Dancing Queen – Frank McNally on Lola Montez, born 200 years ago today

An Irishman’s Diary

 Lola Montez: her surname was pure invention, part of a rebranding in which she became an exotic dancer from Andalusia

Lola Montez: her surname was pure invention, part of a rebranding in which she became an exotic dancer from Andalusia

 

She was a certainly a showgirl, like the one in Barry Manilow’s song. But her first name was not Lola, nor her surname Montez, when she was born 200 years ago today in Sligo. The “Lola” was a pet version of Dolores, her middle name. The “Montez” was pure invention, part of a rebranding 20 years later in which she became an exotic dancer from Andalusia.

At the height of her notoriety, one biographer (he claimed there were at least 23 others by then) summed up the competing theories about her mysterious origins. Her birth had been placed variously in Spain, Switzerland, Cuba, India, and Turkey. Her mother was a Spanish gypsy or a Scottish washerwoman, her father an Indian prince or Lord Byron.

In fact, trumpeted the Reverend Chauncey Burr, a friend who purported to have the inside story, the real-life Eliza Gilbert had been born “in the city of Limerick, in the year of our lord, 1824”. He added: “I hope she will forgive me telling her age”.

He needn’t have worried, because (possibly misinformed by her) he had shaved three years off it. And he had the place wrong too, although he was nearer the truth than most. As we now know, Gilbert’s original birthday was February 17th, 1821, and the event happened at Grange, Co Sligo, where her father, a British army officer, was then based.

The father soon moved to India, family in tow, where he died of cholera on arrival. Gilbert’s mother then remarried, to a Scotsman. And when parent and step-parent alike began to find young Eliza a handful, she was sent “home” for schooling, to Scotland and then England.

A disastrous teenage marriage and the first of many extramarital affairs later, Eliza was divorced by her husband, disowned by her mother, and banished from polite society.  Forced to rely on her own talents from then on, she took first to the stage, then to the continent. Henceforth, she was Lola Montez.

A highlight of her shows was the “spider dance”, in which she pretended her body was being invaded by insects.

On a more athletic note, while visiting Baden-Baden, she once demonstrated her agility by raising a leg over a man’s shoulder. She was run out of town for licentious behaviour.

Her romantic partners came to include Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas snr, and a Paris newspaper editor who planned to marry her until he was killed in a duel.

But Eliza’s greatest conquest was the ageing King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who fell at her feet – a part of her with which he was especially besotted – and, so doing, restored her to polite society (nominally, at least) by making her a duchess.

Overthrown by her beauty, Ludwig was later overthrown by his people. The events were connected. Her influence was a factor in the Bavarian government’s fall during the “year of revolutions”. The king abdicated.

Lola took to the road again, meanwhile, playing the part of her now famous self on tours of Europe, Australia, and the US. She was cheered by goldminers in Victoria but earned the disapproval of a local newspaper and, disapproving in her turn of the editor, attacked him with a horsewhip. This was not unusual. Her temper was also notorious.

By contrast, she became a feature of the more sedate lecture circuit too.

One of her appearances was in Dublin’s Rotunda in 1858, where an audience listened with “warm manifestations of approval”. The newspaper report added: “Very properly, an ill-bred fellow, who exclaimed ‘Hee-haw’ at regular intervals, was loudly hissed.”

In many ways, except for being real, Eliza Gilbert was a female Barry Lyndon, Thackeray’s fictional character. Both were shameless social climbers, turning personal charm into money and aristocratic title before coming to bad ends. Both were also big in Germany for a time, before being escorted to the borders and told not to return.

The parallel extends to cinema. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 epic on Lyndon, the 1955 film Lola Montès by German director Max Ophüls was a lavish, visually ravishing work. It also underperformed at the box office and, as with Ryan O’Neal 20 years later, was criticised for a wooden lead (French actress Martine Carol). But it too has since been acclaimed as a masterpiece, albeit a cult one.

In the film version, Lola ends her days as a circus performer, holding court in a cage, while allowing her hand to be kissed by a queue of paying customers. Her real-life demise was less dramatic if no less sad. She died in New York in 1861, not yet 40, having suffered from syphilis. She was doing quiet charity work among prostitutes and appears to have taken refuge in religion.

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