Lola Montez – an exotic dancer, sometime actress and legendary courtesan – was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, most likely on the 17th February 1821 in Sligo. In the first of a series of white lies, her ‘autobiography’ (credited to her publicity agent C Chauncey Burr) states that she was born in 1824, in Limerick. It appears she considered herself a Limerick native, perhaps due to her well-known maternal family.
Her mother was Elizabeth Oliver, the daughter of Sir Charles Silver Oliver, a former High Sheriff of Cork and an MP for Kilmallock. The family seat was Castle Oliver, now the site of a magnificent mock-Victorian castle in Ardpatrick, County Limerick. Elizabeth was born in plush circumstances, but as the daughter of Sir Oliver’s mistress, and not his wife, she was always on the periphery of wealth and society.
When she was just fourteen and working as an apprentice hat-maker, she met Edward Gilbert, a dashing English ensign (a junior officer) in the British Navy. It was not long before they were married, and baby Eliza (Lola) arrived soon afterwards.
The family spent their first few years in King House in Boyle, County Roscommon. When Lola was three, they departed for India, where her father was to take up a military posting. They first made their way to Liverpool, where Lola was baptised, and then onwards across by land and sea. After an arduous four-month sailing, they reached Calcutta, where her father fell gravely ill with cholera. He died while travelling up the Ganges and was buried with military honours in Dinapore.
Eliza – now a widow aged just eighteen – quickly remarried, choosing a Lieutenant Patrick Craigie as her new groom. He was a much older man, but kindly to his new stepdaughter. When she was seven he sent her back to his home in Montrose, Scotland. She didn’t last long in the strict Calvinist environment, however, and left to continue her education, first with her step-aunt in Monkwearmouth and later at a finishing school in Bath, in the care of a military associate’s family.
When she was fourteen and properly ‘finished’, her mother arrived home, accompanied by Thomas James, a young army officer of twenty-seven. She set about purchasing a wardrobe of clothes for her young daughter, choosing fine dresses and luxury materials. It quickly dawned on the teenager that she was being prepared for marriage and her fears were confirmed when she was instructed to marry Sir Abraham Lumley, a Supreme Court Judge in his sixties.
Lola was horrified and instead eloped with Lieutenant James, fleeing to Ireland where they were married. In recalling this episode in her autobiography, she wrote that “runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a mash-up”. And indeed, so it went with Lola’s first marriage. After eight months in Ireland, the young couple travelled to India to take up a military posting. However, soon afterwards, in 1840, James began an affair and the young Lola was returned to her mother and step-father. The latter arranged for her to be entrusted to the care of his family in Scotland, but upon disembarking in Perth, she ran away to London.
Having effectively broken off ties with her family, Lola now had to fend for herself. This was no easy task for a woman in her position at this time: she was not wealthy enough for independent means, nor poor enough for the usual labour positions. Together with a friend in London, she hatched a plan to become an actress. When she showed little aptitude for this profession, she looked to dancing.
She trained under a Spanish teacher for four months and made her debut in London in 1843. Eliza Gilbert had been reborn as Lola Montez, the famed ‘Spanish’ dancer. The exotic moniker came about from her assertion that she was descended on her mother’s side from a Spanish-Moorish noble family by the name of Montalvo. Her combination of lustrous dark hair, smooth skin and rich, carmine-coloured lips no doubt aided with this deception.
Her mother was so mortified by her daughter’s new profession that she went into mourning, wearing black and issuing funeral cards. The performance itself was not a success – it is said that she was heckled off the stage. From there she left for Europe, and after a brief but disappointing foray into the Parisian opera scene, arrived in Dresden, Germany. There she met and became involved with the famed composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, who was at the height of his fame.
She continued to perform in various European cities, to middling success. She was most well-known for ‘The Spider Dance’, in which she would discover a spider within the folds of her skirt and dash it away, along with much of her clothes. Before long, she moved to Paris, where she inveigled herself into the literary milieu, becoming friends (and sometimes lovers) with many of the era’s most famous writers and poets. She is believed to have had a romantic liaison with Alexandre Dumas Senior, the hugely successful author of The Three Musketeers. While in France she met Alexandre Dujarier, a powerful newspaper magnate and republican politician. He also served as a drama critic for his paper, La Presse, which helped her revive her flagging dancing career. They began a tempestuous relationship, and during a particularly acrimonious row at a party, Dujarier managed to offend another guest, a Mr Jean-Bapiste Rosemond de Beauvallon, who challenged him to a duel in response. Dujarier lost the duel at Bois de Boulogne, and died from gunshot wounds. He would not be the first of Lola’s lovers to die young; his demise was only the first in a rather lethal pattern.
Having become a courtesan of international repute, Lola made her way to Munich in 1846, where, through a series of connections and letters of introduction, she met King Ludwig I of Bavaria. He quickly fell under her spell and she became his mistress. Not content to settle into a life of comfortable luxury and idleness, Lola took a keen interest in the day-to-day activities of her powerful lover. She influenced the King in many of his decisions, steering him towards the type of rule she envisaged to be modern and more liberal. The American Law Journal of 1848 reported that “under her counsels…the existing ministry were dismissed; new and more liberal advisers were chosen; the power of the Jesuits was ended; Austrian influences repelled and a foundation laid for making Bavaria an independent member of the great family of nations.”
However, the Bavarian subjects bristled at her interference, appalled at the extraordinary power a common dancer wielded over their ruling family. She was also less than regal, prone to angry public outbursts. The King ignored the rising discontent among his people and bestowed upon Lola the title of Countess of Landsfeld, along with a generous annual allowance.
Politicians and leaders who voiced opposition to her heightened status were quickly removed from their positions, and when riots erupted, the King closed a university in response. The unhappy Bavarians united against Lola in a revolutionary movement of 1848, with thousands of burghers marching on the palace, demanding that she and the weak Ludwig be removed from power.
Bowing to the pressure, the King abdicated, and Lola escaped first to Switzerland, and then London, where she rapidly entered a marriage with George Trafford Heald, a young officer in the cavalry who had come into some family money.
Their happiness was short-lived however, as Heald’s, family, aghast at the match, brought a charge of bigamy against Lola. Under the terms of her divorce, she was forbidden to remarry while Thomas James was still alive. The couple fled to France, and then Spain, but within two years the marriage failed and Heald drowned in mysterious circumstances.
Lola now set her sights further afield: in 1851 she arrived in the United States, where she carved a relatively successful career in the arts, performing as an exotic dancer and actress. In the summer of 1853, she journeyed to the western states, which were then still wild and dangerous, despite the recent gold rush. She settled for a while in San Francisco, creating a name for herself as a risqué dancer. She married there, taking Patrick Hull – owner of the newspaper The San Francisco Whig – as her third husband. They moved to California, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Lola grew bored at this somewhat sedate life. The marriage ended and in the subsequent divorce she was accused of having an affair with a German doctor. He was found murdered some days later.
At the age of 34, Lola tried her hand at yet another continent, this time departing for Australia with a new manager (and likely lover), named Noel Follin (he later changed his name to Folland). In Sydney she performed a bizarre repertoire, including a burlesque show, excerpts from Shakespeare’s works, and the Spider Dance as a grand finale. A contemporaneous review from a local paper sniffed that (the dance) “was not open to reprehension on the score of its sentiment. It was simply ridiculous”.
She found a more appreciative audience among the newly prosperous miner class in Ballarat. Performing to huge crowds of hard-working, rough-and-tumble men, she encouraged them to shower her with gold nuggets and in return her performances grew ever bolder. She is even alleged to have performed the Spider Dance with no underwear at all.
Australian society was scandalised, and when the Ballarat Times attacked her in a moralising editorial, Lola responded by publicly whipping the editor. This would not be her only foray into criminality while overseas: she and Folland were chased by debtors, but Lola saw off the sheriff by stripping naked and demanding he arrest her déshabillé.
After a relatively successful local tour (during which she herself had been assaulted by an unhappy wife), Lola and Folland set sail for San Francisco. Somewhere near Fiji, Folland fell overboard and was never seen again.
Now losing her famed beauty at an alarming speed, Lola struggled to find work back in America. With few financial prospects, she once again transformed herself, to a lecturer on morality, of all things. In 1857 she delivered speeches in Britain and America, and became something of a beauty blogger, writing a handbook on style, makeup and fashion in The Arts of Beauty: Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. She even devised an early recipe for exfoliation, extolling the benefits of bran mixed with water.
In her late thirties, Lola settled into a quiet life, working with women’s charities in New York. The once voluptuous beauty grew gaunt and aged as syphilis ravaged her body. She died at the age of just 39 in January of 1861 and was buried in Brooklyn.
Her tombstone recorded the simple name of Eliza Gilbert, not Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, nor Lola Montez, nor even Countess Marie of Landsfeld. She had long since discarded her brief married names of James, Heald and Hull. She was a renowned genius of reinvention, in a way that was only possible long before the internet, when members of society were taken at face value. It helped, enormously, if that face was beautiful.
She was undoubtedly headstrong, impulsive and tempestuous, but she was also courageous, self-educated and an ardent agitator for political change. Her extraordinary life would inspire countless films, books, plays, musicals and song lyrics. In 39 short years she traversed the globe and scaled the highest echelons of society, involving herself in some of the most historic cultural and political movements of the day. She was a muse to artists, a confidante of powerful men, and a mistress to royalty. Chameleon-like, she adopted a variety of accents, mannerisms and backgrounds. Throughout it all, however, there was one biographical point on which she remained steadfast – Limerick was her home.