“Lillie Langtry’s Leg”
I was up on the Carretera in Ajijic this morning, walking past Plaza Montaña (near the intersection with Colón), when on a whim I walked into the art supplies store to the right of “Tours.” Just inside on the left, a bleached skull bone rested in a Lucite case.
The little plaque below read, in Mexican English, “Pancho Villa Horse 1887-1910.” I was thrilled, as I often am, when I stumble upon a “relic” of one of my heroes. Although I was removed in time almost one-hundred years, in fact, in space I directly connected, at least for the moment, with the man “hated by thousands, but loved by millions,” Pancho Villa.
Some years ago I visited the Fort Sill Army Post in Oklahoma (the only fort built during the Indian Wars that is still in use, incidentally). There the Apache warrior Geronimo had been held in prisoner in a dark cell so small I could only stretch out diagonally. In the center of that cell, suspended again in a Lucite case, Geronimo’s revolver, knife, and gun belt slowly turned in the brightly lit box. Strange, yes, but again I felt more deeply connected to this man whose autography, recorded at Fort Sills in 1906, had fascinated me (and whose picture, taken in his eighties, bears a striking resemblance to my grandmother).
In the Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul, I found the tiny skeletal “Hand of John the Baptist” beside a bone labeled “Cranial Plate of John the Baptist.” Since the head of John the Baptist, separated from the rest of him as a gift to Herod from Salome was the fascinating piece (even the Holy Grail is sometimes thought to have been the skull of John the Baptist), again I felt moved, although I knew that Christian relics abound in Europe and in Asia Minor and that there are thousands of bones purported to be those of The Baptist and the early Disciples.
Family relics can have a powerful energy as well. I have in my possession a second lieutenant’s sword awarded to my great grandfather, Ambrose Granddaddy King, after the 1863 Union victory at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. Climbing the almost vertical face of that mountain in one of the most difficult battles of the Civil War, my great grandfather was shot in the mouth by rebel bullets. Those soft lead bullets, unlike the deadly high-tech bullets of today, often inflicted only surface or slightly below surface wounds and one was as likely to die of infection as from the damage done by the bullet itself.
My great grandfather reached the top, and immediately two rebel soldiers captured him. He dragged himself along, his face all bloody, blood running down his chest, and at a split-rail fence, overly confident, they leaned their rifles against the rails in order to drag my great grandfather across. He sprang to life, grabbed their rifles, marched them back to the newly formed union lines as prisoners, and that evening he was awarded a battlefield commission and presented with the sword I now have.
At Purdue University, my freshman year, I had the fortune to have as my professor in Honors English, Richard Cordell, a distinguished professor who was teaching one last year before retiring. We became good friends and I would often enjoy evenings with the professor and his wife, Alice. One evening I mentioned I had been reading about and was fascinated by Lillie Langtry.
He told me he had met the famous actress in England. As it happened, Richard Cordell, toward the end of World War I, had become friends with Somerset Maugham (he later even published a biography of Maugham). While on leave to England in 1916, either through Maugham or other theatre contacts, he attended the last stage performance a benefit she gave for war charities of Lillie Langtry.
Lillie Langtry had been well loved, sometimes quite literally, by English and European nobility, including Albert, Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII, and she was loved by the British and American public as well. Judge Roy Bean, in Langtry Texas, fell in love with her picture and named his bar and courthouse The Jersey Lilly Saloon, and she was presented with his revolver after his death. (Paul Newman played the Judge and Ava Gardner played Lillie in the delightful 1972 film, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.)
Following that final performance my friend Richard Cordell was invited to a party in her honor, and Lillie Langtry, charmed by the then handsome young soldier, reached into her purse and handed him a gift. Because it was her last time on the stage she said she would no longer need the good luck charm she had carried with her for decades a woman’s leg, carved from ivory…shapely, sensual, exquisite…slightly smaller than a fountain pen.
As he handed it to me and excused himself to go help his wife prepare some wine and cheese, I had the pleasure of being alone with “Lillie Langtry’s Leg,” savoring those few minutes to fondle it and to rub it softly against my lower lip.