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 was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1824 (although this is disputed, this is the date given by Montez in her autobiography). In her lectures she stated that her ancestors were Irish and Moorish-Spanish. Lola's mother, Elizabeth Oliver, was the child of Irish diplomat Charles Silver Oliver, a descendent of the Spanish noble Count de Montalvo, former High Sheriff of Cork, and a member of Parliament in County Limerick.

Elizabeth Oliver was also known to be the most beautiful woman in her social circle. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Oliver eloped with a soldier, Edward Gilbert, and although Montez claimed she was born in the second year of their marriage it was rumored that her mother was pregnant with Lola at the time of their marriage.

Gilbert was an intelligent man and talented soldier. He was made a Captain in the 44th Irish Regiment before the age of 20. Unfortunately, the marriage and rumors surrounding the marriage of the young couple destroyed any chance that either or both would have been welcomed back into society. The couple lived in Boyle, County Roscommon before Gilbert was sent to 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 devastating Cholera epidemic in India in the early 1800s and Lola's father died of Cholera shortly after their arrival. According to the autobiography of Montez, her father's best friend, Lt. Patrick Craigie, was also in the room at the time of his death and Gilbert begged Craigie to care for his young wife and child.

Lola's mother 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 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.

Craigie was promoted to Major and sent to Calcutta. Lola was separated from her mother and lived with the family of Sir Jasper Nichols, commander of the Bengal forces. Nichols had many daughters and Montez was sent to Paris, along with the Nichols' children, to finish her education.

There were many rumors about Lola's behavior at this time. 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. It was also said that she once through the village naked. In contemporary times, the child would be questioned to see if she was attacked, but instead, Lola was victimized by vicious gossip. She 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.

When she returned to the Nichols family at the age of 14 her mother arrived claiming she was there to take her home. Montez was confused by the number of new gowns and fancy clothing that was made for this trip and when she asked her mother's travel escort, 27-year-old Captain James, she discovered she was promised to be married to a sixty-year-old court judge.

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

An Arranged Marriage for a Child

Lola was terrified to learn she was to marry a 60-year-old man. She turned to her mother's travel companion, Lt. Thomas James, and begged for his help. 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 Lola was so insistent with her pleas for rescue from the planned marriage that James proposed an elopement.

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 courtesan 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 Francisco 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. She was still a young woman of 39, and it is believed that she died of pneumonia. However, an article in The Irish Times states that she died from the effects of syphillus. Regardless, it is her life that is best remembered. She was a woman confronted with many obstacles who managed to build a career that was golden and left behind a reputation for her kindness and compassion. 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 discrepancy in the source information.)
  • Collins, Padraig. "An Irishman’s Diary on the glamorous and dangerous Lola Montez." Posted July 16, 2014. Accessed July 25, 2019. 
  • Gilbert, Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna. Encyclopedia Britannica 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.  
  • Montez, Lola. Autobiography and Lectures of Lola Montez. James Blackwood, Paternoster Rowe. London: 1860.
  • "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. 

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...