LENOX -- There is little doubt Gilded Age actress Lily Langtry left her impression on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Her friends included some of the most famous and influential people of the era.
Born on the Isle of Jersey, a minister's daughter, in later life Langtry knew art crritic John Ruskin and four-time prime minister William Gladstone, she was painted by Sir John Everett Millais, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and American artist James McNeill Whistler. She inspired Irish writer Oscar Wilde, a close friend, to write his ode, "To the New Helen," and his play, "Lady Windermere's Fan."A township in Texas was named after her by the infatuated and infamous Judge Roy Bean.
She was also the semi-official mistress to the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward ("Bertie"), the future king Edward VII, and had many other aristocratic lovers. In her later years, she managed London's Imperial Theatre, and she owned a winery in California.
But who was Lily under her stage makeup and her social climbing -- under her "gilding"?
"Lily was a prominent Gilded Age figure, and her gilding became more and more. She was already a beauty, and she became a more glorified [gilded] figure," said actress/playright Susannah Melone, who will portray Lily in her one-woman play, "Gilding the Lily," at Ventfort Hall. "The play is about Lily under all the social masks.
Melone said she chose Lily for her play after portraying Annie Haggerty Shaw, wife of Civil War Col. Robert Gould Shaw, in the one-woman play, "The Color of War" by Mary Guzzy, at Ventfort Hall. Col. Shaw was the commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
"Annie was a beloved character. She was demure and loved. I thought it would be fun playing someone as completely opposite her as possible," Melone said, adding she had briefly considered Zelda Fitzgerald as the subject of her play.
Melone said as a child she watched a BCC film, "Lily," on PBS and became enchanted with Lantry.
"She was funny and delightful, extravagant and extroverted," Melone said. "She was what I was looking for."
Melone's play is fiction based on historical facts.
"Lily played Rosalind in Shakespeare's ‘As You Like It,' and while the play itself was successful, Lily's portrayal was panned. I thought about success -- why was she not good as Rosalind? She did have success in other roles," Melone said.
Lily faced many, many challenges in her life, both personal and in her acting career, Melone said.
"She came from a modest background, but was very ambitious. She was in a constant state to move upward in society and create a life that satisfied her. She became a celebrity early on," she said. "She had constant money problems. Her husband (Irish landowner Edward Langtry, whom she married in 1874) went bankrupt, and she lived in and out of money when between lovers or in [down periods] of her career.
"She had so many different lovers. Her love life was so unrelated to her marriages. I wonder how difficult it was for her to sustain love and to recognize love, even though she was so beloved as a public figure?"
As Lily went from being a lady of the court to being an actress, "She was careful to cultivate relationships to retain her status and remain a respectable figure if not a notorious figure," Melone said. "I'm not sure how notorious she was outside of the royal court.
"There was less media coverage back then. Her three-year affair with the Prince of Wales was well-known and accepted, even by his wife and by his mother, Queen Victoria.
"Everybody loved her -- Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and actress Sarah Bernhardt. She was the life of the party -- even when she was silent."
Melone said she didn't identify with the real Lily when she first began to research her life, but she does identify with the Lily she has created.
"I admire her. She just kept going," Melone said. "She was undaunted by the ups and downs of her life. That's is true of a lot of actors, and that is true of me. I have the quality to keep going, but my personality is not like hers. She keeps going and does it with delight. She cultivated joy in her life despite her circumstances."
Melone recalled working as a guest artist with One Year Lease in the mountains of northern Greece as Phaedra in a production of Jean Racine's "Phaedra," a role she said was almost as terrifying to her as doing a one-woman show. She remembered waiting to go on stage and feeling frightened.
"It was an outdoor amphitheater, and beyond the stage was a mountain landscape. I stopped and thought ‘I am so lucky to be standing, looking at the mountains in Greece," she said -- and her fear went away.
If you go ...
What: ‘Gilding the Lily'
reading by Susannah Melone
When: Saturday, Feb. 15,
Where: Ventfort Hall,
104 Walker St., Lenox
Admission: $18 advance;
$23 at door
Information: (413) 637-3206