book re­views

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Robert Nott

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.

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