One of the most famous and fiamboyant celebrities of the 19th century, Lola Montez was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818. When she was four, her parents moved to Calcutta, India, where her father soon died of cholera. Her mother quickly remarried, and her new stepfather sent Eliza to Scotland to live with his relatives. Studying in Paris, France, and Bath, England, she received an excellent education, although she had trouble following her schools’ strict dictates.
When she was 19, her mother paid her a visit, accompanied by Thomas James, a young officer in the Indian army. Learning that her mother wanted to marry her off to a wealthy, elderly man in India, Gilbert rebelled by convincing James to elope with her. She accompanied James back to India, but their marriage fell apart within months. After obtaining a legal separation (but not a divorce), Gilbert set off for England. On the trip, she had a shipboard liaison that she did little to keep secret. Her adultery became one of the many public scandals she would inspire throughout her life.
Cut off financially by her mother after her elopement, Gilbert chose the most impractical way possible of making a living: She decided to become a dancer. After a few months in Spain, she returned to England transformed. She had cast off Eliza Gilbert to become Lola Montez, an exotic Spanish dancer with a fantastic fictional biography. In June 1843, her new persona made her London stage debut. Although her talents as a dancer were limited, she excited the crowd by her suggestive and eccentric performance. She ran into trouble, however, when a newspaper reported that several audience members recognized Montez as none other than the scandalous Eliza Gilbert. Her London engagement canceled, Montez began a tour of the continent, playing venues in Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw, and St. Petersburg. She enjoyed enormous success both as a performer and a personality. Glamorous and beautiful, she insinuated herself into the highest levels of European society and took a series of famous lovers, including Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas pere. Her greatest conquest, however, was Ludwig I, king of Bavaria. Already known for his weakness for women of the stage, the king fell hard for Montez, who was soon bullying him into making liberal government reforms. Her arrogance and imperiousness, though, infuriated his subjects, especially after she persuaded Ludwig to make her a countess even though she was not a Bavarian citizen. During the political unrest of 1848, she was forced to flee, first to Switzerland, then to England.
Still living off funds from the love-besotted king, Montez married the wealthy George Trafford Heald in 1849. His relatives spearheaded her arrest for bigamy, but quickly the marriage broke up of its own accord. By the end of the whole affair, Montez had lost Ludwig’s support. With no other income, she went back to work, writing a biography full of outlandish fabrications and touring France and Belgium. American showman P. T. Barnum tried to arrange a tour of the United States, but when their negotiations soured, Montez decided to head across the Atlantic on her own.
When Montez arrived in New York in 1851, newspaper accounts of her European antics had already made her famous and infamous to Americans. After her Broadway debut, she began traveling through the East, making a sensation wherever she went. Her tours earned her a healthy $1,000 a week. In the United States, Montez modified her act to include dramatic performances of plays such as Oliver Goldsmith’s School for Scandal. After 1852, her signature piece became Lola Montez in Bavaria, a play she commissioned based on her supposed adventures. Savaged by critics for being a self-serving fiction, the public loved it, and it became a regular part of her repertoire. Another crowd-pleaser was Montez’s notorious Spider Dance, which concluded many of her performances. A loose variant on an Italian folk dance, it involved Montez, dressed in an elaborate costume, pretending that spiders were crawling ver her body and into her clothes. Her frenzied dance, in which she often pulled up her skirt to expose her shapely legs, was considered highly erotic in her day.
In 1853, Montez took her act west. En route to San Francisco, she met newspaper editor Patrick Purdy Hall, whom she married soon after her arrival. Predictably, the marriage lasted only a few months. Onstage, she duplicated her success in the East. The Spider Dance was particularly a hit in the mining camps she toured. For a time, Montez, entranced by the California countryside, lived in a small cottage in Grass Valley, where she raised a menagerie that included a pet grizzly bear cub. But growing restless, she gave up her bucolic experiment and set off for a final tour of Australia in 1855. Montez played a few more shows in New York after her return, but by 1857 she had largely given up her stage act. Even she recognized that she was growing too old for the Spider Dance. Her health, too, was suffering after many years of immoderate living. Although she had been well paid for her stage work, her extravagances had exhausted her fortunes. Still pressed to earn a living, she began a new career as a lecturer in the United States and England. With titles such as “Beautiful Women,” “Chivalry,” and “Wits and Women of Paris,” her talks drew large audiences, though many were more eager to see the legendary Lola Montez than to hear what she had to say. As her health faded, she had to give up the lecture circuit, even though she had already spent most of her profits. Relying on the benevolence of her many friends, Lola Montez spent her last days in New York City, where she died on January 17, 1861, at the age of 42.
Foley, Doris. The Divine Eccentric: Lola Montez and the Newspapers. Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1969.
Varley, James F. Lola Montez: The California Adventures of Europe’s Notorious Courtesan. Spokane, Wash.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1996.