Posted on January 14, 2015
Looking for Lola Montez
Courtesan, adventuress, dancer, and bigamist: Lola Montez is one of Irish history’s most colourful women. In an age when most women were dutiful wives and mothers, she travelled to four continents and her entanglements led to the downfall of a monarch.
Lola Montes by Joseph Karl Stieler (1831).
Nymphenburg Palace, Munich
Surviving portraits and photographs show an attractive woman with pale skin, raven hair, and striking blue eyes. Today, she would not be considered an extraordinary beauty, but her exuberant personality and sexual magnetism enthralled a long list of illustrious lovers. Composer Franz Liszt, author Alexandre Dumas, and Ludwig I of Bavaria were among those who fell prey to her charms.
She grew up in India and was educated in England. Eliza married at 16, and returned to India, but this was to be the first of her unsuccessful marriages. Following a scandalous affair, her husband sued for divorce, and she found herself ruined financially and outcast from all good society.
Nothing can keep a good – or bad?! – woman down though, and the indomitable Eliza soon hit upon a scheme to support herself. She studied dance in Cadiz in Spain, and returned to London having completely reinvented herself. She was now Lola Dolores de Porris y Montez, an aristocratic Spanish exile and professional dancer.
Debut of a dancer
As a dancer, she made a triumphant debut at the prestigious Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, but alas, her new identity did not conceal her notorious past for long. Discovery meant her theatrical engagement was cancelled and she fled England for the continent. Lola performed in various European capitals and settled for a time in Paris, before travelling to Munich in 1846.
There, she sought an audience with Ludwig, the King of Bavaria, in order to secure an engagement at Munich’s Royal Theatre. Although reportedly unimpressed when he met her, Ludwig was intrigued by accounts of her fiery temperament, such as the occasion when she horsewhipped a policeman in Berlin.
(One lurid rumour suggests their first encounter went rather differently; Ludwig enquired if her bosom was genuine, and she tore open her bodice to satisfy his curiosity!)
Lola became the King’s mistress and openly flaunted her status as such, bragging about the affair and ornamenting herself with the expensive jewels he gave her. His largesse saw her become Countess of Landsfeld with the gift of a substantial annual income.
Her growing political influence, combined with her legendary temper and arrogance, made her hugely unpopular in Bavaria. In 1848, the students and citizens of Munich rioted, and Ludwig was forced to exile her. Shortly thereafter, he abdicated his position in favour of his son.
Lola spent some time in Switzerland, awaiting the former monarch, but he never joined her. She returned to London, where she married a wealthy young army officer. Once again she was forced to flee the country, as the terms of her original divorce settlement did not allow her to remarry while her first husband was still living. She was now a bigamist in the eyes of the law.
The couple lived in France and Spain, and the relationship quickly deteriorated. Her second husband reportedly drowned, and in 1851, Lola travelled to the United States, where she performed as a dancer and actress. She married for a third time, and almost inevitably this soon ended in divorce.
The Arts of Beauty
Lola’s later career saw her travel to Australia, where her ‘Spider Dance’, with its erotic overtones, was denounced in the press. She returned to the USA in 1856, and eventually gave up acting and dancing. Instead, she lectured, and her book The Arts of Beauty was a roaring success. After all, who wouldn’t want to learn the beauty secrets of the woman who captivated a king?
Lola’s dissolute lifestyle eventually took its toll on her health. She spent the last years of her life living quietly in the New York borough of Brooklyn, dying of pneumonia one month before her 40th birthday. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.
And so, one bitterly cold day in November, a friend and I visited Green-Wood Cemetery in search of the final resting place of the infamous Madame Lola Montez.
Armed with one of the free maps from the information cart at the main entrance, we set about finding Lola’s grave. This was not entirely straightforward as … I read the map wrong.
(Look for the number 15 contained within a black circle, just off Summit Avenue, towards the south-western quadrant. Do not confuse this with any other 15’s you may find on the map.)
Lola was buried under her birth name, Eliza Gilbert. The plain and sober monument erected to her memory gives no indication of the tumultuous life she led, although on the day we visited, a silver-coloured shoe hinted at Lola’s career as a dancer.
The confusion surrounding Lola’s origins followed her even to the grave, where the headstone inscription adds two years to her age. No doubt Lola’s tempestuous younger self would have had plenty to say about this unflattering mistake.