Roy & Lillie: A Love Story by Loren D. Estleman, Forge/Tom Doherty Associates, 270 pages Despite being born and raised in different places and pursuing very different vocations, Judge Roy Bean and Lillie Langtry had an awful lot in common. Both were romantics, seducers, and bluffers in the game of life. But Langtry had a script and never mastered the art of acting, while Bean never had a script and improvised brilliantly.
Loren D. Estleman is best known for his Western and detective novels. Here, he manages to combine the two genres in the context of a lively romance novel involving two people who were infatuated with each other — perhaps because they never met. With Roy &
Lillie, Estleman’s historical fiction work, he imagines what they said to each other via letters, leading the reader to wonder if such an affair of the heart could possibly be pulled off with as much respect, tact, and discretion in the tell-all, computer-crazed world of today. Bean and Langtry lived in a time of letters, long before online technology took the mystery out of romance.
“Most of what follows happened,” Estleman notes in his preface, tipping us off that he is taking some creative license with the tale. His research on the duo seems sound, as he recounts, via chapters that alternate between Bean’s and Langtry’s stories, the history of the quick-thinking judge who was considered the “law west of the Pecos” and the British woman of limited talent who managed to make celebrity a way of life. The letters — initiated by Bean once he became infatuated with images of Langtry — are the least interesting part of this book. Reportedly none of their correspondence survives (in real life, Langtry may never even have responded to Bean’s correspondence), so Estleman wrote the letters himself, and they are pretty banal. Other than that, the writing is active and engaging as the author tells of his protagonists’ individual rises, almost shamming their way to the top as they took advantage of the winds of fate and fortune.
Langtry’s success was a result of chance encounters with the likes of artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler and playwright and bon vivant Oscar Wilde, though an affair with the future King Edward VII didn’t hurt. She toured England, Europe, and America in Shakespearean comedies and a number of 19th-century plays like Mrs.
Deering’s Divorce — designed to showcase her beauty and reputation. She was more renowned for what she was wearing than what she was saying, but she was wise enough to understand that she would never be another Ellen Terry. If Langtry were in Hollywood today, she would probably be a classier version of Megan Fox or Paris Hilton.
Bean was a low-level criminal who may have shot a man or two in his race to riches. He set up shop in Langtry, Texas (named after railroad foreman George Langtry, and not Lillie) in a saloon/courthouse called The Jersey Lily (which
was named after Lillie). There, he was producer, director, and star of his own theatrical show, one that never toured and always made a profit. His cast of characters included an alcoholic bear, a playful monkey, a burro, assorted Texas Rangers, drummers, drifters, and drinkers. As painted by Estleman, Bean is a benign, even buffoonish W.C. Fields type rather than the cold-hearted calculator that Walter Brennan presented in the 1940 film The Westerner. Bean’s American success story is presented by Estleman as a treatise in dark humor. As a fan of Western film and literature, I found the judge’s story much more colorful than that of the actress. By all accounts (including her autobiography,
The Days I Knew), Langtry was intrigued enough to pay a visit to Bean’s saloon to meet him. Unfortunately, the aged judge died shortly before she arrived, of excessive drinking — something he had done pretty much through most of his nearly 80 years.
“Today, the name Lillie Langtry brings vague recognition in most circles (she’s often confused with Lotta Crabtree and Jenny Lind), but leaps to most tongues almost without thought whenever Roy’s comes up,” Estleman writes in his postscript. “It’s a mismatch made in heaven, Beauty
and the Beast and The African Queen, only with a tin-tack piano tinkling in the background.” That piano hums with warmth, humor, and realism in Estleman’s story.