Lola was shipped off to school in Scotland. At 10, she was taken to Sunderland in a family-run boarding school. That too failed when the young teenager eloped with a soldier, Lieutenant Thomas James, in 1837. In 1839 James took her to Simla in India, but eloped with another woman himself (sic). When they separated and she had to support herself in London, she became a dancer called Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer. This name referred back to her supposedly Spanish noble ancestors, a claim she made for the rest of her life.
James Morton's book, 2007
Her move onto the Continent was rather successful. With the aid of one of her older, wealthy, male patrons, she moved to Warsaw and was accepted by the Polish Opera. Next she visited St Petersburg and then settled in Dresden (1843). Lola met and had an affair with Franz Liszt, then she met George Sand and Frederic Chopin, became the mistress of Alexandre Dumas and of newspaper owner Alexandre Dujarier. In 1846, she arrived in Munich and had a torrid affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria. This woman had something special – she had more affairs with noblemen and wealthy businessmen than I have had hot dinners.
Despite the good citizens of Bavaria not liking Lola Montez, King Ludwig gave her a title (Countess of Landsfeld), a large home and stipend. In 1848 King Ludwig abdicated for political reasons and not because of Montez, nonetheless she left Bavaria as fast as her legs would take her. In Switzerland, Lola’s Bavarian rights were annulled.
King Ludwig I of Bavaria, painted by Joseph Stieler
Back in London in 1848, the ever-game Lola Montez met and quickly married the army officer George Trafford Heald, despite the opposition from Heald’s family. Not for the last time in her life did Lola find herself in court, charged with adultery or bigamy or both. Still Heald supported her throughout and accompanied her to Europe when she broke bail and fled the country. The Healds actually had a couple of happy years of marriage but no relationship seemed to last very long where Lola was concerned. In any case, Lola started to exhibit definite symptoms of the disease which would slowly destroy her. She was suffering from delusions that frightened Heald and made him flee (only to return each time).
She was off again, this time to America in 1851, to stun and amaze audiences on the other side of the Atlantic. By 1853, Lola Montez had arrived at San Francisco and married the newspaper owner Patrick Hull. This marriage naturally fell apart quite soon but she stayed in California for a while, earning her living by dancing and acting.
Raymond Bradfield said that whenever something went awry with her performance, or whenever she was booed by the audience or critics, Lola ALWAYS demonstrated the Montez method of converting crises into useful publicity.
Grass Valley California, the only home Lola ever owned. 1852
San Francisco was the city where Lola first performed the dance that was to become synonymous with her name: the Spider Dance. It was a masterpiece of real dancing skill and stagecraft, using the music to display the effects of spider venom on her body. But the critics noted only one thing - apparently she raised her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no undies at all.
In May 1855 Lola appointed a young American actor Noel Follin/Folland as her manager. With their own company, they sailed to Australia and opened in Sydney to huge publicity and notoriety. But it didn’t seem to go well.
Lola opened at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal in September, continuing the same performances that had not done well in Sydney. When they failed to charm Melbourne, Lola began to perform her beloved Spider Dance. The Sydney Morning Herald had described it as "the most libertinish and indelicate performance that could be given on the public stage". The Argus in Melbourne was even worse. It thought her performance was “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality". Respectable families ceased to attend the theatre, which began to show heavy losses. Lola wrote back to the papers, saying that “far from pandering to morbid or sexually oriented taste”, she was actually delivering “high class art”.
Being unwanted in the big cities and having visited the goldfields of San Francisco prior to her arrival in Australia, Montez thought greatest acclaim would come from the gold fields of Victoria. Hundreds of thousands of men, without wives and girlfriends, had flocked to Bendigo, Ballarat, Castlemaine and the smaller towns to try their luck at the diggings. She certainly gave the men her all! She did musical comedy, Shakespearian dramas and her beloved Spider Dance. The nearly all-male audience adored every performance, whether it was in a tent, a tavern or a newly built music hall.
Victoria Theatre and United States Hotel, Ballarat
Lola Montez may have been older and sicker than she had been in Europe, but she wasn’t retiring yet. She publicly whipped Henry Seekamp, the editor of the Ballarat Times, because one of his editorials had denigrated her good character. At Castlemaine in April 1856, she was rapturously encored after her Spider Dance in front of 400 unkempt miners and the entire, well-dressed Municipal Council.
Eventually Lola had had enough of moralising Australian critics and adoring gold miner audiences. She sailed for San Francisco in May 1856, but tragically her manager/lover Noel Follin fell over the side of the ship and drowned! Her performing days were over, so she stayed solvent by delivering the lectures that a man called Rev Charles Chauncey Burr had written, on all kinds of topical subjects. In 1858, their tours were quite successful. But I am less convinced about her finding religion in her final days. She apparently did missionary work amongst what she referred to as “fallen women”. The great Lola Montez died, impoverished and paralysed, in New York in 1861. She was only 42.
Read Lola Montez and Castlemaine by Raymond Bradfield, published by Castlemaine Mail, for an excellent review of Australian theatrical history in the mid 19th century. For a more general coverage of her life, read Bruce Seymour’s book Lola Montez, a Life, Yale University Press, 1996. James Morton wrote Lola Montez: Her Life and Conquests, 2007.