piccadilly at 5 Hamilton Place. And then two Rothschilds from the Austrian branch of the family, who had emigrated to London, Ferdinand and his sister Alice, lived at numbers 143 and 142 Piccadilly, respectively. No wonder it was called Rothschild Row!
Not all of these palatial establishments still stand, but it is worth a pause to imagine the extravagant scenarios that were such an integral part of London's "romantic nineties." Considered the most imposing was 148 Piccadilly, built by Baron Lionel Rothschild, head of the London Bank. Elegantly clad ladies in tiaras and their escorts in swallowtailed coats ascended an imposing marble staircase leading up to a gilt-and-scarlet ballroom on the first floor, where they sipped champagne and looked out into the night from huge windows hung with silk-embroidered river goddesses. A silver table service by Garrard, weighing nearly 650 pounds, enhanced a table set with apple green Sevres china painted by Le Bel. Every chair, a wit remarked, offered gilt-edged security. Queen Victoria refused a request from Gladstone to grant a peerage to Lionel Rothschild because she believed that "one who owed his wealth to loans with foreign governments or successful speculation on the stock exchange" didn't deserve the honour, but society never refused an invitation to Baron Lionel's fêtes. (Victorian maxim: "The best people spend money, but do not earn it.")
Lionel's sons were the third generation of Rothschilds to live in England, but the first to have an education. Natty, the eldest, attended the university with the Prince of Wales while the latter was doing his stint at Trinity College, Cambridge. Through Natty the prince became friendly with all of the Rothschilds, in Paris and elsewhere, and they rewarded the prince's patronage with help for his finances, which were mighty dicey at times. Unlike his mother, the prince found the new breed of millionaire far more amusing than the landed gentry. When the prince became King Edward VII, Natty was the first Rothschild to be made a lord.
Ferdinand Rothschild, from the Austrian branch of the family, became an English citizen and acquired 143 Piccadilly.
An intellectual with fine taste in art, he once gave a ball to honour Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, with the Prince of Wales present. To make his ball especially enchanting, he offered to present gowns to twelve of the most beautiful guests, Lillie Langtry among them. Lillie included a petticoat with hers and later received a bill from the designer. Ferdie had authorized payment for the gown, but not the petticoat to go with it.
Ferdie Rothschild may have been the intellectual giant of his generation, but Alfred had the most fun. He was also the most extravagant Rothschild. (He was so used to the luxury of hothouse-grown strawberries that he once inveighed against March because it was the end of the strawberry season.) On his grounds at One Seamore Place, he kept a pet goat that was permitted to roam Piccadilly at will. Because Lord Lionel, his father, had made it known that a policeman would never go hungry if he called at 148 Piccadilly, which many on night watch did, Rothschild carriages, with their dark blue hoods and the thin yellow stripe around their bodies, were always allowed the right-of-way on local streets-along with Alfred's goat. Drivers' surprise at sidestepping a goat on city streets, however, was nothing compared to their astonishment at the sight of Alfred racing along Piccadilly in his carriage, pulled by a team of striped zebras.
Lady Warwick wrote in her memoirs that she had heard the greatest artists in the world - Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba, Franz Liszt, and jean de Reszke - all perform in Alfred's white drawing room, conducted by Alfred himself with his diamond studded ivory baton. At other times he assembled ponies, dogs and hoops to create his own circus with himself as ringmaster, adorned in a blue frock coat and lavender kid gloves, and cracking a long whip.
He used, also, to hold intimate little gatherings called "adoration" dinners by inviting one particularly alluring lady to dine with him and three or four other gentlemen, and then giving a gift to the lady. Lillie Langtry was so honoured. At the end of the evening, Alfred drew her aside. "What shall I give you, beautiful lady?"
Lillie promptly picked up a lavishly bejewelled Louis XVI snuffbox. "This will do," she replied. Afterward she wrote in her journal that for a moment she had thought he would have a heart attack, but when he got his breath, he promised her something "much prettier," and out came one of his well-known gift boxes.
Of the stories told about Alfred's hospitality, one of the most amusing concerned the time when a guest asked for milk in his tea, and the powdered flunky asked, " Jersey, Hereford or Shorthorn, sir?"
The one fear that haunted old Nathan was that his beautiful daughter Hannah might be tempted to marry outside the faith. As a safeguard, just before dying he added a clause to his will stating that his daughters would be disinherited if they married without the consent of their mother or brothers. When Hannah announced to her recently widowed mother that she was determined to marry tall, attractive Henry Fitzroy, brother of the Earl of Southampton and a prospective member of Parliament, terrible scenes ensued. He was not a Jew. Only her soft-hearted brother Nathaniel finally relented. The rest of the Rothschilds were so incensed that none would attend her quiet wedding at St. George's on Hanover Square, and they never forgave her for abandoning her faith. When her young son died after a fall from his pony, her cousins interpreted it as a "punishment of God."
After World War I the English branch of the family was the hardest hit financially. The inheritance taxes of the three magnificent sons of Lionel, who all died within a two-year period, reduced the firm down to its last millions. Rothschild tradition ignored the females of the family in bequests, allowing their fortunes to pass unchallenged to Rothschild males, which accounts for so many Rothschilds marrying cousins. Alfred, however, defied tradition. When his will was read in 1917, the bulk of his estate, larger than Natty's or Leo's because of his bachelorhood, was left to his natural daughter, Almina Wombwell, wife of the Earl of Carnarvon.
Of the grand houses only 5 Hamilton Place remains, off Piccadilly to the right just before you reach Hyde Park Corner. It is now Les Ambassadeurs Club. Alfred's One Seamore Place was razed to give Curzon Street an outlet to Park Lane, and 148 Piccadilly, once neighbour to Apsley House, was razed to make another entrance into Hyde Park.
5. Apsley House-Residence of the Duke of Wellington
Hyde Park Corner
Apsley House marks Hyde Park Corner, Mayfair's western limit. Now the Wellington Museum, it was built in the 1770s by Robert Adam and extended in 1820 by the Iron Duke who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington lived in it until his death in 1852. It is furnished with the heavy, ornate furniture of his time-more impressive than beautiful. Wilde had about as much admiration for warriors like the Duke of Wellington as he had for heavy furniture. "As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular," he wrote in his Intentions.
Continue north from the Rose and Crown Pub, the only pub on Park Lane. (Tradition warns us that patrons who stay here drinking too long hear a ghostly rattling of chains from its cellars, where prisoners of long ago awaited their turn at the Tyburn gallows.)
Park Lane, once synonymous with high living and sumptuous mansions, is now synonymous with luxury hotels. You can still steal a glimpse of the street's former grandeur, however, from two of the original nineteenth-century houses overlooking the park, numbers 93 and 99, both with delightful front bow windows and wrought-iron balconies.
Site of the Duke of Westminster's Residence
Park Lane (now the grosvenor House Hotel)
Oscar Wilde got off to a good start in London with an introduction to the Duchess of Westminster, the sister of his Oxford acquaintance, Ronald Gower. While walking through the lofty rooms of the Duke of Westminster's house, now the location of the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, he made a magnificent gesture and said to his fellow writer, Le Gallienne, "Ah, Richard! This is how a gentleman should live."
To be in society was, Wilde thought, a bore; but to be out of it was a tragedy. "To get into the best society now-a-days," he was heard to say, "one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people - that is all." As he could not afford to feed them, he amused and shocked them. Very quickly, however, he learned that that was not all that was needed. He discovered the importance of propitiating women like the Duchess of Westminster and Lillie Langtry in order to get on in the world. His amiable nature and delight in flattery, his interest in dress, and the strain of femininity in his boyishness made conversation with women as easy for them as talking to one of their own.
An exciting interlude began at a ball given by Shelagh, Duchess of Westminster, in old Grosvenor House when the honoured guest, the kaiser's son and crown prince, mysteriously disappeared during the party. Embarrassed equerries finally traced him to a bedroom, where he was taking a rest with a certain notorious peeress. The next day the appreciative Imperial Highness sent a magnificent jewel to the lady, not realizing it was one of the German crown jewels and not at his disposal. His furious father, the kaiser, called upon the German ambassador to demand the jewel be returned. The lady said no. Ambassadors on both sides grew grim during this "scandal of the season," but it was finally settled without the press finding out. The kaiser won, but only by offering a substantial substitute.
7. Residence of Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli
93 Park Lane
Benjamin Disraeli resided in this sumptuous corner house with its bays and balconies from after his marriage in 1839 until the death of his wife, Mary Anne Lewis, who owned it. Dizzy, as she called him, had been a political partner of her late husband, Wyndham Lewis, who had helped him get into Parliament. Mary Anne, forty-six years old when they married, admitted to being eight years Dizzy's senior, but was actually twelve years older. Although she realized that Dizzy had married her for the vast fortune she had inherited when her husband had dropped dead of a heart attack, the marriage brought him great contentment. She often said, "Dizzy married me for money, but if he were to marry me today, it would be for love." In her later years she appeared in public grotesquely made up and overdressed, attempting to appear younger, but Dizzy was always the gallant, treating her with respect and genuine affection.
After his wife died, Disraeli purchased a seven-year lease on a residence at 19 Curzon Street from Lord Tankerville, which he paid for with proceeds from his last novel, Endymion. He lived to be seventy-seven, wittily weathering his advancing age with remarks like: "When I meet a man whose name I can't remember, I give myself two minutes; then if it is hopeless, I say, 'And how is the old complaint?"'
8. Site of Edward Sassoon's Residence
Park Lane (now the London Hilton)
Edward Sassoon inherited a Kensington Gore house from his father, but had long concealed a distaste for the baroque establishment, so within a few months of Sir Albert's death, Edward and his wife Aline purchased an imposing mansion near Rothschild Row which overlooked Stanhope Gate, now the location of the Hilton Hotel. Its former owners, the unstable Rand millionaire Barney Barnato and his nervous wife, who had been swung aloft by a crane to cement photographs of themselves under the cornerstone, had relished a series of hideous figures on the roof which, according to the publisher Labouchere, were "creditors turned to stone while awaiting settlement" - the same creditors who were preempted by Barnato's suicide, no doubt. It took Edward and Aline three years to undo Barnato's architectural crimes. They then graced the house with Lalique glass chandeliers and exquisite eighteenth-century furniture. The new baronet imported some rococo panelling from a palace in Venice and toured galleries all over Europe for suitable paintings. Edward left the house to his son Philip, and many exhibitions benefiting hospitals and other charities were held there before it was demolished to make way for the London Hilton.
9. Dudley House
100 Park Lane
It was in this house, with its bow windows and lovely balcony (now enclosed) overlooking the park, that the Prince of Wales celebrated when his horse Persimmon won the Derby in June, 1896. His hostess, with whom he supped alone at midnight following a dinner at the Jockey Club, was Georgiana, Countess of Dudley. Lady Dudley, along with Lillie Langtry, was the lady most frequently referred to in various Victorian memoirs as the "most beautiful woman I ever saw." Crowds gathered on Rotten Row to watch her barouche pass by, in which she sat erect with the indifference of an Oriental, under a brown holland umbrella which she held over her elderly husband, one of the richest men in England. Although he was twenty years her senior and unfaithful to her, she adored him. When Georgiana, the daughter of Scottish Baronet Sir Thomas Moncreiffe, became Lord Dudley's second wife, her mother gave her one sage bit of advice: never comment on a likeness. Georgiana found it a tactful rule to follow while admiring Edwardian babies. Considering the "discreet" morality of the time, one could never be certain of the true identity of the fathers.
When Lord Dudley died at seventy, he left Georgiana a very rich young widow. She entertained lavishly in this house that still stands at the corner of Park Lane and Culross - so lavishly that she once had to sell her double strand of pearls for seventeen thousand pounds, which caused somewhat of a row when her son claimed that they were heirlooms.
10. Marble Arch
At the north end of Park Lane is the Marble Arch where, on the park side, Speaker's Corner is reserved for those with anything to say who wish to say it publicly. The arch once stood in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, but was too narrow to permit carriages through, so it was brought to this spot in 1850, near the place where the public gallows known as Tyburn Tree had once stood.
Turn right on Oxford Street and walk to Park Street, then turn right again down to Upper Grosvenor. Turn left on Upper Grosvenor and follow it to Grosvenor Square.
The Marble Arch entrance to Hyde Park.
11. United States Embassy
The Grosvenor family, who later became the Westminsters, still owns the freehold of most of the properties in the three hundred-acre estate which encompasses Mayfair and Park Lane, including the site of the American Embassy, which dominates Grosvenor Square. Return to Upper Grosvenor and walk west.
12. Residence of Christopher Sykes
34 Upper Grosvenor
Along this attractive street lived several of the Prince of Wales's closest friends, among them the subservient Sykes, often the unfortunate butt of princely jokes. On the circuit of aristocratic country-house parties, Sykes's three-thousand-acre estate at Brantingthorpe frequently hosted the prince and his party. To rate the Royal as a house-party guest was a highly coveted privilege. More than one friend trying to "keep up" with the Rothschilds went into bankruptcy. The hapless Sykes was so unfailingly deferential that the prince often amused himself by pouring brandy over his head, which struck the prince's cortège as hilariously funny, almost as funny as the time the prince deposited a dead seagull in bed with the inebriated Sykes after a royal ball. Eventually the time came when poor Sykes was beggaring himself. To the prince's credit, when he realized his loyal friend's predicament, he arranged for richer friends to put up enough money to keep Sykes out of court.
13. Residence of Lord Suffield
46 Upper Grosvenor
Another close friend of the prince's, but definitely not deferential, this distinctive gentleman lived around the corner from Lillie Langtry, whom he befriended. Because he shared confidences with the prince, he frequently aided their assignations by providing an excuse for the prince to be making calls in the neighbourhood. "it is difficult," he agreed, "to escape the vigilance of our neighbour's eyes."
Return to Park Street and turn left, then turn left again onto Reeves Mews.
14. Site of Lillie Langtry's Residence
Norfolk Square (now Reeves Mews)
This little street that once ran between Park Street and Grosvenor Square was eliminated to make way for modern buildings, but it is likely that Reeves mews were once the mews for Norfolk Street. During her reign as London society's most adored butterfly, Lillie Langtry lived here in a ten-room, red-brick house with stable and mews that was in keeping with similar houses still standing along Park Street.
Even though the Jersey Lily, as she was called, lived the most public of lives, she remains to this day an enigma. At the beginning of her stage career, her devoted friend, Prime Minister Gladstone, said, "My dear, you will receive attacks, personal and critical, just and unjust. Bear them. Never reply and, above all, never rush into print to explain or defend yourself." She never did. And perhaps that is why history has been unable to determine whether this fabulous beauty, this royal mistress, actress, racehorse owner, squanderer of fortunes and collector of lovers was a calculating, cold-hearted creature capitalizing on her beauty; or an independent, prideful woman determined to meet adversity on her own terms and win.
Lillie came to London in 1877 from the British island of Jersey off the coast of France as the young, disenchanted second wife of an alcoholic widower who was supported, reluctantly, by his father, a shipbuilder in Belfast. The Langtrys first rented a modest flat on Eaton Place. They had no London friends until, at the opening of the exhibition park housing the Royal Aquarium and the Summer and Winter Garden, Lillie was recognized by Lord Ranelagh, an acquaintance of her father, the Dean of Jersey. Lord Ranelagh invited her to a garden party, at which she met Lady Sebright, a party giver who liked to mingle artists, bohemian intellectuals and new faces with her aristocrats. Lady Sebright was struck with Lillie's fresh beauty, and the next day an invitation arrived to attend one of her Sunday evenings at 23 Lowndes Square in Belgravia. It changed Lillie's life forever.
This was the night Whistler, John Millais, Frank Miles, and Frederick Leighton, London's most prominent artists, discovered the new beauty in their midst, and all vied for the honour of portraying her for posterity. And it was through the artist Miles that she subsequently met Oscar Wilde, whose poetry recorded his devotion to her for posterity.
Lillie had recently lost her favourite brother and was in mourning. Her simple black gown, enormously flattering, set her apart from the flamboyant costumes worn by other beauties, as did her natural poise and lack of affectation. it was not long before she came to the attention of the Prince of Wales, always on the lookout for a new beauty to conquer. Only this time the beauty conquered him. And where the Prince of Wales led, society followed.
Lillie was the first of the prince's publicly acknowledged mistresses. In those times a royal considered it his seigniorial right to court any lady who interested him, although discretion was observed. Husbands, who benefited from royal patronage in indirect ways, took no offense. Lillie's husband simply sank deeper than ever into his bottle.
Perhaps by means of those "indirect ways" in which cuckolded husbands benefited, Edward Langtry suddenly acquired the means to announce that their elevated social status called for more impressive living quarters. To Lillie's delight, they moved from their flat on Eaton Place to a house in this elite Park Lane neighbourhood. Her friend Jimmy Whistler helped her decorate it with gilt palm-leaf fans to cover the drab walls, and a ceiling on which he painted drifting white clouds and bright yellow birds in full flight.
The prince's dalliance with Lillie lasted a lusty four years until new temptations arose, but his friendship continued for a lifetime. As their romance waned, on her part as well as his, she met his handsome young nephew, Prince Louis of Battenberg (later Mountbatten), an officer in the British navy presently on leave.
It was love at first sight. Only one obstacle prevented fulfilment. Lillie, although by this time separated, was still married to Edward Langtry. Furthermore the Battenberg family would never have accepted marriage to a divorced woman, nor would the navy. Still, Prince Louis was willing to forfeit his career. He begged the Prince of Wales to intervene and persuade Edward Langtry to agree to a divorce. Instead the Prince of Wales had his nephew assigned to a man-of-war destined for a two-year duty at sea.
It was then Lillie discovered she was pregnant. She confided her secret only to friends Oscar Wilde and Lady Cornwallis-West. When the Prince of Wales inadvertently learned of her condition from her doctor, who also treated the royal family, he hastened to offer financial aid. Lillie accepted temporarily, but was determined to find a way to support herself. The Prince of Wales agreed that his cousin, the father, should never learn of the child she bore. (Most, had they known, would have suspected it was his own.)
Meanwhile Edward Langtry had disappeared, leaving enormous debts. Lillie lived in constant dread that he would learn of her pregnancy and attempt to claim the child. To resolve the dilemma, Patsy Cornwallis-West accompanied Lillie to Ruthyn Castle in Wales, Patsy's family holding, to give birth in secret, while Wilde oversaw the auctioning of her furnishings in the London house and announced to the gossipy press that Mrs. Langtry had decided to retire from social life and move to the country.
That might have spelled "the end" for most nineteenth-century ladies, but not for Lillie. After the birth of Jeanne Marie, she took the child and a competent nanny to her mother in Jersey and returned to London to begin a new life, which we shall learn about in our Belgravia walk.
Continue east on Reeves Mews and Adam's Row to Carlos Place.
15. Residence of Oscar Wilde
9 Carlos Place
In 1881 Frank Miles's father, a canon in the church, caused a rift between Wilde and his son, and Wilde was forced to move from the house they then shared in Chelsea. He chose rooms on the third floor of this corner house, remodelled in 1927 and now used for offices. The walls were oak panelled and decorated with old engravings in depressing black frames. Wilde was unhappy without his famous blue vases and other bric-a-brac. Moreover he was discovering the fallacy of his oft-quoted epigram: "Give me the luxuries; the necessities will take care of themselves." Poetry was not lucrative. The necessities were not taking care of themselves.
Then came a bonanza. Patience was playing to record houses in New York. It occurred to entrepreneur D'Oyly Carte that to protect his interest in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, a lucrative sideline might be to introduce to America the famous "aesthete" parodied in the opera. The notion was translated into action, and in November of 1881, Wilde received a welcome contract for a series of lectures in the United States with the understanding that he was to be paraded as a figure in English society, not just as a poet. He had himself costumed by a furrier with a "befrogged and wonderfully be furred green overcoat and Polish cap" and set to work preparing a course of lectures on the modern artistic movements in England.
After returning to London, he continued to live on Carlos Place briefly with his bride while they awaited completion of a new house in Chelsea, purchased with money she brought to the marriage.
Follow Carlos Place south to Mount Street, one of our favourite thoroughfares in Mayfair. En route is the elegant Connaught, the epitome of a late nineteenth-century luxury hotel. Turn west on Mount Street. Street-level shop windows in the gabled Victorian terra-cotta brick houses along here display museum-quality antiques and accoutrements designed to appeal to Mayfair residents. On the south side of the street watch carefully for a small passageway that leads into Mount Street Mansions, a grand development of old Victorian buildings set around a large, quiet park. The benches along its paths are inscribed with the names of donors from all over the world who have enjoyed respite from city noise in this enchanting, unexpected spot. After a rest continue window shopping west along Mount Street to Park Street, and then turn south to South Street.
16. Residence of Catherine Walters (Skittles)
15 South Street
This relatively modest, but attractive, four-story house was the residence of the last of the Victorian courtesans, popularly known as "Skittles." Born in the slums of Liverpool, she emerged into society when her beauty attracted a businessman who established her in London. It was common practice in the 1860s for attractive prostitutes who were also skilled horsewomen to advertise livery stables in Mayfair by riding among the fashionable gentlemen on Rotten Row in Hyde Park. Skittles joined the "pretty horse breakers." Dressed in a skin-tight riding habit with top hat, she looked both well bred and seductive, in spite of her coarse language.
With one quick look young Hartington (popularly known as Harty-Tarty) fell hopelessly in love. The affair ultimately grew so serious that the young Marquis of Hartington was sent away by his parents to America to inspect the Civil War. On his return his family presented Skittles with the South Street house in Mayfair, carriages, servants and an irrevocable two thousand pounds a year for life to encourage her to discourage Hartington from marrying her. Meanwhile Skittles's Sunday afternoon tea parties attracted some of the most eminent politicians and aristocrats in the country, including Gladstone, Kitchener and the Prince of Wales, who called upon her frequently.
After having broken up with Skittles, Hartington took on another mistress, Louise Manchester, who was married to a duke. Their affair lasted thirty years before the duke died. Louise, then free to marry her long time lover Hartington (by that time also a duke), became known as the "Double Duchess." To her credit she outlived Harty-Tarty and continued paying the allotment to Skittles until Skittles died in 1920 at age eighty-one.
During her "active" years Skittles's devastating charms were not confined entirely to Harty-Tarty. After the break-up she took a trip to Paris to find solace with another ardent admirer - Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who was there temporarily on a diplomatic assignment. Although this popular ladies' man fancied himself a poet, his foremost talent lay in the breeding of Arabian horses. As the developer of the Crabbett Arab stud line, he had attracted Lady Anne Milbanke, the horse-loving granddaughter of poet Lord Byron. In deference to her, Skittles again was displaced, but only briefly. After the wedding and birth of one child, Lady Anne's passion for horses became so intense that she reportedly retired at night fully equipped for riding-top boots and all-in order to be ready to mount in the early hours. When ill, she called a vet instead of a doctor. Her other passion was for the violin, which she practiced diligently, never playing anything but scales. When Lady Anne preceded Blunt in death, she neglected to will him her share of the stud line, which initiated scenes with his strong willed daughter worthy of King Lear.
Blunt built a lovely house for his family near Buckingham Palace, but understandably preferred for himself quarters near Skittles in a Victorian establishment on Mount Street, which he maintained to indulge little "indiscretions." One of these was reported by a shy friend of his daughter's, who as a teenager had fallen madly in love with Blunt, then fifty-three. Even in her own old age, she longingly recalled how she had been captivated by his dark eyes, which seemed to speak his thoughts, and how he would appear for their romantic assignations garbed in an Arab cloak and headdress, like some splendid chieftain.
Actually it wasn't only to capture hearts that Blunt affected Arab dress. He was handsome and vain and would dress up at the twist of a turban, even going so far as to have himself buried rolled up in his favourite oriental carpet. It was suspected that he saw himself as a pure-blooded stallion, servicing fortunate mares in his Mount Street stable, like the fine Arab bloodstock he bred.
After his death in 1922, Blunt's diaries revealed delicious gossip that had come his way via rendezvous with his paramours. One particularly juicy item, which Skittles had relayed to him directly from her friend, the Prince of Wales, concerned Queen Victoria and her favourite, John Brown. This John Brown, a handsome but rather uncouth fellow, had eyes much like Victoria's late prince consort, Albert. The queen, who had been passionately in love with her husband, got the idea that somehow Albert's spirit had passed into Brown.
Brown, ignominiously called "the queen's stallion" by her household, was the reason she spent so much time at Balmoral. They used to retire to a little house in the hills where, on the pretence that he was there "to look after the dogs," he had a bedroom next to hers, while the ladies-in-waiting reclined at the other end of the building. That was the gossip. How true it was, no one will ever know.
What is known is that when the Prince of Wales became King Edward VII, one of his first commands was for the destruction of all the statues, busts, cairns and plaques which Queen Victoria had had erected to the memory of her beloved gillie, John Brown, whom her son detested.
During Wilde's trial, with his future threatened by prison, he had occasion to remember Blunt, who had once served a short prison term for his political convictions on Ireland. "Prison had an admirable effect on Blunt as a poet," Wilde observed. "By sending him to gaol, Mr. Balfour converted a clever rhymer into an earnest and deep-thinking poet."
Upon hearing of Wilde's death in Paris, Blunt noted in his diary, "He was without exception the most brilliant talker I have ever come across, the most ready, the most witty, the most audacious. Something of his wit is reflected in his plays, but very little."
Continue east on South Street, crossing South Audley, where on the corner stands a fine old British institution, T. Good Limited Co., specializing in glass objects, vases, pottery and items for home décor. The tall red terra-cotta brick building dates back to 1875 and is a paragon of Victoriana, with cupids, curlicues, niches for vases and countless other gimmicky garnishes along its upper stories. Continue a short distance eastward to the corner of Farm Street and Archibald Mews.
17. The Punch Bowl Farm Street
This pub is frequented more by locals than tourists. The Punch Bowl is a 250-year-old public house that once was a magistrate's court, where sheep stealers who preyed upon Shepherd Market were brought to trial. In the rear room where lunch is served, a tiny square window opens into the bar section. It was through this opening that sentence was passed from the magistrate's chamber to the prisoner, who, if guilty, was hauled off to the gallows at Tyburn. The walls above the dados in this charming pub are enhanced with wallpaper of typical William Morris design.
Leaving Farm Street, follow Chesterfield Hill south, cross Charles Street and continue down to Curzon Street, where you turn right. Beyond Chesterfield Gardens, a cul-de-sac, turn left off Curzon and work your way down to Hertford Street, and then east into the lively maze of Shepherd Market. En route you will pass:
18. Residence of Rachel and Julius Beer
7 Chesterfield Gardens
Beer inherited The Observer and the Sunday Times from his father and further embellished his fortune by marrying Rachel Sassoon. Their elegant house, which still stands, boasts one of Mayfair 's most imposing Adam staircases. Beer was a hopeless hypochondriac. Rachel had to keep the draperies drawn because light dazzled him, but no oculist could find a defect. Her early training as a nurse very likely had prompted his attraction to her. She soothed him by playing Chopin when the sleeping draughts failed and catered to him unceasingly. When he began to show all the signs of incipient folie de grandeur, she closed her eyes to the truth and humoured him cheerfully, even when he insisted upon having the Beer family crest clipped out on his black poodle's back.
Eventually Rachel had to take charge. She became editor of both the Sunday Times and The Observer. The courage she displayed over the controversial Dreyfus Affair and her handling of Esterhazy's confession earned her an honoured place in journalistic history. After her husband's death she secluded herself and never really recovered from her grief.
19. Residence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton
36 Hertford Street
A novelist and good friend of the young Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton lived here with his wife Rosina, who had been a protégé of the writer Caroline Lamb, Bulwer-Lytton's former mistress and also a mistress of the poet Byron. Theirs was a terrible marriage and precipitated a quarrel between Bulwer-Lytton and Disraeli's future wife, Mary Anne, over the mismatched couple's separation.
It was at a Bulwer-Lytton party that Disraeli first met Mary Anne Lewis, then the wife of a rich Welsh coal miner. She told Disraeli that she liked "silent, melancholy men." Noting that she was gifted with unequalled volubility, he answered, "Of that I have no doubt!" never dreaming that he would one day marry her.
Shepherd Market, laid out in the eighteenth century, is now a warren of shops and stalls with obvious remnants of a former "red light" reputation. It is a tourist hangout, with a broad array of pubs, snack bars and souvenir shops, usually crowded at lunchtime. Wend your way back to Curzon Street.
20. Residence of Lord Robert Crewe-Milnes
15 Curzon Street
Now the Saudi Arabian Embassy, this eighteenth-century stucco mansion in a tree-studded setting once belonged to the third Lord Crewe, a tyrant praised in Victorian society for his well-ordered household. Crewe firmly stipulated that no housemaids were to be seen in his establishment at any time of the day, except in chapel. Grates were to be tidied, fires laid and lit, downstairs rooms dusted and polished, cans of hot water delivered for bathing, tea made, chamber pots scalded, clothes put away, doorbells answered, beds turned down at night, hot-water bottles filled, curtains drawn and countless incidental duties performed by little genies after nightfall or before dawn, all for the sum of sixteen pounds a year.
21. Residence of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield
19 Curzon Street
The colourful prime minister and novelist died in this relatively modest house, having at long last proven beyond a doubt his early tenet that "personal distinction is the only passport to the society of the great."
Continue along Curzon to Queen Street, which leads into Charles Street. (Queen Street is where Harriette Wilson lived, the courtesan whose blackmail threats prompted the Duke of Wellington's famous "publish and be damned" statement.)
22. Residence of Archibald Philip Primrose Rosebery
20 Charles Street
The Prince of Wales and his younger brother, the Duke of Edinburgh, once opened themselves up to a cool rebuke by asking the young Lord Rosebery to lend them his Berkeley Square house for gambling parties and rendezvous with actresses. The Prince of Wales got even, though, after he had become King Edward VII. On an occasion when Lord Rosebery, now prime minister, arrived at an evening reception at Buckingham Palace in trousers instead of the formal knee breeches worn at court functions, the king was furious. "I presume," he said in his guttural voice, "that you have come in the suit of the American ambassador."
Lord Rosebery was the second gentile to break the rigid tradition of Rothschild women marrying only in the Jewish faith when he took as his bride Hannah Rothschild, only child of Mayer. Hannah died twelve years later. Lord Rosebery never remarried, but after he had become prime minister, he aspired to marry Princess Victoria. Both were very lonely and could have been happy, except for tyrannical, possessive Queen Alexandra, who refused to let her daughter go. Not until the princess was a sick old lady was she allowed her own apartment in Kensington Palace.
23. I Am the Only Running Footman
This pub, located on a charming Mayfair street, bears the truly unique sign of a liveried footman, whose duty it was to run before an aristocrat's carriage in the days before automobiles and paved streets. His tasks included paying tolls, carrying lights at night, and alerting drivers to road conditions. Dressed in white and carrying staffs, the footmen were picturesque and athletic. Many could cover twenty miles in times not far from record breaking. Their work was necessary, for the bad condition of the roads and their uncertain width frequently made it impossible for carriages to pass each other except at recognized places. Mayfair residents employed a fair number of these men. It was their custom to meet at the inn in Charles Street.
In a few sections of London, we have a hard time finding a pub we like. In Mayfair we have a hard time finding one we don't like. The Running Footman is one we happily return to.
24. Residence of Consul E. Nevill-Rolfe and Lady Dorothy Nevill
45 Berkeley Square
Continue along Charles Street to Berkeley Square, shaded by plane trees dating back to 1789 when this was a wooded glen. At the turn of the century, it was among the most aristocratic squares in London. The statue in the square's centre is by A. Munro, 1867. A number of the old stone-faced mansions have been demolished, but those which remain are still embellished by ironwork across first-floor balconies and lovely lamp holders with torch snuffers at their entrance steps.
Number 45 is where Lady Dorothy Nevill received Gladstone, Disraeli and other celebrities of her day. Her husband, the consul in Naples, saw Wilde when Wilde had taken a villa there for a short time in 1897, after exiling himself from England. The consul wrote to his London neighbour, Lord Rosebery, "Wilde lives a completely secluded life, using the name Mr. Sebastian Nothwell. He looks thoroughly abashed, much like a whipped hound. He has written a volume of poems, but no one in London would publish them and I hear he is printing them at his own expense."
From Berkeley Square follow Bruton Street to New Bond Street and window-shop your way north on one side of the street up to Brook Street, which leads on the east into Hanover Square.
25. St. George's Church
St. George's is considered the West End's most impressive church. It was built from 1713 to 1724 by John James, a follower of Christopher Wren. The composer George Frederick Handel had his own pew here. Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria's favourite, married Mrs. Wyndham Lewis here in 1839. J.W. Cross, a New York banker, and Mary Ann Evans (novelist George Eliot) were wed in 1880, and Theodore Roosevelt and Edith Carow in 1886. Nathan Rothschild's disinherited daughter Hannah was reluctantly delivered here for her unattended wedding to the gentile Henry Fitzroy in 1839, while her grieving mother departed in her carriage without so much as a blessing.
It is a lovely, light church inside, all white with details highlighted in gold. The two cast-iron game dogs poised at the entrance present a mystery. No one knows their origin nor their significance in relation to the church.
Now retrace your steps to Bond Street and walk south toward Piccadilly, window shopping the opposite side of the street. This famous shopping street is as exclusive today as it was at the turn of the century, when tightly corseted ladies surreptitiously purchased Madame Rachel's "Chinese Leaves" for the cheeks and lips, and "Magnetic Rock Dew Water of the Sahara" or "Venus's Toilet." Really two streets, Old Bond and New Bond, they connect, but each has its own confusing number system.
At the cross street of Grafton is the elaborate black, white and gold corner façade of Asprey's, one of London's most luxurious shops for gift items of gold, silver, and leather. Founded in 1781, it was moved to this location in 1887. Asprey's possesses the royal warrant. Wilde made much of the two engraved Asprey cigarette cases he carried at all times.
26. Site of the Aeolian Hall
135-37 New Bond Street
Once the Aeolian Hall, in 1877 this building celebrated the opening of a new gallery by Sir Coutts Lindsay designed not only to present the contemporary art scene more fairly and vivaciously than the jealous Royal Academy, but to constitute a work of art in itself. Accordingly a new Palladian façade was imposed upon its front and Whistler was commissioned to do a frieze on the coved ceiling of the west gallery, depicting in silver against a subdued blue ground the moon in its phases and the accompanying stars. The gallery walls, as Wilde approvingly noted, were "hung with scarlet damask above a dado of dull green-gold." Henry James, observing the strong colours, especially the "savage" red, found them a distracting background for paintings, but Wilde rejoiced in the lavish décor. Today it is still an elegant building, handsomely remodelled and used for offices.
27. Residence of Henry Irving
15A Grafton Street
This great thespian of the nineteenth century occupied rooms on the first and second floors of the building around the corner from, but adjacent to, Asprey's. Engravings on the art of fencing hung over a dark winding staircase leading up to rooms kept in a perpetual state of disorder. Irving lived in twilight, rarely opening the draperies that covered the stained and leaded glass of the windows.
Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry's leading man-both on and off the stage.
As an actor, he never hesitated to rewrite or cut Shakespeare, tailoring the script to his own talents. He initiated the device of lowering auditorium lights to focus attention onto the stage, and he continued to use gas lighting for subtle effects even after electricity was available.
At the beginning of his career, Irving was driving along Hyde Park with his wife when she, resentful of his absorption with the theatre, asked, "Are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?" Irving left her on the spot, moved to Grafton Street and took over management of the Lyceum Theatre. He never spoke to her again, although he supported her.
His enduring romance with Ellen Terry began when she, after a prolonged absence from the theatre, returned to perform in her first role as his leading lady. When the curtain came down, she fled in panic to her home in Earl's Court, a long distance from the theatre, convinced that she had given a poor performance.
Irving suffered a neurotic fear of being outside alone in the dark. Nevertheless he followed the distraught lady, arriving at her home to reassure her until long past midnight. Perhaps he was afraid to return alone in the dark. At any rate they remained a twosome for many years, both onstage and off.
28. Site of Sir George Chetwynd's Residence 23 Cork Street
On the opposite side of Bond Street from Asprey's, walk a few steps along Clifford Street and turn right into Cork Street. This short thoroughfare is devoted today almost entirely to art galleries. Number 23 has been torn down, but was no doubt built in the style of the existing old residences on the even-numbered side of the street.
Chetwynd, a future senior steward of the jockey Club, gave Lillie Langtry sage advice on how to keep accounts when she was heavily involved in building her stable of racehorses, as well as on how to appraise at the Monday bloodstock sales at Tattersall's. Even though married with three children, he found her irresistible, which almost led to his social undoing.
One sunny afternoon he discovered to his chagrin that Lillie had favoured Lord Hugh Lonsdale as her riding companion over himself. Lividly jealous, Chetwynd promptly stationed himself at the rails alongside Rotten Row to await them. When the riders spotted him, they reined in their horses.
"Stay away from my Lillie," Chetwynd yelled at Lord Lonsdale, whereupon the sporting earl jumped down from his horse and in the tanbark of the Row, the battle began. Chetwynd went down first. His top hat rolled in the dust while the horses shied away in fright, but seconds later he was on his feet exchanging punches, until two gentlemen spectators pulled them apart and packed them off to their homes in closed carriages. The newspapers had a field day with that!
After perusing the Cork Street art galleries, return to Bond Street. Continue the short distance to Piccadilly, from where buses may be boarded to most locations in London.