26 April 2011

Lola Montez: her tragedies and joys

An ordinary Irish teenager called Eliza Oliver met Ensign Edward Gilbert and became pregnant in Dec 1818. Maria Dolores Eliza Gilbert (Lola) was apparently born in Limerick, apparently in Feb 1820. I say “apparently” because none of her details were ever fully verifiable. Lola’s parents soon married and went to India but sadly Edward Gilbert died soon after they settled.

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.


the foto fanatic said...

"Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl"

Could Barry Manilow have been singing about Lola Montez? :-)

We don't seem to have stars like this any more!

Hels said...

nah no Barry Manilow connection.

But she really was a star, wasn't she. There was barely a stage art that Lola Montez didn't participate in, at one stage or another: opera, drama, musical comedy, burlesque, spanish flamenco etc etc.

I suppose having a dead father and a distant (in both senses) mother will make a desperate child very keen for survival and success.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
The final irony of of missionary work to aid 'fallen' women is almost beyond belief. One is left wondering whether or not she related this to her own life?!!

What a very sad existence for she was, most likely, despite any bravado on her part, a victim, made use of and manipulated by others to their own advantage. A tragic life, despite interludes of apparent success, which, viewed in retrospect, was bound to end in disappointment and failure.

But all so fascinating - non fiction which could so easily appear as fiction for it is a strange tale indeed.

Hermes said...

What a life. She had that indefinable star quality - which is much more than mere celebrity.

Andrew said...

Celebrity gossip. I love it. Was it she who broke up furniture in her Ballarat hotel room to stoke the fire? In didn't know of the whatever happened to details. Sad end.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance
you could not make this stuff up in a soap opera! The trouble is... noone has any way of knowing which elements of Lola Montez's story were true and which were dreamt up in her own mind.

For example, the affair with Franz Liszt certainly happened. But she saw it as the love affair of the century and he felt that he was being hounded by an obsessed woman.

That hardly made her an upper class prostitute, as most would have us believe. If she was a true courtesan, she would not have married or become engaged to many of her lovers. And they would not have been so besotted with her.

So a child from a really terrible family situation, yes. A bad tempered woman who made some very poor decisions in her short life, yes. But no courtesan. She was a survivor using her innate skills.. and some newly learned ones.

Hels said...


she did! Even when shows went badly awry, as they sometimes did, she was able to turn the situation around and carry on. Only a real trouper could manage that, not a flaky Paris Hilton-type celeb.

The Clever Pup said...

Hels, I love women like this. I first heard of Lola when I was doing a Millennium quiz, ie. who was the mistress of X and of X and of X.

Funny too, I've performed genealogy for a family who ended up in Ballarat and another family called Folland.

Kristin H said...

What a woman! I had heard about her adventures in San Francisco but I had no idea of how her impact had spread so wide and far. To travel to this many places at that time as a "single" woman is incredible!

Hels said...

foto fanatic,
this may be of interest.

The Beading Gem's Journal says that Lola Montez was supposedly the inspiration for the song "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets". It's a sultry song sung to perfection by American jazz great, Sarah Vaughan.


Hels said...

I didn't see that story in the book Lola Montez and Castlemaine by Raymond Bradfield. But it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. Montez did things as she needed them, without much thinking about long term consequences.

Hels said...

Clever Pup
Folland sounds like an unusual name to me. If the Folland you knew was indeed a relative of Noel Follin/Folland (Montez's manager), it would be a great story. He was an extraordinary support for Montez when she needed it most, a very talented man in his own right.

The true story of Folland's unlikely drowning will never be known probably, but it was the subject for rumour mills for years.

Hels said...

she was fearless.

Even now, a woman would think carefully about charging around between India, Ireland, Britain, Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, USA and Australia. She had no money and she didn't have any contacts in those places, so she was totally on her own!

Kim Finley said...

Fascinating. Funny about her little California house. An amazing, audacious, and, as these stories often go, sad life.

Hels said...


that house was special. Montez moved to Grass Valley in 1853 and bought the old school house to live in. It must have been wonderful for her, socialising for the first time in her life in her own home.

Yet she could not stay put! Montez left Grass Valley in 1855 and over a very long time, I suppose the house fell apart. My photo shows the modern (and accurate) replica, used as a museum.

Intelliblog said...

She was an amazing personality that lived life spelt with a capital "L". It's always fun to create an autobiography that people are fascinated with and yearn for!

Hels said...


Lola Montez was the most energetic, brave and persistent woman that I have ever read about. Noone could have flouted public conventions and morals as consistently as Montez did, and survived to tell the tale.

Yet tracking down the details of her life, even big events like marriages and court cases, is like trying to pin mercury onto the wall with a drawing pin. Even when facts about an event are 100% certain, there is no way of telling if Montez "managed" the event herself or not.

Sailor said...

Wow this is a beautiful blog. Just found your blog from travel blog roll.

Hels said...

welcome aboard, sailor :)

ChrisJ said...

I hadn't heard the expression "fell pregnant" for a long time - always thought it was a wonderful and funny expression. Odd how the expression seems to avoid blame and yet so many women who "fell" pregnant were so censured and worse.

Hels said...

I changed it straight away :) Thanks.

The trouble with Lola's mother, Eliza, was that she was barely a teenager herself (14 or 15) when Lola was born. Unmarried and without financial support, Eliza was shipped off to a distant town to hide her pregnancy. I don't suppose young Eliza:
a. planned to have a baby
b. wanted a shot gun marriage
c. hoped to live in India or
d. expected to become a widow within 2 years of marriage.

So Eliza did what any other British teenage widow in India would do. She quickly married another British soldier and sent the little girl back to Britain.

No wonder Lola had no stability in her young life.

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Joseph said...

What happened to the theatre and hotel in Ballarat? They should be historical treasures, given their Lola association.

Hels said...

Sovereign Hill is a replica town that recreates the bustling gold rush era of 1850s Ballarat. So both the theatre and the hotel are replicas of the original buildings, but with every detail retained.

Hels said...

I have now seen the house! Montez moved to the Grass Valley home in 1853 and left in 1855. She must have had some wild old parties there.

But why, if the house got Heritage Protection in 1938, was it demolished in 1975? [The current house-museum is a replica of the house found in a sketch that had been drawn during Lola Montez's time there].