Day 348: Her Name Was Lola. She Was A Showgirl.

originally published December 13, 2012

What can we make of Lola Montez?

On the one hand, here’s a woman whose claims to fame are being sexy, dancing on stage, and being sexy. On the other, we have a 19th century woman who looked at the ‘proper’ place for women in society and said “screw it”, proceeding to live her life as she saw fit.

Lola was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Grange, County Sligo in Ireland. Her soldier dad was stationed in India, so the Gilbert clan packed up and shipped out. Her father passed away from cholera shortly after their arrival, and the next year her mom married this guy:

Well, not really. But I did a search for ‘Patrick Craigie’ and that’s what came up. Non-famous people from the 1820s don’t have a lot of photos posted online.

Craigie really loved little Eliza, but she was a handful – spoiled rotten and a little bit of what child psychologists refer to as ‘kooky’.

Eliza was sent to England to live with Craigie’s father and attend school. It took her very little time to get in trouble; she stuck flowers into an old man’s wig in church (hilarious!) then got caught running through the streets naked – still only ten years old at the time (call a shrink!).

Off to boarding school in Sunderland. Her teachers liked Eliza, but they also found her to be obstinate and violent-tempered. She lasted at that school for a year, then was sent elsewhere. In 1837, sixteen years old and tired of being told that her determination and fierce self-assuredness were flaws, Eliza hooked up with Lieutenant Thomas James and got married.

Thomas was transferred to Calcutta, and that’s where the marriage fell apart. Honestly, Eliza wasn’t having much luck in India. She changed her name, and in June 1843 she made her debut as Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer. She wasn’t Spanish of course – but it’s all about having a gimmick.

Someone recognized her, which led to a scandal. A married woman! In town without her husband! Dancing! And she has boobs!

British culture in the 1840s wasn’t exactly known for its liberal thinking. Lola headed off to the Continent to continue her career. She acquired a fair bit of fame there, but more so because she was a beautiful, quick-tempered woman who spent a lot of time with wealthy older men. Like the composer, Franz Liszt.

Her Parisian dancing debut was a flop, but it didn’t matter. Lola had worked her way into the Bohemian literary circle, even allegedly getting busy with Mr. Three Musketeers himself, Alexandre Dumas. In 1845 she was seeing Alexandre Dujarier, a newspaperman (reporter, editor or delivery boy – the article isn’t specific). That fell apart when Dujarier fought a duel to defend her honor. He lost.

Off to Munich. Lola was 25 and gorgeous; there was no reason to let something like a little scandal keep her down. Besides, there were much bigger and better scandals to unwrap in foreign lands. Like when she met Ludwig I, the German King of Bavaria.

When Ludwig met Lola, he allegedly asked her if her breasts were real. This was the kind of dialog royalty can get away with. Lola tore off enough of her clothing to reveal that they were. The two of them got along famously after that.

Lola and Ludwig became an unofficial item. She used her influence on the king, and the common folk weren’t too happy about it. In August 1847 he made her Countess of Landsfeld. Now Lola had a bit of power, and she planned to use it.

Lola’s political actions displeased the Jesuits and conservatives. She leaned pretty far left, and the population was divided on whether or not her squirming into power was a good thing. Then came the Revolution of 1848. Lola, and by association Ludwig, was on the side of the left, who were revolting against traditional authority, seeking freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and all those goodies that were already happening in North America. Things didn’t work out though, and Ludwig abdicated his throne. He and Lola had to split.

Lola fled to Switzerland, but Ludwig never showed. She ended up back in London, where she met and married a young cavalry officer with a fresh inheritance, George Trafford Heald.

The terms of Lola’s divorce from Thomas James stated that neither party could re-marry while the other was still alive. Not much of a ‘divorce’ as far as I’m concerned, but then I’m not a 19th-century British lawyer. I’d look silly in one of those wigs anyway.

So this meant another scandal, and another escape to mainland Europe. They settled in Spain, but the marriage collapsed. Lola just wasn’t the marry-for-life type. In 1851 she left for a place she knew she’d be a hit: America.

She spent two years in show business, working the east coast, before heading west to San Francisco in 1853. A lot of young, wealthy miners there – that’s a good audience and a good crop from which to pick a companion. And pick she did, marrying husband #3: Patrick Hull.

The marriage didn’t last (of course), but the home they shared, where Lola stayed after Patrick took off, is now a California landmark.

In 1855, Lola got the urge to travel again, this time taking her act on the road to Australia, where another gold rush was underway. She performed something called the ‘erotic spider dance’ which was described in one review as “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.” Damn, if only they’d had Youtube back then.

She hung around in Australia, but things didn’t go well. After a bad review in the Ballarat Times, Lola attacked the editor with a whip. Then, after a show in Castlemaine resulted in Lola trading insults with hecklers in the crowd, she bolted back for America.

Back in New York, Lola spent her time doing rescue work with women and “lecturing on gallantry”. I can’t imagine the vacuum of accessible culture that would prompt someone to want to attend a lecture on gallantry, but whatever.

She suffered a stroke in June 1860, and contracted pneumonia the following year, dying about a month before her 39th birthday.

Lola Montez was, if nothing else, a fascinating woman. She did as she pleased, and she packed more life into her 39 years than most could do in a hundred. She went down in history for it, even (allegedly) inspiring the character of Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes universe.

Pretty impressive.

Categories: art

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s