“The mistress heard round the world” would be a fitting nickname for Lola Montez. Her short 39 years of life were marked by grand romance, toppled governments, tragic duels, and maybe even murder! Wherever Lola went, chaos was sure to follow, though that never seemed to slow her down. If I’m being honest, the wonders of Lola Montez will truly never cease. I hope you love her as much as I do!
Despite the Spanish name and styling of “Lola Montez” this young woman was actually born as Eliza Gilbert in Ireland in 1821. Her father was a British officer and her mother was the daughter of a member of Parliament. Nowhere in her family tree did Spain make an appearance, but Lola was destined to put on a good show and her stage name proved popular. Montez was to become a world traveler early in life when at the age of 2 her family moved to India. When her father died of cholera, her mother remarried a British Lieutenant who had no understanding of how to raise a free-spirited, toddler girl who was prone to temperamental outbursts.
Lola’s stepfather decided that only boarding school could tame the wild child and so, she was sent back to the UK where she spent the next 10 years “school-hopping.” Not even well-established boarding schools could refine this young woman with big dreams and little patience for rules. Her time as a student in Scotland, Sunderland, and Bath was marked with pranks and mischief- even an incident of streaking naked down the street!
For a brief moment, it looked like Lola may settle down when, at just 16, she married Lieutenant Thomas James and they moved together to India. The fairly high-profile marriage lasted just 5 years before Lola decided to divorce her husband and pursue a life as a dancer and performer. Lola Montez made her debut in England, a location that proved difficult because many people already knew her as the wife of a Lieutenant. But no worries- Lola just picked up her life and began to dance in Paris and Warsaw, cities where she became far more successful.
In Paris, Lola ran with an artistic elite circle and had affairs with great composers such as Frank Liszt and world-famous writers like Alexandre Dumas. At one point she found love with a drama critic, Alexandre Dujarier, who owned one of France’s most popular newspapers and he helped jump start Lola’s reputation and career with his reviews…and his money. In a shocking twist, Dujarier showed up at a party in Paris and began to argue with a rival critic from another paper. The insults quickly escalated and Dujarier was challenged to a duel…which he tragically lost.
After the duel, which killed her lover, Montez soured a bit on Paris and decided to give Munich a try. During one performance in 1846, Lola caught the attention of none other than Ludwig I, King of Bavaria. Their scandalous meet-cute involved the king asking Lola if her breasts were real (“are they nature or art?”), to which she responded by undressing far enough to answer his question! The king was obsessed. He took Lola as his official mistress, gave her a castle, the title of “Countess” and even listened to her in matters of state.
The only problem with Lola’s new royal life, was that the people of Bavaria loved their queen (aka NOT Lola) and disagreed with Lola’s more liberal, Protestant views. Her wild temper and scandalous past were just gas on the fire of the people’s hatred. Regardless of public sentiment, Lola’s power and influence was strong. She once convinced Ludwig to shut down an entire university because its students came to protest at her home. She greeted her protestors from her balcony and sipped champagne and ate fine chocolates to show them she had no interest in their grievances. It was this action that was the last straw for the people of Bavaria. A civil war broke out in 1848, forcing Ludwig to abdicate his throne and exile Lola from the country with a threat of death should she ever return..
Her next marriage was to George Heald, a British cavalry officer who had come into quite a large inheritance. They were married 2 years before he mysteriously drowned. Following his death, Lola’s sense of adventure brought her to America. Her shows on the east coast and in San Francisco were well received and Lola married yet again, this time a newspaperman named Patrick Hull. Within 2 years, Hull discovered that Lola was having an affair with her doctor and promptly divorced Lola…the doctor was found murdered shortly thereafter.
It was time to run again! Lola’s next location was Australia where she planned to do a national dancing tour throughout 1855. Unfortunately, her routines were not well received by the Australian audiences, who thought her act was erotic and borderline scandalous. After a terrible review in a newspaper, Lola attacked the editor with a whip, solidifying audience hatred for the remainder of her tour.
Fed up with her Australian failure, Lola and her manager sailed back to San Francisco. Sadly, her manager did not survive the trip; he suspiciously fell overboard and drowned. As soon as Lola set her dancing feet back on America soil, she left her performance life behind. Her later years are characterized as being much more reserved, it seems Lola identified as an Episcopalian and spent the rest of her life doing charity work and living off the remaining money she had from dancing tours and dead husbands. Ultimately, Lola’s life came to an early end in 1861 after suffering a stroke and then catching pneumonia. She was 39, but she achieved enough in those years to fill volumes!
Christine Morgan for History Lair
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