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Montez, Lola [real name Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert]locked

(1821–1861)
  • Bruce Seymour

Lola Montez (1821–1861)

by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, c. 1850

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of I. N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion Augusta Hawes, 1937. (37.14.41) All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Montez, Lola [real name Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert] (1821–1861), adventuress, was born on 17 February 1821 at Grange, co. Sligo, Ireland, the only child of Edward Gilbert (c.1797–1823), an ensign of the 25th foot regiment, and his wife, Eliza Oliver (c.1805–1875), the illegitimate daughter of Charles Silver Oliver MP and Mary Green. Before the girl was two years old her father exchanged into the 44th foot regiment, which had already departed for service in India; he died there on 22 September 1823, almost immediately upon his arrival with his wife and daughter at Dinajpur, near Patna. The widow soon married Lieutenant Patrick Craigie of the 19th native infantry, and in late 1826 the child was sent to live with Craigie's relatives in Montrose, Scotland. In the autumn of 1832 she was placed in a boarding-school at 20 Camden Place in Bath, and remained there until the spring of 1837, when her mother arrived to take her back to India. By this time Elizabeth had grown into a very beautiful young woman, with jet black hair, a striking figure, and large, dark blue eyes. According to Montez, her mother told her she was to be married to an old man in India, but the sixteen-year-old eloped to Ireland with a thirty-year-old officer of the 21st native infantry her mother had met on the ship from India, Lieutenant Thomas James (1807–1871). They were married at Rathbeggan, outside Dublin, on 23 July 1837. James returned with his bride to India in 1838, but the marriage failed, and Mrs James sailed alone from Calcutta on 3 October 1840 to return to England, where it had been arranged she would live with a brother of her stepfather. During the voyage, however, she began an adulterous affair with Lieutenant George Lennox (1821–1844) of the 4th Madras cavalry, a nephew of the duke of Richmond. When this news reached India, Lieutenant James sued his wife for divorce, and on 15 December 1842 the court of arches entered a decree of divorce specifically forbidding each of the parties to remarry during the lifetime of the other.

By this time the affair with Lennox was over, and Eliza Gilbert James, now publicly branded as an adulteress, had resolved to go on the stage. She claimed she studied acting briefly at Fanny Kelly's school in Soho but was advised that dancing might better suit her talents. The new divorcee travelled to Cadiz, Spain, where she learned the rudiments of Spanish dancing and of the Spanish language, and returned to England in the spring of 1843 having transformed herself into Lola Montez, a noble Spanish dancer. Montez gained the patronage of the third earl of Malmesbury, who convinced Benjamin Lumley, the impresario of Her Majesty's Theatre, to allow her to make her début at a gala performance on 3 June 1843. Her dance, which combined Spanish elements with miming the pursuit and destruction of a spider, was a great success and immediately encored; but after the performance Lumley was informed that his new ‘Spanish’ star was a fraud, and he refused to allow her to appear again. Montez mounted a vehement but futile campaign in her own defence, publicly swearing she was a native Spaniard and had never been Mrs James.

After sailing for Germany, Lola Montez obtained an engagement at the Royal Theatre in Dresden, where critical reaction was sharply divided, as it would be throughout her career, between enraptured praise of her beauty and magnetic stage presence and scornful condemnation of her technique as a dancer. An engagement in Berlin followed, and she was invited to dance before Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his guest, Tsar Nicholas I, at a private gala held in the Neues Palais at Potsdam. Her stay in Berlin ended with an episode that began the legend of Lola Montez as a fiery and unconventional woman, when, at a troop review before the king and Tsar, she lashed out with her riding whip at a mounted gendarme who prevented her from riding unbidden into the royal enclosure. Her legend grew at her next stop, Warsaw, where during her engagement she began feuding with the impresario, who was also the chief of police. At a performance on 14 November 1843 she denounced the impresario from the stage, and the subsequent uproar threatened to become a patriotic demonstration against the Russian occupation. After barricading herself in her hotel room and assaulting one of the guards placed outside her door, Montez was deported to the Prussian border.

The incidents in Berlin and Warsaw had made her notorious, and Montez had no trouble arranging engagements in Stettin, Danzig, Königsberg, and Riga. She apparently travelled to St Petersburg, but the Tsar was well aware of her activities in Warsaw, and no engagement was forthcoming in the Russian capital. By Montez's own account, she now hit upon the idea of attaching herself to Franz Liszt (1811–1886), then at the peak of his fame as a virtuoso, and raced by post coach along the frozen Baltic coast to intercept him at a concert near Berlin. She convinced the famous Hungarian to allow her to travel with him to Dresden. There she met the composer Richard Wagner on 29 February 1844, during a special performance of his Rienzi arranged at Liszt's request. Wagner was repelled by her, but following the performance Montez introduced Liszt to the fourteen-year-old Hans von Bülow, whom she had met in Berlin and who later, like Wagner, would become Liszt's son-in-law. Montez's liaison with Liszt ended, apparently amicably, after only about a week, and she left Dresden for Paris with letters of recommendation to Liszt's influential friends. She arranged a début at the Opéra, then ballet's most prestigious stage, before she had been in Paris a month. At her first appearance, on 27 March 1844, Montez began her dance by tossing a garter into the audience, but this unorthodox gesture could not save her from failure before the critical French audience. An equally ill-received performance two days later definitively ended her career at the Opéra, and she temporarily abandoned the stage to enjoy the life of a beautiful demi-mondaine in Paris.

Montez became the mistress of Alexandre Henri Dujarier (1815–1845), the wealthy co-owner of the influential newspaper La Presse, and he probably played a role in the resumption of her dancing career, at the Théâtre de la Porte St Martin on 7 March 1845. Although the critical reception was not as hostile as before, Dujarier's death in a duel a few days later once again suspended Montez's dancing career. She was seen prominently at the festival Liszt arranged in August 1845 to dedicate Beethoven's statue at Bonn and shortly thereafter was expelled from fashionable Baden-Baden, reportedly for outraging decency by demonstrating publicly that she carried a dagger in her garter. After making a dramatic appearance at Dujarier's murder trial in March 1846, she travelled to the spas of Belgium and Germany. On 5 October 1846 she arrived in Munich, where she applied for an engagement at the Royal Theatre.

Thus began the central episode of Montez's life, her liaison with the sixty-year-old Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786–1868). The king, who had a deep interest both in beautiful women and in things Spanish, was quickly enthralled by her, and after she had danced twice he established her in her own small villa at Barerstrasse 7, promising to make her a countess. Once Montez recognized her influence over the king, she was unrestrained in attempting to advance her supporters and secure the dismissal of her foes. 'The Spanish woman' was soon hated and feared in Munich. Although the king refused to allow her to interfere in matters of political importance, his promise to make her a Bavarian countess led him to ignore the recommendation of his cabinet against granting her citizenship, and the cabinet resigned on 11 February 1847, bringing an end to nearly ten years of conservative Catholic government. The ministers' private remonstrance to King Ludwig was published throughout Europe, increasing Montez's international notoriety; and the appointment of a more liberal government seemed to give her a political importance that was belied by her apolitical self-interest. King Ludwig created her countess of Landsfeld on 25 August 1847, when his initial platonic interest had become frankly erotic, although Montez usually rewarded his desires with frustration. As countess she became even more arrogant, establishing a corps of university students to act as her bodyguard and undermining the new cabinet until it too was replaced. The final crisis began on 9 February 1848, when Montez attempted to defy a mob attacking her student corps and was saved from assassination only by the arrival of troops. Two days later she fled Munich as an enraged mob stormed her villa. She ultimately found refuge in Switzerland, where she corresponded with King Ludwig, encouraging him to abdicate and join her. Depressed by her absence and the concessions forced from him by the revolutionary events of 1848, King Ludwig did abdicate on 19 March 1848. But after he learned how Montez had betrayed and manipulated him, the king broke off contact with her.

Montez moved from Switzerland to London, where, on 19 July 1849, at St George's, Hanover Square, she married 21-year-old Cornet George Trafford Heald (1828–1856) of the 2nd Life Guards, the wealthy heir of a London barrister. Heald's aunt and former guardian, having learned that Lieutenant James was still alive in India, prosecuted her for bigamy. Montez and Heald fled England, and led a stormy existence in France, Italy, and Spain, until Heald finally abandoned her in Paris in August 1850. She returned to dancing with a tour of France and Belgium in the autumn of 1851, and, seeking new worlds to conquer, she crossed the Atlantic to dance in New York city on 29 December 1851. Five months later New York saw her first appearance as an actress, when she played herself in a new work entitled Lola Montez in Bavaria, written to perpetuate the myth that she had attempted to bring liberal reforms to Bavaria. Her successful American tours eventually brought her to California in the midst of the gold rush, and in San Francisco, on 2 July 1853, she married Patrick Purdy Hull (1821–1858), a newspaper editor, from whom she separated after a few weeks.

Montez retired to Grass Valley, a small mining town in the California mountains, for nearly two years before leaving in June 1855 to tour Australia. Her acting and the famous 'Spider Dance' won her large audiences in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, as well as the gold-mining towns of Victoria; horsewhipping encounters with a newspaper editor and the wife of her manager added to the legend of her fiery temper and eccentricity. Following a brief second tour of California, she returned to New York city and continued to perform widely in the United States and Canada. In the summer of 1857 she abandoned the stage to become a very successful lecturer on topics such as 'Gallantry', 'Fashion', and 'Heroines and strong-minded women of history', in which she scorned the feminist movement in favour of individual self-assertion. During this period Montez, who had always been generous in private charity, became increasingly religious and was attracted particularly to the spiritualist movement. Her first lectures were published in June 1858 as Lectures of Lola Montez Including her Autobiography, which was quickly followed by her popular health and beauty advice under the title The Arts of Beauty (1858). In November 1858 she arrived in Ireland to begin an extensive lecture tour of the British Isles, which concluded the following spring in London. There she used her substantial earnings to purchase the lease of a large house at 26 Park Lane West with the intention of operating it as a fashionable boarding house. Her mismanagement and ill health soon brought her to bankruptcy, but she returned to New York city in October 1859 and recouped her fortune with another successful lecture tour.

Montez suffered a crippling stroke on 30 June 1860, but had nearly recovered when she contracted pneumonia and died at 194 West 17th Street, New York, on 17 January 1861, leaving word for King Ludwig that she had died a good Christian and had never forgotten his friendship. She was buried two days later under the name Mrs Eliza Gilbert in Brooklyn's Green-Wood cemetery.

Sources

  • B. Seymour, Lola Montez: a life (1996)
  • R. Rauh and B. Seymour, eds., Ludwig I und Lola Montez: der Briefwechsel (1995)
  • L. Montez, Memoiren von Lola Montez, Gräfin von Landsfeld, trans. L. Fort (1851)
  • Lectures of Lola Montez: including her autobiography (1858)
  • H. Gollwitzer, Ludwig I von Bayern: Königtum in Vormärz: eine politische Biographie (1986)
  • E. Corti, Ludwig I von Bayern (1937)
  • H. von Bülow, Briefe und Schriften, 6 (1904)
  • C. Wagner, Die Tagebücher, 1 (1976)
  • B. Lumley, Reminiscences of the opera (1864)

Archives

  • Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, König Ludwig I Archiv
  • Harvard TC, Lola Montez collection
  • U. Cal., Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Lola Montez collection
  • BL OIOC, journals of Sir Jasper Nicolls, Eur. MS F175
  • LMA, file of the consistory court in the case of James v. James, Acc. 73.77

Likenesses

  • W. von Kaulbach, oils, 1847, Stadtmuseum, Munich, Germany
  • A. Leeb, plaster bust, 1847, Neue Pinakotek, Munich, Germany; marble copy, Neue Pinakotek, Munich, Germany
  • J. Stieler, oils, 1847, Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlösser, Gärten und Seen, Munich, Germany, Schloss Nymphenburg
  • A. S. Southworth and J. J. Hawes, daguerreotype, 1850, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [see illus.]
  • M. Root, daguerreotype, 1852, Harvard TC
  • M. Root, double portrait, daguerreotype, 1852 (with Chief Light in the Clouds), priv. coll.
  • A. S. Southworth and J. J. Hawes, daguerreotype, 1852, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
  • J. Skipper, pencil and wash sketches, 1855, Mortlock Library of South Australiana, Adelaide, Australia
  • Meade Bros., daguerreotype, 1856–1857, Harvard TC
  • Meade Bros., daguerreotype, 1858, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Portrait Gallery
  • salt print photograph, 1858, Museum of the City of New York
  • Meade Bros., two photographs, 1858–1860, Harvard TC
  • London Stereoscopic Co., photograph, 1859, Harvard TC
  • A. Adam-Salomon, photograph, 1860, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France
  • theatrical prints, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Wealth at Death

$1247: letter to editor of New York Sun (25 April 1897)

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