The "Wisest" Girl on Earth
Re-invention, and the creation of a fresh persona, is not the sole purview of 20th and 21st century female entertainers. Today’s rare bombastic female thespian, musician, or artist often takes her cues from her more audacious forerunners, women whose names are prefaced in historical notes with a wistfully admiring moniker: “The Adventuress”.
Such women created their own “living legends” with fabrications, omissions of facts, exaggerations, and misinformation. This is not the same as fraud or outright imposture – the intent was to create a credible character, complete with a "past". The new persona was generally accepted as genuine wherever she went. However, not many of these adventurous women have been in the position of changing history by stirring the pot of social upheaval and hastening the abdication of a sitting monarch. But such a woman lived, and she is the iconic template for all other re-inventors who followed in her wake. She was the volatile, vivacious Bohemian adventuress, the exotic dancer Lola Montez.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Globetrotting, intriguing, energetic women have garnered public notoriety and in some cases grudging admiration for centuries. Some, however, have achieved nearly mythical status, with certain acts attributed to them by either harsh critics or an overly adoring public, acts the women never committed.
Examples of great women who did genuine extraordinary things are the journalist, Nellie Bly(traveling around the world on many adventures); the enigmatic female double-agent, Mata Hari (a celebrity exotic dancer whose spy career was short-lived and greatly conflated); Marie Curie, the physicist who discovered radium (and coined the term “radioactivity”) and shortened her life span in the process; pioneering aeronauts, Amelia Earhart and her British counterpart Amy Johnson. Such women fascinate and are generally admired.
Or they can be loathed. Marie Antoinette, a very charismatic non-adventuress (she frankly was in the wrong place at the wrong time) was perceived as the usurping and undeserving real power behind the French throne at the time of the French Revolution. She was particularly hated for her spendthrift ways with the country’s coffers [a truthful assessment]. Her husband, King Louis XVI, was an ineffectual monarch not because he was a particularly bad person. He preferred time spent taking apart locks and tinkering with mechanical devices to the boring affairs of state. Marie goaded him to act at times when his passivity and downright indifference became intolerable. The net result, of course, is they were executed by guillotine. [Neither deserved the brutal treatment received at the hands of a peasantry whipped into a revolutionary fervor by the nobility and powerful clergy wishing to usurp governing power. The French Revolution was a fraud based on propaganda and disinformation, and the French Royal family could have been summarily expelled without being murdered].
Many lies are told of charismatic women, particularly those in positions of great authority. Catherine the Great, who brought a kicking and screaming Russia to the brink of intellectual and cultural modernity, was resoundingly criticized during her political lifetime. Her crime, of course, was she liked sex; she took many lovers, even as she aged. Lies about her sexual peccadilloes and perversions can be found, even today in what are otherwise scholarly treatments of her.
The heroine of this tale bore her share of lies and slanders. The difference, though, is she generally welcomed them; these pieces of misinformation helped keep up her mystique and bolstered the creation that was Lola Montez.
The Spanish exotic dancer and notorious courtesan, Lola Montez, was actually an Irish lass, and the confusion about her began early in her life. The single most important event, her birth, was not clarified until the late 20th century. Lola Montez (and some of her fabrications were borne of true ignorance) throughout her lifetime reported her date of birth as June 23, 1818. This date is one drawn at random seemingly – in the late 1990s the discovery of her baptismal certificate put her date of birth firmly at February 17, 1821. For her entire short life, Lola Montez believed she was almost three years older than her real age.
Similarly, Lola always said, when inclined to give up biographical information, she was from Limerick, Ireland. This, too, is false, not because it was a bald-faced lie, but because it is what she believed. Her mother’s family was from Limerick – Eliza Rosanna Gilbert (later the famous Lola Montez) was actually born in Grange, County Sligo, Ireland, and not County Limerick.
Lola’s mother, Elizabeth Oliver was the illegitimate daughter of a notable former High Sheriff, Charles Silver Oliver. He had also been a member of Parliament in County Limerick. The Oliver family was well-established and powerfully connected politically. Their ancestral home was Castle Oliver. Elizabeth Oliver was Charles’ youngest.
In December 1818, a young Army ensign named Edward Gilbert met Elizabeth Oliver. They married April 29, 1820. The future Lola Montez was born the next February [ten months after the nuptials, quashing rumors Lola’s mother was pregnant at the time of the wedding]. The Olivers lived in Boyle, County Roscommon, until early 1823. Edward Gilbert was assigned to a new post in India, and they left Ireland. They had a lay-over in Liverpool, and on February 16, 1823, little Eliza was baptized in a Liverpool church. The family left England on March 14, 1823, en route for India.
They were not long in tropical India when Edward Gilbert died of cholera (acquired usually from contaminated drinking water, resulting in a severe gastrointestinal infection accompanied by explosive diarrhea). The 19-year-old widow Elizabeth Oliver Gilbert married another Army officer, Lieutenant Patrick Craigie, the next year after Edward’s death. Patrick Craigie grew very fond of the girl, Eliza Gilbert. But she was a spoiled child, and he was troubled by her “half-wild ways”.
When Eliza was old enough, Patrick and Elizabeth decided to send the pint-sized hellion to Britain. There, she would live with Patrick’s father in Scotland before going off to school. Little Eliza, however, scandalized the Scottish locals and was known as “the queer, wayward little Indian girl”. She was known as a mischief-maker; in two early incidents (both harmless) she surreptitiously stuck flowers into the powdered wig of an old man during a church service, and she once ran naked through the streets.
When she was ten Eliza was packed off to boarding school in Sunderland, England. Patrick Craigie’s older sister, Catherine Rae, and her husband established their own boarding school, and Eliza later continued her education in her step-family’s fold. Apparently while not a dedicated student Eliza was good at many things. Her notorious temper blossomed as well. An art teacher in the family school later recalled Eliza as “an elegant and graceful child…eyes of excessive beauty…orientally dark complexion…an air of haughty ease”. He added, though, “The violence and obstinacy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety to her good, kind aunt.” Her obstinacy and fierce temper would become her trademarks.
Eliza transferred to Bath, England, for finishing school. In 1837, the sixteen-year-old eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James. The pair eventually landed in Calcutta where five years later (in 1842) the 21-year-old Eliza abandoned Thomas and took up dancing as a profession. They later formalized their separation with a divorce. She began her roaming with a trip to Spain where she took a few dance lessons, and made flesh her idea of “Lola Montez”, an exotic Spanish dancer [a construct similar to one a Dutch woman, Margaretha Zelle, used a few decades later when, in 1897, she transformed into the enigmatic “Javanese” dancer, Mata Hari].
In June 1843 Lola made her début in London, under the billing, “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer”. She was very successful, but someone recognized her as the estranged Mrs. Thomas James and not a true Spaniard. A scandal developed over the imposture – the public felt deceived by her, and the resultant bad publicity stifled her career in England. She decamped to the European continent. She traveled with her dancing and musical act; however, Lola Montez was not particularly finessed, and she apparently became known more for her feisty outbursts, her beauty, and her arrogant charm than for her artistic skills. By then, she certainly was under the “patronage” of a few wealthy men, accepting favors, and many began regarding her as a courtesan.
Lola Montez’ dynamic personality and reputation gained her entry into almost any social circle. In France in the mid 1800s there was a salon of artists, musicians and literati expatriates that regularly met and developed ideas. Among these was the female French novelist, George Sand [A character in her own right, and a sort of female libertine, Sand adopted the male pseudonym because publishers at the time shunned works by women. She actually lived her character, though, bedding whomever she wished. She had been married once, but then ran through a string of lovers, most notably Polish pianist Frederic Chopin, with whom she had a liaison for 10 years. Two years before his death of tuberculosis she and Chopin violently split apart. She was highly independent, brilliant, and erudite].
On the Continent, Lola Montez met Hungarian composer/musician Franz Liszt (himself a renowned womanizer). They had an affair, and he introduced Lola to George Sand and her socially smart set [Liszt had introduced his friend Chopin to George Sand in the early 1830s]. Lola performed in many European capitals, and then she settled in Paris. The Bohemian literary society groups accepted her into their ranks. She met and was rumored in a dalliance with Alexandre Dumas. In 1845, her then-lover, a newspaperman named Alexandre Dujarier, was killed in a duel [the dispute with his shooter had nothing to do with Lola]. She left Paris and in 1846 found her way to Munich and a date with destiny.
Countess Lola of Landsfeld
Almost immediately Lola Montez was “discovered” by the Bavarian King, Ludwig I. This 60-year-old, with a penchant for the ladies (to the continued agitation of his wife, Therese, an aging Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011beauty six years his junior) was completely smitten. Lola, used to having men slaver over her and manipulative in her way, saw an opportunity in Ludwig I to realize one of her dreams of becoming part of the nobility [the people with whom she hobnobbed in Paris were generally from the upper classes, often of noble birth].
Ludwig I was a renaissance man. One of his legacies is the renowned “Gallery of Beauties” (“Schönheitengalerie” in German). This gallery is in the south pavilion of Ludwig’s Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. It comprises a collection of 36 portraits of women painted between 1827 and 1850 [Lola Montez’ is among them]. He was an enthusiast of the German Middle Ages. He was extremely interested in Greece, ancient Greek history, and particularly Greek art and architecture [His second son Otto would be elected king of Greece in 1832 after a revolution]. Ludwig was an eccentric and notoriously bad poet. He rhapsodized on any subject, no matter how inconsequential, with reams of rhyming couplets. He was almost deaf, and had a birthmark on his forehead (which was generally not included in portraits or otherwise concealed). He was an unassuming monarch, who often dressed very shabbily.
Ludwig had married the beautiful Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810 when she was 18 and he was a 24-year-old crown prince [Therese was a highly valued prize – she was on Napoleon’s list as a potential wife for him in 1809. It was she who decided to marry Ludwig I instead of Napoleon]. When she married Ludwig their wedding was the occasion of the very first Oktoberfest. Therese was the mother of Ludwig’s nine children. He ascended to the throne in 1825; Therese became Queen of Bavaria. She very often filled in for Ludwig in matters of state when he was away from Munich, and Therese enjoyed some level of political influence. She also actively participated in political issues. Therese was very committed to social causes of the day, involving herself with many charitable organizations for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. The Bavarian people loved her, and she was held forth as their ideal image of a queen, a wife, and a mother.
Besides the arts and all things Greek Ludwig’s passions centered on women. He had many extramarital affairs; he was but one of the lovers of Lady Jane Digby (an aristocratic English adventuress). Therese suffered greatly at Ludwig’s indiscretions, but she indulged him over the years. She didn’t always take his philandering quietly, however; in 1831 while he openly engaged in yet another affair she left town, causing great consternation in the royal household. Although she knew his various mistresses Therese never associated with them.
Lola Montez quickly become Ludwig’s mistress. [A rumor about their meeting has Ludwig asking her in public if her bosom was real. Lola, in response tore off enough of her dress for him to see it was. The rumor is baseless, and is only presented to illustrate the kind of slanders of Lola Montez’ memory that somehow continue. This particular story first appeared several decades after her death]. For Therese Lola Montez was the last straw. This low-born dancer was an irritant to the nobly bred queen. As Ludwig’s affairs were not secret, the public knew all about Lola Montez and Ludwig, and sympathies in the situation lay firmly on Therese’s side.
Unlike the beloved Therese, Lola Montez was unpopular with the people. Her arrogant manner coupled with her outbursts of temper endeared her to no one but Ludwig, who was enchanted. Her influence on him was never in question – she agitated for replacing certain factions within the government perceived hostile toward Protestants, and she was a staunch liberal (in conservative Bavaria). There was a Catholic-backed faction in Parliament (who came to power in 1837) that agitated for striking down civil rights of Protestants among other things. This group denounced Lola Montez, and moved for her to become naturalized. Lola’s goal of getting her noble title hinged upon this naturalization, but she rejected it. Ludwig, siding with her, also rejected the Catholic stance, and summarily ousted this conservative element from Parliament. Despite the public and private opposition to it (the aristocracy was vocally outraged) Ludwig made Lola Montez an astounding gift on his first birthday after meeting her. On August 25, 1847, Lola’s dream of nobility was fully realized when Ludwig bestowed the title Countess of Landsfeld on her. Along with the title, he granted her a substantial annuity, which outraged many. It appeared as if Lola Montez would plant her flag in Bavaria.
The country was in turmoil politically (even before Lola Montez arrived). Revolution was in the air, and Lola’s behind-the-scenes machinations only created more resentment. She was instrumental in ensuring the ouster of the Jesuit faction in Parliament, swaying Ludwig’s decisions all the while toward a more liberal agenda for the country. Lola had been in Bavaria for a bit over a year. In February 1848 fearing the worst (the mob was actually screaming for her blood) Lola left Bavaria in a hurry, leaving the wrecked country behind her.
Ludwig’s partiality to all things Lola Montez was clearly the spark that ignited his fall from grace. He had been very popular but his more recent tax policies and perceived repressive direction (which the public laid at Lola’s feet) bode ill. In the face of a burgeoning revolutionary movement, Ludwig faced protests and demonstrations by students and the middle classes. His Cabinet was not supportive and turned against him. Ludwig did not want to rule as a constitutional monarch. Instead, on March 20, 1848, he abdicated [His oldest son, Maximilian, acceded to the throne. After his abdication, Ludwig pursued his interest in the arts, and was a generous patron. This produced conflicts with the new king, his son Maximilian. Finally Ludwig financed his projects from his own pocket instead of the state’s treasury. Therese died in 1854, age 62, about six years after Ludwig’s affair with Lola Montez. Ludwig I died in Nice, France, in 1868 age 81].
Lola on the Lam
Lola, despite all her “worldliness”, could also be hopelessly naïve. After Ludwig’s abdication she believed he would want to stay by her side. She traveled to Switzerland and waited for him to join her. He never showed up [it is almost certain he would never have abandoned Therese completely or his ties to the royal family in favor of what was basically a dancing trollop].
The distraught Lola went back to France briefly. She then traveled on to London in late 1848. Needing a protector, she met and quickly married George Trafford Heald, a young cavalry officer with a recent inheritance. Although Thomas James’ and Lola’s Indian divorce had been properly processed, there was a caveat in the final order: neither could remarry while the other was living. Thus, Lola Montez found herself guilty of bigamy [technically not bigamy as the former marriage was invalidated by the divorce]. She and George Heald had to flee London once the “bigamous” marriage was exposed publicly by a scandalized “maiden” aunt of Heald’s.
The couple retreated to France, and then moved on to Spain (Lola’s spiritual birth country). Within two years, however, the relationship was on the rocks, largely due to the tempestuous nature of the indomitable Lola Montez. She left George Heald and migrated to the United States in 1851. She set about to clean up her image and repair her reputation as a home-wrecker, a fallen woman, and a destroyer of kings.
Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets
Lola was a great success in America almost immediately (her antics had been reported in the international press and her arrival was met with general excitement). She spent her Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011first American years (1851-1853) cruising the eastern US. She performed as a dancer and actress, and she was feted wherever she went.
One of her plays was a fancifully “biographical” burlesque, Lola Montez in Bavaria (written by an American, C.T. Ware). She took this act on the road, and when she played San Francisco in May 1853, she decided to linger. She met and married Patrick Hull, a local newspaperman, in July 1853, and they moved out to Grass Valley, California, in August of that year. This relationship also failed, again probably because of Lola Montez simply being Lola Montez. Lola lived quietly in the little Grass Valley house for the next two years [The restored “Home of Lola Montez” became California Historical Landmark #292].
While in Grass Valley, Lola was charmed by a precocious little girl whose parents ran a boarding house in town. Lola mentored the little 6-year-old Lotta, encouraging her to sing, dance, and act. [Lotta Crabtree (née Charlotte Mignon Crabtree) took her lessons from the legendary Lola Montez to heart. She became a successful theater entertainer and toured the US in 1863. She was nicknamed “The Nation’s Darling”, and she was a great favorite in her early children’s roles because of her petite stature. She formed her own theater company in 1875, traveled abroad, and then returned to the United States, settling down and retiring in 1891 at the age of 45. She was one of the wealthiest women entertainers in America. She also displayed certain personality quirks à la Lola Montez. She rebelled against stodgy society types; her membership in a snooty New Jersey Credit: Library of Congresswomen’s social club was nixed because of her ruthless penchant for the small black cigars that were her trademark. She never married, and was not linked romantically to anyone publicly – certain other life facts support the possibility she was a closeted lesbian. In any event some of her eccentricities mirrored the magical Lola Montez, whom Lotta never forgot. Upon Lotta’s death in 1924, one newspaper described her as “the eternal child”. Critics during her lifetime called her, in turn, “mischievous”, “unpredictable”, “impulsive”, “rattlebrained”, “teasing”, “piquant”, “rollicking”, “cheerful”, and “devilish”. These character traits could all be ascribed to the flighty Lola Montez as well].
Lola Down Under
Lola Montez was restless, living sedately on her little ranch in Grass Valley. In June 1855 she dusted off her act and headed for Australia. The 34-year-old sex bomb still had the ability to draw crowds and she was a sensation in the Australian gold fields (a major gold rush was on in the mid 1850s). She entertained the adoring miners to sell out crowds.
Lola’s reputation preceded her, however, and when she hit Sydney, Australia, in August 1855, she scandalized the community with her frankly erotic dancing. Lola’s dancing was largely of her own construct and followed her whimsy. She had developed an infamous routine called “The Spider Dance” which was loosely based on the frenetic, Italian tarantella folk dance (with Lola’s embellishments, of course).
The Spider Dance, without benefit of film footage, is difficult to embrace mentally. An Australian newspaper gave the following description:
“The full perfection of her frame was revealed as she swung gracefully to the centre of the stage, and paused for a moment. She made it appear evident that she was entangled in the filaments of a spider’s web. In a dance step, she portrayed that she was more and more confused as the fibres wrapped themselves about her ankles. The music slowed as she discovered a spider in her petticoat, which she attempted to shake loose; then she discovered other spiders, and examining her skirts, she shook them to reveal even more spiders. The fight against the spiders became more and more hectic, as she danced with abandon and fire, and at the conclusion she had succeeded in shaking them out upon the floor, where she stamped them to death … the audience was held spellbound, and somewhat horrorstruck, but when the dance ended, the applause was thunderous; and as Lola Montes addressed her audience after numerous curtain calls, bouquets were showered at her feet …”
In short, The Spider Dance was an interpretive piece with mildly erotic overtones. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote it was “the most libertinish and indelicate performance that could be given on the public stage”.
Salacious rumors followed her in Australia, too. One chronicler maliciously wrote, “She performed her erotic Spider Dance at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, raising her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no underclothing at all.” This is a baseless fallacy. It never happened. A local paper the next day critiqued her show, and described it as “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality. Respectable families ceased to attend the theatre, which began to show heavy losses.” [“Subversive”, perhaps, but the “theater losses” were also untrue – Lola was a hit.]
She performed for more miners. She triumphed in the Victorian gold fields where appreciative diggers showered the stage with gold nuggets during her performance. It wasn’t always roses and gold for Lola, though. In April 1856, she was “rapturously encored” after her Spider Dance. The audience consisted of 400 miners (including members of the local Council who had adjourned a meeting early to see her show). The adoration turned wrathful when Lola began insulting the audience in the wake of some mild heckling. Her notoriety notched higher still; in February 1856, after playing a show in Ballarat, the local rag gave her a bad review. A mythical story claimed Lola then stormed down to the press office and beat the paper’s editor with a whip [the story is false. Lola commented she ought to horse whip the writer of the review. She never actually did it]. She played Adelaide and Melbourne. In Melbourne, her run was cut short – there was threat of legal action for “indecency”. After touring Australia with overall success Lola returned to the US in May 1856. Lola Montez, in Australia, behaved as Lola Montez would anywhere else in the world. Her various liaisons, reckless activities, and “lewd” dancing ensured that Australians would remember her for many years.
Lola went back into acting, mostly in one-off performances. She became a Spiritualist and lecturer (speaking on topics as diverse as fashion, gallantry, and Roman Catholicism). Like Therese, Queen of Bavaria, Lola also moved within charitable circles. She was one of the earliest advocates of women’s issues, and she engaged wholeheartedly in women’s rescue work.
Lola Montez moved to New York City where she lived modestly and comfortably on her earnings from entertaining. [Lola had not been a wastrel with respect to her money. Moralists like to pretend the debauched Lola Montez was a terrifically amoral monster; they like to claim she died impoverished, destitute, and in squalor, her just punishment for living an "immoral" life. This scenario is not true – Lola lived well, even to the end].
She became somewhat reclusive after 1859. Lola had a stroke on June 30, 1860, and she was partially paralyzed for some time afterward. In mid-December 1860, she had recovered enough she felt she could take a walk. Although she had a slight limp she went out for a stroll in the cold. She contracted pneumonia. She lingered for about a month before dying of pneumonia on January 17, 1861. Sadly, this was only one month short of her 40th birthday. Her tombstone in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, reads “Mrs. Eliza Gilbert / Died Jan. 17, 1861”. It also falsely gives her age as 42 (based on the incorrect date of birth assumed for her throughout her life). Lola Montez' life was entirely too short by a long stretch. The world needs more women whose names can properly carry the prefix “The Adventuress”.
The Lola Montez of legend is larger than life. The “front part” of her “stage” name, uncovered in research but not readily verified, may be Maria Dolores, “Lola” being diminutive for “Dolores”. A definitive biography was written about her, but such is the twisted inconsistencies in her life that later printings had corrections mandated (when her true date of birth and place of birth were uncovered as well as some other minutiae).
Lola Montez was once well-known by reputation alone; her name was a brand. Her character, highly fictionalized, featured in dozens of movies, books, and stage offerings. The phrase, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets” was incorporated into a popular contemporary song about her. Most recently, a snippet of this ditty was played in a wonderful soft drink commercial featuring the alluring, voluptuous Colombian actress, Sofia Vergara. As Sofia walks across the sand on a beach, in the background one hears the sung lines, “Whatever Lola wants / Lola gets”.
Lola Montez’ reputation has been redeemed somewhat, mostly with the passage of time. Her behaviors for her era (hedonism, rashness, fierce independence) were considered scandalous. Today, her antics may be considered mildly titillating at best, although she did help bring down the King of Bavaria. But, many women have cost a king his throne, so Lola’s opportunism and conniving is not unusual in that mien.
Her artistic painted portraits, engraved images, etc., carry the romance and subtleties of the artist with each brush stroke. Although they are likenesses they are subjective. Fortunately, photography as a technology accessible to the masses was developed during Lola Montez’ lifetime, and there exist several daguerreotypes and tinplate images of her.
In some of her pictures, Lola wears dark kid gloves, and has a smoldering cigarillo in hand. In others she wears a finely tatted shawl, veiled over her hair Madonna-like. Lola Montez was an interesting looking woman. She was olive complexioned with dark auburn locks, and blue eyes, quite a striking contrast. In one of her earliest photographs she looks like the stereotypical gypsy (complete with vestiges of youthful acne on her cheeks). Her facial bone structure was angular and blocky. Her body leaned toward the “developed” end of the spectrum, and that certainly would have turned men’s heads then (just as it would now). Lola Montez was not classically beautiful, but she was extraordinarily attractive in her own indefinable way; she obviously had a certain something that enticed and intrigued.
vocal by Sarah Vaughan (1955)
dancers: Satin Dollz
Preview for restored "Lola Montes"
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