An Irishman’s Diary on the glamorous and dangerous Lola Montez
Limerick beauty whose lovers included Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas and King Ludwig of Bavaria
Lola Montez, or Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert as she was christened. Painting (detail) by Joseph Karl Stieler. Schönheitengalerie, Munich. “In the Australian gold mining town of Ballarat she invited miners to shower nuggets at her feet as she danced. After the Ballarat Times attacked her notoriety, Montez publicly horsewhipped the editor.”
If Lola Montez’s life was a film script it would be rejected for being too far fetched. With Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas and King Ludwig of Bavaria among her many lovers, and shootings, drownings, bigamy and adultery, you just couldn’t make it up.
Born in Limerick in 1818, Montez (who was christened Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) was the daughter of Ensign Edward Gilbert and his 14-year-old wife who claimed Spanish noble descent.
After being educated at boarding schools in Britain and France, Montez was ordered by her mother at 19 to marry an aged judge. Showing a single-mindedness that would soon take her across four continents, she instead eloped with Lieut Thomas James.
The couple moved to India, but James took up with another woman. Despite his transgression, a few years later he won a judicial separation on account of her adultery. He, perhaps, had a lucky escape. After him the men in Montez’s life regularly met with untimely ends.
After training as a dancer in Spain she adopted her stage name. Montez performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London in June 1843, but was booed off stage when recognised as James’s wife.
She fled to Europe where her beauty and celebrity, rather than her dancing ability, brought major success in Paris, Warsaw and elsewhere.
After Liszt and Dumas, she became the mistress of Alexandre Dujarier, part-owner of La Presse newspaper.
After Dujarier was killed in a duel in March 1845, Montez moved to Munich where the ageing King Ludwig – fooled into thinking she was a Spanish noblewoman – fell madly in love with her.
He gave her a large house and an annuity and made her Countess Marie von Landsfeld. She exerted great political influence; ministers are said to have risen and fallen at her bidding. The Bavarian aristocracy loathed her. In February 1848 there were riots against her interference and thousands marched on the palace to demand her expulsion.
When presented with proof of her not-so-noble background and infidelities, Ludwig conceded and abdicated the throne. After a year in Switzerland, Montez moved to London, where she married a young Guards officer, George Trafford Heald. Within a month she was arrested on a charge of bigamy but released on bail. The couple fled to Spain, where Heald drowned in 1850.
Montez again took to the stage, while offstage she carried a whip and pistol.
In gold rush-era San Francisco, she gave the first performances of her notorious “Spider Dance”. Then in July 1853 she decided to give marriage yet another go with Patrick Purdy Hull, owner of the San Francisco Whig newspaper.
Hull soon sued for divorce, naming a German doctor as co-respondent. A few days later the doctor was found shot dead on a hill outside the city.
Montez then appointed a young actor Noel Follin as her manager and set sail for Sydney with their own company.
She opened at the Royal Victoria – Sydney’s oldest theatre, which held around 3,000 people. Initial attendances were poor so Montez decided on a greatest hits set. The “Spider Dance” was back in the show. Numbers soared.
A local paper review said: “The music slowed as she discovered a spider in her petticoat . . . 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 . . . the audience was held spellbound, and somewhat horror-struck, but when the dance ended, the applause was thunderous”.
An attempted arrest over a debt in Sydney was foiled when Montez undressed in her cabin and dared the officer to seize her. She was later denounced by the press in Melbourne, but the mayor, sitting as a magistrate, refused an application for her arrest.
In the gold mining town of Ballarat she invited miners to shower nuggets at her feet as she danced. After the Ballarat Times attacked her notoriety, Montez publicly horsewhipped the editor.
After eight months in Australia, she sailed for San Francisco with Follin, but near Fiji he was lost overboard, and no official investigation followed.
Having failed at several attempted comeback performances in America, Montez gave a series of moral lectures in Britain and the US.
Aged 42, she died on January 17th, 1861, her body ravaged with syphilis. She was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, as Mrs Eliza Gilbert.