Sunday, June 3, 2018

Lola Montez: Beauty and Song in the Old West


Lola Montez (de:Gouache by Carl Buchner, 1847. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola Montez is known as the "first tabloid celebrity." She was born in a time when women had to use whatever they had to survive. Lola's story is similar to that of her own mother, reflecting the harsh life women endured and their reluctant dependence on men for everything, including their safety, security, and even their success. Although her story begins in Europe, it ends in the early years of the Wild West. The story of Lola Montez could be the story of any woman in the Wild West years, struggling to survive in a new land ruled by men, and somehow succeeding. 

Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert
Lola was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert between 1818 and 1821, either in Grange, County Sligo or Limerick, Ireland--her birth year and birthplace are disputed. Lola's mother, Elizabeth Oliver, was the child of Irish diplomat Charles Silver Oliver, former High Sheriff of Cork and a member of Parliament in County Limerick. Her mother eloped with a soldier, Ensign Edward Gilbert of the 25th Irish Regiment and it was rumoured that she was pregnant with Lola at the time of their marriage. They lived in Boyle, County Roscommon until leaving for India in March of 1823.

Daguerreotype of dancer and actress Lola Montez (1821-1861). TC-75, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University. Public Domain. 

The timing of the young family was poor. There was a terrible Cholera epidemic in India in the early 1800s and Lola's father died of Cholera shortly after their arrival. Lola's mother was only 19, and having disgraced her family with a forced marriage she was now on her own. In an attempt to salvage her reputation, she married Lt. Patrick Craigie. Craigie, however, either was not familiar with raising young girls or was an impatient man. He did not want little Lola in the home. It was an important experience for Lola, though. A short lesson on the politics of marital relationships and the fact that women had little power or control over their lives.

Lola was separated from her mother and sent to Scotland for schooling. There she was shunned for the manners and behavior she had learned in India. She was marked as a troublemaker for sticking a flower in a man's hat during church. Apparently, that was all it took to destroy a child's reputation in that time.

She was also caught running through the village naked, but no one asked her for an explanation for her behavior and it's possible she was trying to avoid an attack. Lola was only ten years old. It was yet another painful lesson for Lola, this time about society and gossip. Beautiful little girls lived the same dangerous lives as beautiful grown women, and Lola would have to learn how to survive.

Lola Montez as Mariquita, in the ballet Un jour de carneval of Seville, 1852. 
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola was sent to Sunderland, England. Craigie's older sister ran a boarding school in Sunderland, but one can imagine Lola was not greeted with open arms. Her stay in Sunderland lasted less than a year before she was sent on to Bath, the largest city in the county of Somerset, England. The ancient city of Bath was known for its constant flow of tourists who arrived from around the world for a taste of the healing waters, the social scene and entertainment. It was the perfect environment for Lola's friendly, outgoing, confident personality. She quickly learned the art of flirtation and social behaviors and became interested in dancing, as well.

Lola Montez at the height of her stage performance career. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

An Arranged Marriage for a Child

Lola was 16-years-old and was told she would be making her public debut in England, but instead found herself in an arranged marriage with a 60-year-old judge. Panic-stricken, Lola turned to a close friend, Lt. Thomas James. In her memoirs, Montez refers to Lt. James in a way that implies he may have been a lover or deeply admired by Lola's mother, but he chose Lola instead and proposed an elopment.

They settled in Ireland, but perhaps "settled" is not the right word to use when discussing the life of Lola Montez. In addition to the scandal created by her young age, Lola's husband was also abusive. He spent his days chasing women and drinking. Lola and her husband returned to Spain, but they were not welcomed by her mother.

Lola left her husband and headed for England. She met her next lover, another Army officer, on the ship. They were accused of an open and indecent affair--at her divorce trial, other passengers claimed they often saw Lola's cabin door open and Lola, half-dressed, with the officer. Lola was forced to return to Spain where Lola's husband, Lt. James, granted her a divorce. Lola was only 20 years old.

Lola Montez as Mariquita, in the ballet Un jour de carneval of Seville. 1852: Public Domain.

Spanish Dancing

In an attempt to redefine her image, Lola began an intense study of Spanish dancing in Seville. She traveled to England in 1843 as Lola Montez where she was booked to appear in the royal theatre. She was thrilled by the opportunity. She finally had a chance to make her way in a man's world alone, but her dream was shattered by a man in the audience who recognized Montez as the former wife of Lt. James, and an Irishwoman. The man shouted out in the middle of her dance that she was not a famous Spanish dancer and revealed her previous identity.

At that time, the Irish were experiencing extreme prejudice. The audience was easily led to believe by the man--who had unknown motives--that she was trying to deceive the audience. She was chased from the stage with catcalls and insults. She was considered unemployable due to her tarnished reputation and was passed from one man to another as their beautiful Spanish lover. And she was beautiful, but Lola dreamed of being more than a courtesan. Still, it would be years before she could leave that past behind and fulfill her dream of the dance.

Jules Laure - Portrait of Lola Montez, 1845.

Life moved quickly in these days and within a year Lola was in Paris, France. She once again appeared on stage in the opera Le lazzarone, but reviews were poor. She was forced to fall back on her looks and reputation to survive once more and had yet another scandalous affair, this time with the composer Franz Liszt. She was introduced to novelist George Sand who was also known for her scandalous affairs, but Sand's friendship enabled Lola to meet many important people, including author Alexander Dumas. 

Lola Montez (Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) by George Dury, ca. 1848, Tennessee State Library and Archives. Public Domain.

It is believed that Lola and Dumas also had a romantic affair. But it was her friendship with newspaper publisher Alexandre Dujarier that helped her move forward with her dream, as well as her acquaintance with the newspaper's drama critic. Sadly, her friendship/romance with Dujarier also ended badly when he confronted another man in a jealous rage and challenged him to a duel. Dujarier lost and Lola was forced to move on. The life of a courteson depends on her success in finding and keeping a lover, and whatever she may have felt for Dujarier, he could not help her once he had died.  

Wilhelm von Kaulbach - Lola Montez in a classic costume, 1847. 
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

The Countess of Landsfeld

Lola's life took a dramatic turn when she arrived in Munich around 1846. In spite of her reputation for having an explosive temper and lack of popularity with the people, she became the mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria who also made her Countess of Landsfeld, a title that came with a large allowance and political power--one minister, Karl von Abel, was dismissed for objecting to her political position. 

Lola, now the Countess, was a liberal in a country divided by its mix of liberal and conservative beliefs. It is possible she was even more politically involved than her husband. When threats of revolution at the local university were relayed to her in 1848, the Countess had the university shut down. The king was forced to reopen the university, but the scandal also forced him to abdicate and Lola barely escaped Bavaria alive. Historians believe Ludwig's relationship with Lola Montez was the cause of his downfall, but he also showed a tendency to use poor judgment in political situations.

Lola Montez with Black Veil, 1853. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola escaped to Switzerland where she waited for her lover, but he never arrived. She then moved to London and married yet another officer, George Trafford Heald, but discovered she would soon be charged with bigamy due to local laws and once again, Lola was on the run. Lola and Heald traveled to France, then Spain. It is believed he drowned in Spain. 

There's Something About Lola...

Apparently fed up with life in Europe and her terrible luck with love, Lola decided to try the Wild West and bought a ticket for a boat ride to the U.S.  She was 35, which was close to the average life span in the Old West, but her beguiling appearance once again brought her fame and notoriety. 

Conrad Kiesel - A portrait of Lola Montez (according to Christie's). Date unknown. 
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 

Lola Montez was an expert at re-inventing her image, but when it came to decisions on love, she still had a lot to learn. Before the ship reached California, she was engaged to Mr. Patrick Hull, editor of the San Fransisco Whig

According to an article in The Maritime Heritage Project, she married Hull a few months later and divorced him two months after the wedding. In yet another scandal, a doctor who was named as co-respondent in the divorce was shot and killed, and his body was found on a hillside near the city. 

Historic American Buildings Survey Louis Sanchez Call, Oakland, California - Lola Montez House, 248 Mill Street, Grass Valley, Nevada County, CA. Public Domian.

Peace at Last for Lola

Looking back on her story it is easy to imagine that something in her childhood had changed Lola so that she found it difficult to truly love, or maintain a loving relationship. After her marriage to Hull she decided to help women, instead. Of course, she continued to perform and was just as popular in the Old West as she had been in Europe. Surprisingly, the Wild West towns were attractive to famous performers--lonely men with gold in their pockets and nowhere to spend it was the perfect situation for skilled, beautiful performers.

Lola, however, never forgot her life of struggle. She bought a home in Grass Valley where she stayed between performances and was reportedly well-liked by the community. She also started a program helping women who were struggling to survive on her own.

Lola Montez died in financial poverty, but her life was golden. She gave everything she owned to help the women in the Wild West. She also met a special young girl who she decided to teach how to dance--Charlotte "Lotta" Crabtree. It was a serendipitous meeting--Lotta Crabtree would become the star of the next generation of Wild West entertainers.

Sources: (Please note from the sources that this post was started in May of 2017 and published in June of 2018, I apologize for any discrepencies in the source information.)
  • Gilbert, Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna. Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, 1911. Accessed May 14, 2017. 
  • "Lola Montez." Death Valley Days. Episode first aired January 4, 1955. 
  • "Lola Montez." Very Important Passengers. Ship Passengers: 1846-1899. The Maritime Heritage Project ~ San Francisco. Accessed January 16, 2018.  
  • "Obituary: Death of Lola Montez." News. The New York Times. Originally published January 21, 1861. Accessed online May 12, 2017.
  • Roper, Ann. "Her Name Was Lola." Hidden History. Aired March 7, 2007. Accessed on Internet Archive Wayback Machine November 7, 2017. 


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