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Great European Lives: Lola Montez

Lola Montez, British dancer and adventuress. Photo: Getty Images. - Credit: Bettmann Archive

#83: Lola Montez, dancer and adventuress. February 17, 1821 – January 17, 1861

In the early summer of 1843 Her Majesty’s Theatre in London announced a performance of Rossini’s The Barber 
of Seville.

‘Between the acts of the opera,’ the notice read, ‘Dona Lola Montez of the Teatro Real, Seville, will have the honour of making her first appearance in this country in the original Spanish dance, El Olano.’

No-one knew it at the time but this was to be the first public appearance of one of Europe’s most extraordinary phenomena, a woman of invention, single mind and beauty enough to bring down kings.

Her performance was sensation enough for the Times to review the mystery Iberian dancer without even mentioning the opera, praising ‘a kind of national reality about her that was most impressive’. For the Evening Standard correspondent meanwhile, ‘there is before you the perfection of Spanish beauty’.

The thing was, this dark-eyed, castanet-clacking Spaniard wasn’t from Seville at all and far from being a regular at the Teatro Real had never performed in public before. To cap it all she wasn’t even remotely Spanish. As the applause rang out, one man squinted through his opera glasses at the stony-faced, curtseying dancer about whom he was certain there was something familiar.

‘Why it… it’s Betsy James!’ he spluttered and the legend of Lola Montez began.

The next day the man wrote anonymously to the press. ‘The ‘Senorita’ whom [the theatre] seeks to palm off on the credulity of opera subscribers is a personage who has received for some time past in the nomenclature of Mrs James, and who, though a remarkably pretty woman, knows more of many other things that she knows of dancing and more of the locality of Clarges Street than she does of the Teatro Real, Seville.’

Yet for all the astonished correspondent’s efforts and insinuations, the comet that was Lola Montez had already launched itself across the skies of Europe. In a few short years she would blaze across the continent and beyond, dancing, partying and consorting with some of the most prominent political and cultural figures of the age, having men duel over her and bringing down at least one major European monarch. She had no major gifts beyond her beauty and personality and got by on sheer force of will, a notoriously short temper and a succession of whopping lies often so astonishing in their chutzpah that they almost had to be true.

She would regularly claim to be the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, for example, and a few weeks before her stage debut had found herself sharing a train compartment from Southampton to London with the Earl of Malmesbury. At first diverted by her beauty, the earl became enchanted by her tale of poverty and exile. She had been married to a Spanish aristocrat, she explained, who had been recently executed for leading a putsch against Queen Isabella. Forced to flee she had arrived penniless in England where, despite her grief, she would try her luck there as a dancer. So charmed was the Earl that as soon as they reached London he recommended her to the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre.

In fact this Lola Montez, the dancing Spanish widow of a romantic revolutionary, was born Eliza Gilbert in the west of Ireland to a teenage soldier of the British army and the 13-year-old illegitimate daughter of an Irish aristocrat. That day, in that railway carriage, Eliza was consigned to the past and Lola was born.

Amateur psychologists might identify the roots of the Lola Montez phenomenon in the early death of her military father, almost immediately after moving the family to India when Eliza was two: during her lifetime she married three soldiers and moved consistently from older man to older man.

In India her mother soon married a Scottish soldier who sent Eliza home for her schooling to his dour, Presbyterian parents whose lives were immediately disrupted by a headstrong, mischievous child with a fiery temper. When she took to running naked through the streets of Montrose Eliza was sent away to school, eventually arriving at a Bath establishment designed to bring her into line (later a teacher would recall how Eliza’s ‘beautiful countenance’ was tainted by her ‘habitual expressions of indomitable self-will’).

In 1837, Eliza, barely 16, eloped to Ireland with a British army lieutenant named Thomas James, largely to ward off a marriage arranged by her mother to the elderly adjutant-general of Bengal, a man described by Eliza as ‘a gouty old rascal of 60 years’. The marriage broke down after both parties proved serially unfaithful, prompting her arrival in London and decision to start all over again as Lola Montez.

Despite the press sensation caused by her outing, Montez stood resolutely by her new identity, threatening legal action and insisting she was a native of Seville even four years after the event when she was still writing to the Times to ‘beg leave to say my name is Maria Dolores Porrys Montez and I have never changed that name’.

She decamped across the Channel when the heat of scandal had failed to die down but continued to demonstrate a knack for sensation, usually thanks to her temper. Barely four months after her stage debut she narrowly avoided prison for horsewhipping a Berlin gendarme who’d grabbed her steed when it became boisterous during a parade by the King of Prussia. She moved on to Paris where in 1844 she met and commenced affairs with Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas and embarked upon an intense relationship with eminent newspaper publisher Alexandre Dujarier, who was soon killed in a duel sparked by an incident involving Montez at a party.

To escape the fallout she tracked down Liszt in Bonn, barged into a banquet he 
was attending, leapt onto the table, commenced dancing and kicked a tureen 
of consommé into the lap of a duke. The next morning the traumatised composer crept out of his hotel room, locked her inside, left a sum of money with the owners to cover the inevitable damage Montez would cause when she woke to discover 
him gone and disappeared from her life 
for good.

In 1846 she arrived in Bavaria where she embarked upon a relationship with King Ludwig I. According to legend, when Ludwig first met Montez he pointed at her bosom and enquired, ‘Nature or art?’, to which the dancer responded by ripping open her dress and revealing more than enough to answer beyond doubt.

The elderly Ludwig – a notable eccentric who enjoyed nothing more than walking the streets of Munich incognito and knocking people’s hats off – was immediately smitten, building a palace for Montez, awarding her a whopping stipend and designating her the Countess of Landsfeld.

Montez exercised considerable influence over the lovestruck monarch and persuaded him to introduce a number of liberal policies designed to reduce the influence of the church. Such power behind the throne made her so unpopular at all levels of Bavarian society that she triggered an 1848 uprising that forced Ludwig to abdicate. ‘My crown for Lola,’ he had promised and was true to his word.

Again she escaped the fallout, moving first to London for another ill-starred military marriage before embarking in 1851 on an attempted dance conquest of America. Arriving eventually in California at the peak of the Gold Rush, Montez opened a saloon furnished with the detritus of her extraordinary life: Louis XVI cabinets, jewellery presented to her by Ludwig, a red-baize, gold-leaf billiard table with dragons carved on its legs and a performing bear. But that venture – along with a plan to lead California to independence from the US as ‘Lolaland’ discovered among papers after her death a month short of her 40th birthday – failed and she spent her syphilis-riddled final years giving lecture tours detailing the events of her remarkable life.

Alexandre Dumas once said that Lola Montez ‘was born to be the evil genius of everyone who cared for her’, something arguably confirmed by the trail she left of dethroned kings, broken marriages and a string of paramours either dead, terrified or simply heartbroken. It’s impossible to say what drove her on but that night at Her Majesty’s, as the applause and cheers washed over her new start and new identity, Lola Montez must have felt capable of absolutely anything.

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