Lola Montez – The Spanish Dancer

lola montez
(public domain)

Lola Montez was born in County Sligo in Ireland in 1821; her given name was Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert. Lola was born into an average family; her father was a soldier in the British Army, who died in India when she was just two years old. Lola and her mother Eliza had moved with him to India and were left alone in Dinajpur. Eliza soon remarried, and Lola grew up in India until the age of seven when she was sent to live with her stepfather’s family in Scotland, moving to boarding school in Bath a few years later.

In 1837 Lola refused her mother’s wishes for her to marry an elderly man in India and eloped to Ireland with Lieutenant Thomas James. Thomas was actually smitten with Lola’s mother, but Lola convinced him to elope with her and the couple married in Dublin, Lola was aged seventeen at the time. The couple moved over to India where James was on duty, but the marriage fell apart after just a few years and Lola left her husband and moved to England. Onboard the ship home, Lola fell for Lieutenant Charles Lennox who kept her company for the five-month-long journey. Lola’s reputation was in tatters as soon as she reached London, as the pair cohabited openly. Lola’s husband gained a judicial separation from her after hearing of her behaviour. This separation was more than a divorce as it meant that Lola could not remarry while her ex-husband was alive.

Lola, now branded a divorcee and an adulteress decided to become a dancer and moved to Cadiz in Spain in order to change her identity. After a few months in Spain, spent learning how to speak and dance like a Spaniard, the Irish Elizabeth Gilbert had completely transformed herself into her new alias Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer.
Lola returned to England where she kept up the pretence of her Spanish heritage, luckily her dark hair and complexion and striking beauty meant that people tended to believe her. Lola gained the patronage of the Earl of Malmesbury, who arranged her debut in London, but after somebody recognised her as ‘Mrs James’, she fled for the continent.

Lola managed to secure an audience with King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia, who happened to be hosting Tsar Nicholas I of Russia at the time and she gave them a private performance.  A scandal was never far from Lola Montez, and despite her new success, she soon became known for her violent temper. Lola arrived on horseback unaccompanied to a ceremony held for Tsar Nicholas, which was supposed to be reserved for royals and nobles,  A police officer tried to stop her from gaining access, so she struck him in the face with a riding crop.

After moving on to Warsaw and soon being deported for causing political unrest, Lola soon entered a passionate affair with composer Franz Liszt which she had purposefully orchestrated. After securing letters of recommendation from Liszt, Lola left for Paris to work at the opera; unsurprisingly this career did not last as Lola was dismissed for throwing her garter into the audience.

After a fling with writer Alexandre Dumas, Lola moved on to Munich in 1846, where she would become a royal mistress. King Ludwig I of Bavaria had only seen Lola dance twice when provided a villa for her to live in and made her his mistress. The sixty-year-old king was obsessed with beautiful stage women and lavished Lola with jewels and money. Lola soon began to use her power over Ludwig to influence politics and to overthrow her rivals. Lola re-directed Ludwig from his staunchly Catholic and conservative way of doing things and began to put in place more liberal, Parisian ideas. When Ludwig wanted to grant Lola citizenship and a title, it caused such disagreement within the government that the cabinet was eventually dismissed. Ludwig replaced the cabinet with one more in line with Lola’s political leanings; protestant and liberal. Ludwig made Lola Countess of Landsfeld in August 1847, which elevated her to the nobility.

Lola’s arrogance grew with her new status, and she constantly pushed moral boundaries. Even as the courtesan of a King, she continued to have other affairs. Lola desperately wanted to be accepted as a noblewoman, but her behaviour prevented this. Lola soon befriended a group of university students, who acted as bodyguards towards her and the group began to undermine the new cabinet so much that it too was soon replaced. On 9 February 1848, Lola stepped in to protect her student troop from an attack, which nearly ended with her assassination. Unrest continued to build, and Lola fled to Switzerland after her villa was attacked. Lola convinced King Ludwig to abdicate the throne, but he did not join Lola in Switzerland after hearing endless stories of the way she betrayed him over the years.

At this point in her life, Lola could have just given up. She was no longer an important political figure or the mistress of a King and had little money of her own. Instead, she moved back to London and soon married a man called Patrick in an illegal union, because of the terms of her previous divorce. Again, her marriage fell apart, and so again, Lola left to start a new life for herself. For a few years, she lived in California and then she toured Australia, entertaining the miners during the gold rush. After performing her famous ‘spider dance’ all over Australia, Lola headed back to America. Lola Montez retired from the stage to become a writer and later a successful lecturer before her death in 1860. 1

  1. Sources consulted:
    * Fireman, J, Beautiful deceiver, the Absolutely Divine Lola Montez, in The Magazine of Western History

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