Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The It Girls

Karen Harper



  Title Page


  Part I: The Island 1879–1885 Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Part II: London 1886–1907 Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Part III: New York City 1907–1912 Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Part IV: Paris and Beyond 1912–1919 Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Part V: Hollywood and Home 1920–1926 Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  P.S. Insights, Interviews & More . . .* About the Author

  About the Book



  Also by Karen Harper



  About the Publisher


  The Isle of Jersey

  April 1875

  If we are caught, we’ll be in beastly trouble for this,” Nellie said, tugging at her sister’s sleeve as they opened the door to the ladies’ cloakroom of Government House and darted inside.

  “Not if we don’t get caught. Don’t be in such a fret,” Lucy scolded in a whisper. “She will surely come in here before the reception, and we’ll catch a glimpse of her.”

  “Mother will be furious, and since the lieutenant governor and Mrs. Norcott are hosts for this party, then—”

  “They won’t even know. Oh look! Ada was right. We can crawl under the skirt of that ruffled dressing table and cut little peekholes in it to see out.”

  “Peepholes,” Nellie corrected.

  “Never you mind. I brought my best sewing scissors,” Lucy declared, brandishing them like a sword.

  At age ten, Nellie was hardly as bold as her sister, who was sixteen months older and the family tomboy to Nellie’s wallflower. But they’d agreed it was worth a risk to catch a glimpse of Lillie Langtry, the toast of London and a native of this small island snagged between France and England. Nellie had been writing reams about Lillie in her own Complete and True Diary of Miss Elinor Sutherland. Snagged, a lovely word, she reminded herself again. Indeed, they were snagged here with a terrible stepfather who was so mean to their lovely mother. Why, it was like some fairy tale with an ogre after their father—the true prince—had died.

  “All right,” Nellie agreed. “I’ll crawl under, though you know I abhor closed places. At least it won’t be pitch-dark under there.” Four years ago, the sisters and their mother had sailed from Canada, on a trip so harrowing Nellie had never gotten over it.

  After all, Nellie thought, trying to buck herself up, anything to see the so-called Jersey Lily who was so beautiful that she’d been painted by artists and invited to dinners by important people in London. Simply everyone in little Jersey had crowded the streets the day Lillie wed the widower Mr. Langtry last year. The streets had been awash with flowers and crowds. But they had heard she’d wed him just to escape on his yacht. Lucy had repeated ad nauseam that she’d heard Lillie was so clever that even at London events she wore simple black gowns with no jewelry to accent her stunning face and form.

  Nellie sighed and watched as Lucy cut two peepholes in the white muslin and pink glazed calico folds of the dressing table skirt. The top of the table boasted little cut-glass bottles, combs, brushes, and a silver-backed hand mirror.

  “I can’t wait to see what she wears,” Lucy was saying. “I’ll sketch every stitch of her gown.”

  “And I’ll record everything about it, everything. I just hope Ada doesn’t catch it for tipping us off when she arrives.”

  Ada Norcott was the daughter of the channel island’s lieutenant governor, a representative of Queen Victoria, no less. Ada was often allowed to play with the Sutherland sisters. They lived in a rented, furnished house just outside the capital, St. Helier, so Ada often invited them to stay with her in town. That had been the case today, though the girls were not to attend the reception and dinner, only gaze out windows at arriving carriages, and that wasn’t good enough.

  “All right, get under straightaway,” Lucy ordered.

  “But Ada hasn’t given us the high sign yet.”

  “Good gracious, do you want to be in a scramble when she does? This isn’t a story in one of those books you bury yourself in where people escape through magic doors and such nonsense. If we are scolded for this, Mother will have the vapors, and our I-am-ill-help-me-right-now Mr. Kennedy will be meaner than ever.”

  Nellie gathered her skirts and crawled in the small space, followed by Lucy. They hunched together, straining to listen for Ada’s telltale knock on the door that would mean Mrs. Lillie Le Breton Langtry had arrived and was coming upstairs to leave her wrap.

  Not only had their idol Lillie escaped the little English Channel island of Jersey but she’d escaped a father who, despite his religious position as dean of Jersey, had a racy reputation. Gossip said that the senior clergyman of the island diocese had taken numerous paramours. Why, ’twas said poor Lillie had at first fallen for a handsome young man she did not know was her half brother, and the dean had been forced to tell her to keep her from incest. Oh my, sin and scandal here on “just” Jersey, supposedly only the haunt of rural folk, day-trippers, and cows!

  Both girls jolted when Ada’s triple knock resounded on the door. Lucy pulled the dressing table skirt tighter and peered out the larger slit she’d made for herself. Nellie looked out too, holding her breath in their dusty little tent.

  And in swept Lillie Langtry. Oh crumbs, Lucy thought. Ada’s mother was with her, when they’d hoped she’d come in alone. Even inside here, Lucy inhaled in a sniff of powder and perfume as she gaped at Lillie’s white satin corded gown with a tight bodice and puffed bustle and the flaming scarlet flowers that perched behind each ear.

  Nellie noted with a sigh Lillie’s upswept, golden-brown hair so fashionably curled and fringed. She rued her own red hair, which was considered too loud and too Mediterranean, whereas Lucy’s was light brown and Ada’s was absolutely flaxen. And, oh, Lillie Langtry already had a glass of what looked to be champagne in her hand, but it might as well have been ambrosia of the Greek gods.

  The sisters stared as Lillie put her glass on the table above their heads and proceeded to primp, though they couldn’t see the top half of her now. Her petticoats pushed toward them, and they both leaned back, losing their peepholes. Then Nellie sneezed.

  “Oh!” Lillie cried and stepped away from the dressing table.

  “Whoever was that?” Ada’s mother demanded.

  Lillie lifted the muslin skirt that hid them and peered closer. “Dear me, whatever are you two doing here?”

  Feeling ever so childish when she considered herself, at twelve nearly of age, nearly a young lady, Lucy crawled out and stood. Nellie, though she admitted she was scared of horses and the dark and a few other things, followed her older sister’s move.

  “Why, it’s the Sutherlan
d girls!” Mrs. Norcott cried. “What pluck! Mrs. Langtry, these are friends of my daughter Ada’s, but there is surely no excuse for such improper, cheeky behavior.”

  “Well,” Lillie said in her melodious voice Lucy vowed right then to imitate forever, “their excuse is they wanted to say hello and knew they wouldn’t have an opportunity later, yes?”

  “Yes, that’s it,” Lucy declared, grateful for the assistance.

  Nellie felt tongue-tied but bobbed a slight curtsy. After all, the islanders were treating this woman as if she were a princess, and such romantic stories were the solid stuff of Nellie’s fanciful and far-flung imaginings.

  “Indeed, I am delighted to make the acquaintance of such enterprising and bold young ladies,” Lillie said, extending a gloved hand to each of them. “And I know Mrs. Norcott will be certain you do not get a telling off.”

  Ignoring the older woman’s continued sputtering—about Ada being something called complicit—Lillie squeezed their hands and then released them. She leaned closer to lift her crystal champagne glass and raised it toward her Cupid-bow lips in a graceful motion.

  “I salute the Sutherland sisters,” she said, as if she were leading the grandest toast at a castle instead of old Government House in just Jersey. “Success to you both, which I have no doubt will come to you for your aplomb and determination. It is as important as a woman’s wiles and smiles.”

  Lucy didn’t know what aplomb or wiles meant, but Nellie no doubt did. Lucy broke into a smile, and Nellie blinked back tears of gratitude and adoration.

  Lucy dared to put in, “Our real names are Lucile and Elinor.”

  “Ah, far grander. Dare I hope you two will fly away from quiet, old Jersey someday too? Here’s to wonderful people and their endeavors.”

  She drained her drink. “I vow you are girls after my own heart—and remember to guard your hearts, Lucile and Elinor Sutherland. Ta, ta, then,” she said and, with a wave and a swish of skirts, headed for the door.

  Mrs. Norcott hastened to hold it open and out sailed Lillie into the hall, followed by the older woman and a brisk slam of the door.

  “Oh my, what a gown and what an exit,” Lucy said with a sigh.

  “An exit for her, but a new beginning for me,” Nellie declared. “I shall write about her and be just like her.”

  “Nonsense. We will be just like Lucile and Elinor Sutherland and make our own way in the world.”

  “Only not marry for a yacht and an escape, like she did. I intend to find romance.”

  “I don’t give a straw for that, just that I get on famously, and not on Jersey. Onward and upward as Grandmama used to say. Now let’s get going.”


  The Island



  My dearest girls, you are fretting Mr. Kennedy too much,” their mother told them, even shaking her finger at them this time over their bothering their stepfather.

  She was still a lovely woman, which, Lucy thought, was probably what got them in this pickle. One must know what to spend one’s face and future for, she thought, and this marriage bargain their mother had made to get them away from rural Canada and back to Europe was not worth it. She had promised their beloved father on his deathbed she would return here but at what price?

  The three “Sutherland girls,” as they still sometimes called themselves out of David Kennedy’s earshot, were huddled in the parlor of their rented house called Richelieu. “However mild we find the climate here, your stepfather has his difficult days,” Mother went on, wringing her hands.

  “As do we—and you, Mother,” Lucy insisted, “with all his bitterness and scolding.”

  “We mustn’t judge someone who is ill, my dears. As the Bible says, we must look out not only for our own interests but also for the interests of others.”

  “He doesn’t look out for yours,” Lucy said, hands on her hips. At nearly age sixteen now, she had stepped forward more than once to defend her mother to the curmudgeon. “Good gracious, he runs you ragged.”

  “Lucy,” Elinor put in, “best we leave it alone.”

  “A fine thing for you to say,” Lucy went on with a frown at her younger sister. “You often hide out in this very room if we’re not with Ada—alone with these portraits of beautiful women who just stare down from their frames and don’t make a peep, when Mother’s always at his beck and call.”

  “Lucile!” Mother said. “You dare not scold your sister for making what escape she can. You love these paintings too, or at least the gowns in them, as much as Nellie loves making up their stories. Now I must get back upstairs for he needs his hot posset. Oh, how different Jersey is from those days your father and I lived here, our—our first wonderful, romantic days together.” Her eyelashes clumped with tears. “I’ve told you both so much about him, so please never forget him and his fine family ties as I shan’t so that—”

  Her voice caught on a sob. She squeezed both their shoulders and hurried from the room as the thuds of her second husband’s cane sounded on the ceiling overhead.

  Lucy said, “She loved Father so much she’ll never love anyone else. She married him,” she added with a slanted look at the ceiling, “to get us out of that farm in wilderness Canada, to give us a chance in England. And here we are in just Jersey after a stay in Mr. Kennedy’s family’s gloomy castle, which I hated, hated, hated. Especially the horrid governesses, especially that one that locked us up so she could have illicit trysts with the valet!”

  “Just Jersey is far better than that. At least before we ran off the last governess here, we improved our French, oui? I long to see France—well, someday.”

  “At least we can get out of this house, right now, together,” Lucy said. “Your mere mention of our Ontario days makes me feel doubly trapped here.”

  “We can’t just leave.”

  “Write Mother a note that we went for a walk to see Ada or to look in shop windows in town.”

  “But did we?”

  “Good gracious, Nellie, you adore reading fiction, so make it up! We’ll walk out the causeway to old Elizabeth Castle. As grim and weathered as the old stone pile is, you’ve said it’s so romantic with its stone towers, and it was named for ‘the Virgin Queen.’ I’m sure it’s low tide.”

  “But we’ll have to listen for the warning bell when to leave. I don’t care if we learned how to swim years ago, you know you can get caught there when the tide rises.”

  “Ah, when the tide rises,” Lucy said, slapping a piece of paper and pen on the table next to Nellie, then fetching the inkwell. “Sounds like the title of a book you could use when you become a famous writer someday.”

  “Don’t tease. I shall keep my diary but find someone wonderful to wed,” Nellie insisted as she bent over the paper. “And you will draw and sew pretty dresses like the ones in these Lely and Reynolds portraits, oui?”

  “Sacre bleu! When the cows come home!”

  “Which, of course, they do in Jersey all the time.”

  Lucy almost laughed at that. “The cows may come home, but I won’t be here. I’m going to follow the Jersey Lily to London.”

  “Can you believe it? She’s won the favor of the Prince of Wales. I overheard that she’s his mistress—his lover. I didn’t tell you anything about that, because it is just too risqué, but I overheard Mrs. Norcott telling mother something Lillie said to the prince in public. In public!”

  “Tell me now. Tell me!” Lucy demanded, putting her elbows on the table and her face close to Nellie’s.

  In a quiet voice, though there was no one else to hear, blushing to the roots of her red hair, Nellie said, “He told her—as a joke, I guess—that he had spent enough on her to build a battleship.”

  “Oh my. I can just imagine the wardrobe he’s paying for and the jewels. No more plain black gowns. But she wasn’t cowed one bit by that, I’ll wager. So she said?” Lucy prompted.

  “She told him right back, ‘And you’ve spent enough in me to float one

  Lucy gasped and clapped both hands over her mouth. She bounced back from the table, eyes wide. She was shocked at that, but also at the fact that Nellie must know what that meant. “And did she get scolded, snubbed, or shunned?”

  “Our Lillie? I take it whoever overheard laughed, and it’s spread like wildfire—obviously, even to Jersey! Can you believe it?” Nellie repeated.

  Lucy heaved a huge sigh. “It doesn’t matter a whit if I believe it. She believes in herself, and so the world’s her oyster.”

  “I knew you would be shocked. And to think, she believed in us. There,” Nellie said, signing both their names with a flourish. “I told Mother we won’t be late. Since I’m named after her, I should sign as Elinor the second. One of my goals in life is to be presented at court someday. You just wait and see. I adore hearing and reading about royalty.”

  “And I adore getting clear of this house. Just Jersey, here we come.”

  They walked quickly toward the harbor through St. Helier’s quaint, narrow streets and cheek-by-jowl shops with French names over their doors. Others were abroad, both the British islanders, mostly retired officers and small pensioners drawn by the low income-tax haven of the Crown dependency. But there were the descendants of the Norman-French, too, who had been here for centuries and spoke a half-French dialect none of the British bothered to learn.

  The native Jerseyites made their livelihoods by cider production and selling crafts like walking sticks fashioned from tall cabbage stalks. The women knitted stockings and the famous dark blue sweaters called jerseys worn by island fishermen. Besides tending their brown Jersey cows for their rich milk, farmers enriched their small gardens with seaweed compost and, of course, cow manure. Out in the green countryside, gardens could smell to high heaven, but the patches of golden gorse had a sweet scent that sometimes drowned that out.

  Potatoes were the prime crop here, especially small ones called chats, which the islanders boiled or fried. Vive la pomme de terre! sometimes seemed to be the island motto in this forty-five square miles that used to be the home for seafarers and smugglers of fancy French goods. After all, France was still but a two-hour steamer trip away.