Montez, Lola (1818–1861)
Montez, Lola (1818–1861)
Irish-born dancer, actress, courtesan and adventurer whose exploits and independent conduct made her a legendary figure of the mid-19th century. Name variations: Maria-Dolores Porris y Montes; Marie do Landsfeld Heald; Lolla Montes; Mrs. Eliza Gilbert; Countess of Landsfeld. Pronunciation: LO-la MONtez. Born Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818; died on January 17, 1861, in New York City; daughter of Edward Gilbert (an Irish officer in the British army), and a mother, name unknown, who was the illegitimate daughter of Irish nobleman Charles Oliver; received education typical of a military officer's daughter, including a year in a finishing school in Bath; married Thomas James, on July 23, 1837 (divorced 1842); married George Trafford Heald, in 1849 (died 1851); married Patrick Purdy Hull, on July 2, 1853 (separated soon thereafter); no children.
Taken to India as an infant (1819); sent to Scotland for her education after her father's death and her mother's remarriage (1826); moved to Bath (1830); moved to India with first husband (1837); returned to England and obtained a divorce (1842); made stage debut in London (1843); traveled to Dresden (1843); had affair with Franz Liszt (1843–45); was mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1846–48); immigrated to America and made New York stage debut (1851); toured eastern U.S. (1852–53); following San Francisco debut, performed in California mining camps (summer 1853); following third marriage, took up residence in Grass Valley, California (1853–55); made Australian stage tour (summer-autumn, 1855); traveled from New York to Europe and back (1856–57); began career as a lecturer (1858); made lecture tour of Ireland and England (1858–59); returned to New York (late 1859); felled by a stroke (1860).
In an era when it was almost impossible for a woman to survive economically without the protection of a husband, and when society usually ostracized a woman who chose to live on her own terms, Lola Montez led an extraordinary life. A beautiful woman with a deliberately larger-than-life personality, a dancer, actress, inveterate traveler, mistress of a king and paramour of many, she has been called "an astounding adventuress," "the Queen of Hearts," "The Wandering Bacchante," "the Darling of the Nation," and "the Woman without a Country." Eleanor Perenyi , a biographer of Montez's lover Franz Liszt, called her a "flaming whore"; Alexandre Dumas père, with whom she had a brief affair, said, "She has the evil eye. She will bring bad luck to every man who links his destiny with hers," yet remained her friend.
Throughout her life, she did everything in her power to sow confusion about the truth of her background and early days, claiming on occasion that she had been born in Spain, and at others that she was half Spanish through her mother. In fact, she was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818 (a date she early changed to 1824). She was the daughter of Ensign Edward Gilbert, a young British army officer of good Irish family, and a woman (name unknown) who claimed to be of the Oliverres de Montalvo family of Madrid but was actually the illegitimate daughter of Charles Oliver, of Castle Oliver, and a peasant who lived on his estate near Cloghnafoy, County Limerick. The Oliver family had been settled in Limerick since 1645 and was indeed Irish, despite Lola's claims to the contrary and distinctly Latin (or black Irish) appearance. She readily admitted that she was born only two months after the marriage of her parents, both of whom were forthwith disowned by theirs.
I have known all that the world has to give—all!
As an infant, Lola was taken by her parents to India, where her father died of cholera at Dinapor. Her mother married his best friend, Lt. Patrick Craigie of the 38th Native Infantry quartered at Dacca, who was promoted to the rank of major when Lola was six. She was then sent to Montrose, Scotland, so that her step-grandfather could oversee her education. Unhappy there, she was sent to Bath, to the home of a family friend, Sir Jasper Michaels, commander in chief of the Bengal Forces. When Michaels sent his family to Paris to allow his daughter to study there, Lola accompanied them, and then spent a year attending a finishing school in Bath. Upon her mother's return to England, she and Lola quarrelled, and Lola eloped to Ireland with the first of her three husbands, a Captain Thomas James, who was 16 years her senior. After their marriage on July 23, 1837, the couple traveled to India, where Lola soon lost interest in her spouse. She returned to England in 1842 and divorced James. She also took a few dancing lessons, with the intent of embarking on a career as a Spanish dancer.
When she made her London debut on June 3, 1843, at Her Majesty's Theater in the Haymarket, the former Mrs. James was billed as "Donna Lola Montez of the Teatro Real in Seville." Among those in attendance was the dowager queen of England, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen . Montez performed a dance called "El Oleano," which would remain in her repertoire throughout her career on stage, and though her talent was limited and her studies superficial, there was her extraordinary beauty as compensation. The evening was a popular if not a critical success, and launched Lola Montez on a brief but blazing stint as a dancer in Belgium, France, the German states, Poland, and Russia.
Everywhere she appeared she captivated men, and among her many torrid (if brief) liaisons were affairs with Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, Dumas père, and Liszt. Although she stayed with the senior Dumas at Monte-Cristo, his famous villa at Saint-Germain-en-Laye out-side Paris, she did not, as is often claimed, become his mistress; a brief, extant letter she wrote to him, dated April 14, 1847, is couched not in romantic terms but in those of one old friend to another. A rare example of Montez as the lover and not the beloved was her romance with Liszt, a notorious philanderer with a devastating impact on women who may well have been the first celebrity in the modern sense of the term. They met first in 1842, when influential friends secured her an engagement at the Royal Theater in Dresden. She promptly fell in love, and in 1844 accompanied him on a journey to Constantinople (now Istanbul). However, by 1845, when she followed him to Bonn for the unveiling of a monument to Beethoven and claimed that he had invited her, Liszt avoided her. The fact that she was refused admittance to the town's leading hotel, the Gasthaus zum Stern, shows the level to which her reputation had sunk. That evening, Montez beguiled an elderly citizen into escorting her to the all-male banquet, where she jumped onto a table to perform a "Spanish" dance. Far from winning Liszt back to her, the incident caused such a furor that he and several other guests were forced to leave.
In 1846, after an unsuccessful appearance at the Paris Opera, Lola Montez arrived in Munich, the capital of Bavaria. Then 27 and at the height of her beauty and charm, she succeeded in captivating the heart of the art-loving King Ludwig I (not to be confused with his grandson, the notorious "Mad King Ludwig"), and soon became his mistress. Already 60 when the affair began, Ludwig was a scholar and a patron of the arts as well as the leader of the anti-French element in the German states. Although in the early years of his reign he had favored constitutional government and administrative reforms, and had supported the Greek struggle for independence against the Turks, as the years passed and the liberal movement in Europe grew he had become increasingly more conservative. Montez rejuvenated the king, who called her "the lovely Andalusian" and "the Woman of Spain." The German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, who saw her at this time, described her as "shameless and impudent," but able "to converse with charm among friends, manage nettlesome horses, sing in a thrilling fashion and recite amorous poems in Spanish." Ludwig wrote her poetry, gave her the title of Graferin von Landsfeld (Countess of Landsfeld), and built her the lovely Italian-style Bijou Palace on Karolinen Platz in Munich. He also gave her a handsome income of 20,000 florins a year and commissioned Joseph Stieler to paint her portrait, which was then hung in a position of honor among his famed collection of old masters at the Residenz Palace. Montez had extraordinarily good—and expensive—taste, which it was Ludwig's joy to indulge, and she filled her palace with tapestries, crystal, Dresden china and other porcelains, finely bound books and sundry objets d'art. Her gardens were beautiful and her stables were filled with the finest horses and carriages.
For a while, Montez enjoyed remarkable power behind the throne. King Ludwig had in 1837 placed Karl Abel, a dedicated ultramontane (supporter of the absolute supremacy of the pope), in charge of his government, with the result that the country came under the domination of Catholic clergy. Montez, on the other hand, had become acquainted with the strongly anti-ultramontanist ideas of French priest Felicité Robert de Lamennais during her association with Liszt, and apparently decided to put them into practice. Hostile to the Jesuits and now considering Bavaria her adopted homeland, she tried to influence Ludwig in favor of liberalism and even secured Abel's dismissal. But her power proved short-lived, for the extravagance Ludwig lavished on her made them both unpopular, and this, combined with discontent over taxes and policies, led to the revolution of 1848. Ludwig was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Maximilian, and Montez hurriedly left the country.
After returning to London she married a guardsman, George Trafford Heald, in 1849, but the relationship was soon ended by his untimely death. In late 1851, at age 33, she immigrated to America, where she made her New York debut at the Broadway Theater on December 27. She then made a tour of eastern cities in a play based on her German adventures, Lola Montez in Bavaria (which was written not by her, as she claimed, but by Charles Ware). In Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and finally New Orleans, the performances were enlivened by her rendition of the "Spider Dance," a version of the Italian tarantella
which was supposedly inspired by the movements of a girl attempting to ward off an attacking tarantula. Montez's interpretation of this dance was described as a combination of polka, waltz, mazurka, and jig, but it was most notable for the twitching and swirling of her skirts, which provided audiences with a glimpse of feminine charms usually hidden from public view in the mid-19th century.
From New Orleans, Montez embarked in the spring of 1853 for California, with an entourage that included her manager, musician, maid and secretary. The journey involved sailing to Panama and then traveling by coach to the Pacific, where they caught a ship called The Northerner and sailed up the coast. In May, Montez made her California debut at the American Theater in San Francisco, a city then only recently acquired from Mexico and booming with wealth from the mining camps of the California gold rush. Although newspapers opined that both her play and her acting were boring, and the engagement lasted less than three weeks, the raw, crowded town of new arrivals warmed to her. Soon afterward, she made a benefit appearance as Charlotte Corday in a production of The Reign of Terror. This too garned poor notices, and thereafter Montez confined her appearances to dancing in mining camps, where the audiences are said to have rewarded her renditions of the Spider Dance, El Oleano and the Sailors' Hornpipe (a big favorite) by tossing nuggets of gold at her.
On July 2, 1853, Montez married again, to Patrick Purdy Hall, at the Catholic Chapel on Mission Road. (The officiating priest was apparently unaware of her prior marriage to George Heald, although she had been signing the name "Marie de Landsfeld Heald" in San Francisco.) The newlyweds honeymooned in Sacramento before settling down in the small town of Grass Valley—a long way in every respect from London, Paris and Munich. Lola Montez's sojourn in Grass Valley has become the stuff of early California state history, legend and lore. After her third marriage proved to be of short duration, she bought the Meredith Cottage, the only home she ever owned, and occupied herself with hunting, fishing, riding, and gardening. As pets, she kept dogs, a goat, and a grizzly bear. She also entertained the local men, whose wives, for the obvious reasons of her occupation and reputation, would not go near her. It seems clear, however, that at that time Montez, who rejoiced in the company of men, did not particularly care for other women—or for what they thought of her.
Restless again, on June 6, 1855, Montez embarked aboard the Jane A. Falkenburg for a theatrical tour of Australia, accompanied on the ten-week sail by a mediocre company hired at her own cost. She made her debut at the Royal Victoria Theater in Sydney on August 23rd in Lola Montez in Bavaria. The troupe then wandered on to Melbourne and Geelong, performing in Maidens Beware and The Eton Boy, and to the mining town of Ballarat, where Montez offered a mixed bill that included a comedy, a farce, a domestic drama, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Her manager died on board ship while they were returning to America, an event which apparently shook her. Back in San Francisco, she found herself both short of funds and in poor health. It was about this time that she began to take an interest in spiritualism.
Montez announced her retirement from the stage during a two-week engagement at the American Theater, despite reviews that were markedly better than she had received at her debut there. On September 8, 1856, she auctioned off her jewelry, which consisted of 89 items made mostly of diamonds and gold. Deciding that she had had enough of California, she gave a one-week performance in Sacramento, sold her cottage in Grass Valley, and, after a final week of appearances at San Francisco's Metropolitan Theater, sailed for New York aboard the Pacific Mail steamer Orizabo on November 20, 1856. When a cholera epidemic broke out on board, Montez did her share of caring for the sick. After her arrival in New York, she became seriously involved in spiritualism, which was then enjoying a great vogue in the United States. Claiming that "her voices" had told her to do so, she briefly abandoned the stage, and traveled to France the following spring.
In 1857 Montez left Europe, crossing the Atlantic for the third time, and appeared in New York once again in Lola Montez in Bavaria. The play was by then somewhat of a relic, and when it met with little success she switched to a double bill of The Eton Boy and Follies of a Night. She then took her act to Boston, where the public response was even worse. Probably realizing that she was slipping, she began holding public receptions where one could meet her for $1.00 and shake hands with her for $1.50. Lola Montez was reduced to a caricature of herself.
By the following year she had settled in New York City, where, at age 40, she transformed herself again. On February 3, 1858, in Hope Chapel, New York, she made her first public appearance as a lecturer, speaking on such topics as Beautiful Women, Gallantry, Heroines of History, Comic Aspects of Love, Wits and Women of Paris, Romanism (an attack on the Catholic Church which was much esteemed by Protestant audiences in that era of open religious prejudice), and her own life and adventures. Her awe-struck audiences were titillated by the opportunity to see a loose woman in the flesh and hear what she might say. In fact, what she said were the words of C. Chauncy Burr, who ghostwrote all her lectures, but as these could last as long as three hours the customers certainly got their money's worth. Though often ridiculed in the press, the lectures drew larger audiences than had her plays.
In these years, having lost the beauty—and the power—of her youth, Montez also turned to social reform, and in time even undertook rescue work with "fallen" women. She published her (ghostwritten) memoirs, a series of innocuous, untrustworthy, and quite unscandalous recollections most likely intended to garner income and publicity. (That this was successful is attested to by the fact that they were later serialized in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro.) She also published her lectures, and these too, especially The Arts of Beauty or the Secrets of a Lady's Toilet, which sold 50,000 copies in the Paris edition, were lucrative despite the blandness of their content ("a beautiful mind is the first thing required for a beautiful face").
In late November 1858, Montez was back in Ireland and England, lecturing on "America and its People" in Dublin, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Bath and Bristol. She arrived in London on April 7, 1859, and spent several months there before making her fifth Atlantic crossing to return to New York that autumn. There she grew disillusioned with spiritualism after catching one of her mediums in a typical spiritualist hoax, and became increasingly involved with the Methodist faith. While people who had known her in her youth were inclined to laugh at her religious feelings, new friends were struck by the sincerity of her conversion, and there seems to be no doubt that a strong spiritual side of her nature came to the fore at this stage of her life. Montez continued to lecture (offering John Bull at Home for a dollar, and then for 25 cents, without success) until the fall of 1860, when she was felled by a stroke at the early age of 42. With her health gone and her left side paralyzed, she was taken in by a Mrs. Buchanan, the wife of a prominent florist living in Astoria (then on Long Island, now in Queens), whom she had known as a schoolgirl in Scotland. Under the care of the Buchanans, she turned to the Episcopal faith, but it seems likely that she had lost most of her will to live. Lola Montez died only a few months later, on January 17, 1861. While her poor health and early death have been widely attributed to the excesses of her youth, they just as easily may have been the result of constant travel under the primitive conditions of the day. Contrary to the popular belief that she died penniless, she left enough to pay her debts and contribute to charities, including a $300 bequest to the Magdalen Society, which did rescue work among prostitutes in New York. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, under a tombstone that identifies her as "Mrs. Eliza Gilbert."
The earliest known portrait of Lola Montez, painted in England by Auguste Husster in 1848, when she was 30, shows a young woman well worthy of her reputation as one of the great beauties of the day. Her hair is dark, her eyebrows rich, her nose and chin are small, and her large dark eyes gaze forthrightly from an oval face of the type much admired in her time. Her neck was extraordinarily beautiful, and contemporaries described her as tall, with a robust constitution and a curvaceous figure; to display these attributes, she wore low-necked dresses with snug bodices, and favored dark-colored
fabrics that set off her coloring. Later daguerreotypes confirm that her looks faded rapidly after her arrival in California, but above all she was said to possess an animated face that readily displayed her sparkling personality, something no portrait or photograph can convey.
She was neither a good actress nor a particularly good dancer, and she seems to have gotten by on the stage largely through exhibitionism and sheer nerve; yet throughout her career she attracted immediate and sensational attention in every new place she appeared. Long before the advent of modern media as we know them today, Montez was aware of the value of publicity, and was skilled at keeping her name in the papers. She was always ready with a letter to the editor, constantly rebutted what she called calumnies and slanders, and knew the box-office value of hauling her detractors into court. On stage, she would interrupt her show to respond to catcalls, and at the end of a performance often regaled the audience with a long-winded speech addressing the abuses and indignities she considered heaped upon her by the press. At age 35, she was famous throughout the Western world, and almost entirely due to her own legwork.
Montez's travels were extraordinary for a woman alone in a period when steamships, railroads, and modern hotels were still in their infancy. It is doubtful that any woman had ever traveled so much before Sarah Bernhardt , and Bernhardt was much older before she broke Montez's record. Before she was 40, Lola Montez had traveled from Ireland to India and from London and Paris to Constantinople, Russia and Australia; she crossed the Indian Ocean four times, the Atlantic five times, and the Pacific twice (though wisely always avoiding any visit to her "ancestral" Spain).
A woman to be reckoned with, she was obviously in open rebellion against a society that placed barriers in front of any woman who chose not to follow the traditional path accorded her by men. But however immoral her life may have seemed to society, she could not be considered amoral; she does not appear to have been either selfish or greedy, and by all accounts her later religious conversion was perfectly sincere. She has been described as mercurial, irritable, foolish and reckless, but never cruel. On the contrary, she was resourceful, courageous, good-natured and generous, and could be gracious, soft-spoken, considerate and kind. She also enjoyed shocking people, not only allowing herself to be photographed holding a cigarette but actually smoking in public, a practice for which women were arrested in the U.S. as late as 1920. A charmer with a talent for conversation, and obviously intelligent, she was also shrewd, educating herself as she moved through her career and then using what she had learned to reinvent herself. That she created an enduring legend is evident from the rash of books, articles, and pamphlets about her that appeared in the first years after her death. Around that same time a woman claiming to be her daughter toured the lecture circuit; as late as 1888, a medium also claimed to be her daughter, and in 1929 an Austrian medium claimed to be her reincarnation. In Germany, her name has become synonymous with a siren who leads men to their destruction. In the novel Die Blaue Engel ("The Blue Angel," 1906), the loose heroine is named "Lola," and when the story was made into a motion picture starring Marlene Dietrich in 1929, the character was rechristened "Lola-Lola," apparently to double the suggestive implications. In English, the best biographies of Lola Montez are those by D'Auvergne and, particularly, Wyndham; others exist in French, German and Spanish, many of them potboilers happy to pass on the gossip and rumors of her day (a number of which were launched by Montez herself). A novel based on her life by Thomas E. Harré, The Heavenly Sinner: The Life and Times of Lola Montez, was published by Mc-Caulay (New York, 1935); another by Edison Marshall, The Infinite Woman, was published by Farrar, Straus (New York, 1950).
Foley, Doris. The Divine Eccentric: Lola Montez and the Newspapers. Los Angeles, CA: Westernlore Press, 1969.
Perenyi, Eleanor. Liszt the Artist as Romantic Hero. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1974.
Ross, Ishbel. The Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Lola Montez. NY: Harper & Row, 1972.
Trowbridge, William R. Seven Splendid Sinners. London: T.F. Unwin, 1909.
Wyndham, Horace. The Magnificent Montez: From Courtesan to Convert. NY: B. Blom, 1935 (reprint 1969).
D'Auvergne, Edmund. Lola Montez: An Adventuress of the Forties. London: T.N. Laurie, 1909.
Goldberg, Isaac. Queen of Hearts: The Passionate Pilgrimage of Lola Montez. NY: John Day, 1936.
Montez, Lola. The Arts of Beauty. NY: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1858.
——. The Lectures of …. NY: Rudd & Carleton, 1859.
Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey