Lola Montez was a dancer who couldn’t dance and a Spanish temptress who came from County Sligo. She was a fake: the world knew it, and so did she. Dishonest, profligate and almost entirely talentless, she was nevertheless stalked by the press in England, America and Europe from the mid-1840s until her death in 1861. Late in life, she charged more for one of her ‘lectures’ than Charles Dickens could command for his readings, and her doings would be reported in the same paragraph as news of Queen Victoria. Her fame was huge and preposterous. In an age before the moving image, she turned herself into a cartoonish celebrity: a woman acting as if she had the same sexual freedom as that afforded to men.
Audiences could never be sure if they were smiling with Lola, or at her, or at themselves. Her theatrical dances often elicited catcalls, derision and bombardments of ‘decayed apples and eggs’ from her predominantly male audience. On the other hand, the same men continued to pay good money to see her feeble dancing, in Paris and Munich, in New York, Sacramento and San Francisco. There was pleasure to be had in the poorness of her performance: ‘The crowd, almost exclusively of the masculine gender, was immense; and they had a merry time of it, for the failure of the great attraction was so complete that one could scarcely forbear laughing at the thought of all the excitement got up for the occasion,’ the New York Albion reported after one inept show in 1851, in which she’d stumbled her way through a pas de deux and appeared generally out of breath. Yet she had a way of turning even the most hopeless shambles into a success. The secret was her shamelessness and her ability to play it straight. When audiences mocked, she would turn on them, her fury adding to the entertainment. In Sacramento, the audience jeered and pursued her back to her hotel after the show, banging drums and kettles. Lola took to the hotel balcony and accused them of being ‘cowards, low blackguards, cringing dogs’. They loved it. She was applauded, and the jeering stopped at once.
Her most famous turn was the ‘spider dance’, a tarantella-like affair which varied depending on ‘both the quality or otherwise of the audience and Lola’s mood each night’, as James Morton writes in his entertaining biography. And sometimes ‘it depended on what money was thrown on stage.’ More or fewer parts of Lola’s body might be exposed during the dance, which was in two parts. In the first, she played the spider, spinning its treacherous web. In the second, she was a vulnerable woman enmeshed in the web, struggling to get out. Eventually, she would dislodge the spider from her petticoats – an excuse for an ‘artistic display of ankles, legs and possibly even thighs’ – before stamping on it triumphantly. The concept was never promising; even so, Lola failed to do it justice, except perhaps on a comic level. She ‘does not even exercise good taste in selecting the “spider dance” as one of her performances,’ a critic wrote in 1852 after seeing the show in Hartford, Connecticut. ‘In it she flounces about like a stuck pig, and clenches her short clothes, raising them nearly to her waist, while with a thin, scrawny leg, she keeps up a constant thumping upon the stage, as if she was in a slight spasm.’ The previous year, her reception in Europe had been just as harsh. ‘As to her talents we may safely assert she never possessed any,’ the critic from the Sunday Times wrote. ‘Lola Montez has had a more complete fiasco than it is possible to imagine,’ a Belgian critic reported, going on to say that while she had never been blessed with any aptitude, now she had lost her looks, too. In Ghent, her attempts at dancing were hissed; the men, Morton writes, ‘had come to see a woman of ill-fame, not a dancer’. But still they came.
A hundred and fifty years on, Lola Montez is a mystery, and not the kind she wanted to be – not so much a femme mystérieuse as a mystifying blank. It is impossible to see what it was that drove so many prominent men to acts of such lustful folly. Her conquests included Franz Liszt, Robert Peel (son of the prime minister), the French newspaper editor Alexandre Dujarier, Marius Petipa (the creator of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker), the Earl of Malmesbury, the Count of Schleissen, Lord Brougham (once described as ‘the ugliest man of the present century next to Liston and Lord Carlyle’), Jung Bahadur (the Nepalese ambassador to London), Savile Morton (a journalist friend of Thackeray), Augustus Noel Follin (a businessman from Cincinnati), Edward Payson Willis (a literary black sheep) and, most scandalously of all, King Ludwig of Bavaria, whose long entanglement with Lola brought disgrace, in the opinion of many, on the city of Munich. ‘What a hold this miserable witch has obtained over this old, adulterous idiot sovereign,’ said Sir Jasper Nicolls, a military man. ‘Wretched country to be ruled by such a shameless rogue – but I must remember that Munich is the most abandoned capital in Europe.’
How did she do it? It’s a baffling question, and the surviving photographs, taken in the 1850s when she was in her thirties, don’t help. They show a rather masculine woman, lantern-jawed, with black ringlets that part on either side of her face, and droop down like a spaniel’s ears. Her brows are dark and fierce; her eyes are vast and sad; her mouth is insolent. She holds a cigarette casually between her fingertips in a way intended to be coquettish, but which now looks merely camp. Her appeal, whatever it once was, has eluded the camera. So we must accept on faith that in her youth and for her time, she was simply ravishing. ‘A Polish critic,’ Morton reports, ‘said that Lola possessed 26 of the 27 points on which a Spanish writer insists as essential to feminine beauty.’ The only one she lacked was dark enough eyes. Children as well as men were taken with her looks. A story is told of a girl in Munich who saw her in the street one day and ran home to tell her parents she had seen a lady as beautiful as a fairy, to which her father immediately replied: ‘That must have been Lola Montez.’ Admirers mentioned her air of refinement, her tapered fingers and white hands, her duchessy way of carrying herself. The Morning Post praised her ‘almost faultless’ foot and ankle. Some people spoke adoringly of her ‘mice teeth’, an attribute whose charms have not survived. Some of Lola’s other features were more timeless. Edward Fuchs, a German biographer, insisted that ‘the splendour of her breasts made madmen everywhere.’
Bosom alone was not enough, though, for Lola to force her way into titles and riches. When she arrived in Paris in 1844 aged 23, there were plenty of attractive lorettes, high-class prostitutes who, like Zola’s Nana, slotted their lovers into carefully kept diaries so that they didn’t overlap. But only Lola arrived in the city with letters of introduction from Liszt, whom she had already seduced; only Lola dared to wear ‘enormous eccentric outfits, which she carried off with jauntiness’, according to an admirer; only Lola was capable not merely of inspiring duels but of issuing challenges for them; only Lola could fire a pistol better than she danced (not a huge accolade considering her dancing, but even so). There was a violence about her that clearly excited as many men as it repelled. She would often excuse this temper as a natural consequence of her ‘Spanish blood’ – a typical Lola-ism, since she was about as Spanish as a boil-in-the-bag paella.
She was baptised Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert at St Peter’s Church in Liverpool on 16 February 1823, though she was probably born two years earlier in County Sligo. Her father, Edward Gilbert, was a soldier. Her mother, Elizabeth Oliver, was the product of an illegitimate union between Charles Silver Oliver, an MP, and a local woman called Mary Green (who was indeed a little bit Spanish). When Lola was two, the whole family travelled to India, where her father’s regiment had been dispatched. Soon after arriving, he died of cholera, leaving Lola to the care of her mother, a flighty, flirty woman, who soon got remarried to another officer, called Craigie. The child seems to have got in the way of her mother’s interest in balls and parties. When she was five, she was sent to Scotland, to be looked after by her stepfather’s relations. She was educated in various schools, in Scotland, Durham and Bath, and appears to have got on in none of them. At the earliest opportunity, she married an officer as her mother had done, a Lieutenant Thomas James of the East India Company.
Marriage was a new prison. In her memoirs she wrote of the misery of early married life – in County Meath, near Dublin – where the day consisted of ‘hunting, eating, hunting, tea’. ‘I wished,’ she remembered, ‘for nothing more intensely than to be abducted once more, but this time not by a potential husband but by anything or anyone who would rescue me from this deadly monotony.’
Her husband was posted to Calcutta, which should have made life more interesting. But the journey over proved the final straw, since Lieutenant James drank too much porter and snored. When, in Calcutta, he abandoned her for another woman, ending the marriage, it seems to have been a relief. Mrs James returned home to England with $10,000 in her pocket, some from her husband and some from her stepfather. On the boat home, she embarked on the first of her innumerable affairs and began the transition from Elizabeth James née Gilbert to ‘Donna Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez’, a Spanish dancer and ruined woman.
At her earliest performances in London, the critics fell for her fake Spanishness without a second thought. The Times praised her dancing as ‘a Spanish dance by a Spaniard, executed after the Spanish fashion’. The Evening Chronicle was more fulsome, admiring above all her authenticity:
Her dancing is little more than a gesture and attitude, but every gesture and attitude seems to be the impulse of passion acting on the proud and haughty mind of a beautiful Spaniard; for she is exquisitely beautiful, in form and feature, realising the images called up by a perusal of Spanish romance. Her dancing is what we have always understood Spanish dancing to be – a kind of monodrama.
It was a clever stroke to adopt the persona of a Spaniard, for in this guise she could make her act far more erotic than would have been tolerated had a more respectable (i.e. English) woman been dancing; and yet she could still present herself as a victim, a poor refugee from Seville, in desperate need of rich protectors.
When, in 1846, Lola turned up in Munich, she found someone who fell for her act hook, line and sinker. His attentions turned her into one of the most famous women in the world. During her first private audience with the king, Ludwig seems to have been entirely fooled by her ‘Donna Maria’ persona, chatting to her loudly in Spanish (a language of which she had a very imperfect command, often substituting French words when she got lost), and was suspicious only of that part of Lola’s appeal which was entirely genuine. According to a much-repeated story, the king stared at her bosom and inquired whether it was real or fake. To prove that it was real, Lola ripped open the front of her dress. The king, Morton writes, ‘was captivated’.
Ludwig – or ‘Tu fiel Luis’, as he insisted on signing himself in letters to his ‘Spanish Woman’ – arranged for the court portrait painter to paint Lola’s picture, and soon developed the habit of kissing it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. He visited her daily at her hotel. And he lavished money on her, while being so mean with his own wife and eight children that they were obliged to eat black bread and to reckon onions an extravagance. Ludwig had had many mistresses before Lola, but none was quite so costly. Within a month of her arrival in Munich, Ludwig had placed Lola on an annual allowance of 10,000 florins – 4000 more than the salary of a cabinet minister, but still not enough to meet Lola’s ever-spiralling desires. Vast sums were required: 16,000 guilden to buy her a house; 3300 francs for a fashionable coach from Paris; 500 florins for Bavarian porcelain; 1348 florins on closets; 500 on mirrors; and the thousands of florins needed here and there to meet further, unpredictable expenses. Morton estimates that in the first year of their affair, Ludwig spent more than 100,000 florins on her. Her allowance was increased to 20,000 florins a month.
Lola was even more expensive politically. Her presence brought the mob onto the streets of Munich, and Ludwig had to place her under gendarme protection. She was loathed and distrusted by his advisers and ministers. No wonder: she engaged in the worst form of boudoir politics, putting pressure on Ludwig to promote those she liked and punish those she didn’t; and harped on constantly about her wish for a title. Eventually, as a birthday present to himself, he relented, giving her the title of the Countess of Landsfeld, but begging her, ‘my ever dear Lolitta’, to be ‘modest and prudent and to avoid all occasions for tumult’. Even as he said it, he must have known that wasn’t going to happen. ‘If this title is not announced officially in the paper in accordance and in regularity with and conforming to the order of all your other acts,’ Lola threatened in return, ‘you should not be surprised if I for my part don’t want to accept this title which you have given me as if you were ashamed of your own act.’ Modesty and prudence were not her way.
As a countess she was even more insufferable than before, continuing to do everything in her power to influence the day-to-day running of government. When asked about it later, she claimed she had effectively been ‘a prime minister . . . or as the king said, I was the king.’ She employed a student fraternity, the Allemania, to act as spies, hunting out gossip against her (there was plenty). She saw Jesuit plots everywhere – she and the Jesuits had supposedly sworn eternal vengeance against each other – and the Allemania aided her in exposing them. They were her own private army – or male harem. She held parties for them at which they wore only their shirts and carried her round the room on their shoulders. On one unfortunate occasion, ‘they carried her straight into a chandelier, cutting her head and knocking her unconscious.’ Despite the fact that all her power emanated from Ludwig, she continued to seek liaisons with other men from the earliest days of their romance, even carrying on with a handsome 21-year-old called Elias Peissner, who was rumoured to be Ludwig’s illegitimate son.
Eventually, the folly became too much for the state of Bavaria, and even for Ludwig, to bear. In 1847, Palmerston’s nephew wrote to him to say that ‘everyone is alarmed’ at Lola’s influence: ‘The exasperation of all classes is so great that the idea of dethroning the king is daily gaining ground.’ This was not a good time to be presuming on the loyalty of the public. As republican sentiment swept through the German states at the beginning of 1848, Ludwig’s weak, corrupt monarchy seemed especially vulnerable. The king’s advisers warned him that the Bavarians were convinced that Lola was deceiving him. On 9 February there was a riot on the Odeonsplatz. For several days, thousands of angry protesters surged through the streets. They besieged Lola’s house. ‘Kill me if you dare,’ she shouted, at which they pelted her with stones and looted her possessions. Finally – though not without a tantrum – she was deported. The pattern for her future performances was set.
It was too late to save Ludwig, however. On 19 March he abdicated in favour of his son. Amazingly, he remained loyal to the woman who had ruined him. ‘I put down the crown, but Lola I could not leave,’ he told her. He continued to write to her of his desire to suck her feet, among other things, and sent her generous amounts of money, which she said were wholly inadequate, considering the ‘sacrifices’ she had made for him in Bavaria.
After the Bavarian fiasco, Lola had 13 more years to live, into which time she crammed two marriages (neither legitimate), several theatrical tours on which she performed her hopeless dances, countless affairs and long sojourns in Australia and America, touring with a show called Lola Montez in Bavaria that recreated the ‘affair’ of 1848 with feeble gags thrown in. Late in life, she reinvented herself as a lecturer, commanding large amounts of money for her thoughts on such subjects as ‘Gallantry’, ‘Strong-Minded Women’ or ‘Comic Aspects of Fashion’. The real subject was always herself, and the most disgraceful lectures were those in which she strayed too far from her own personal history. A low point was a lecture on ‘Slavery in America’: she put forward the view that slaves were lazy, fat and happy, and therefore much better off than their free working counterparts in England. She was immediately attacked by an anti-slavery society, which did not stop her from claiming the moral high ground, as she always had done. According to one acquaintance, she had become ‘garrulously, if not deeply religious’, professing Swedenborgian views with a combination of deep conviction and profound ignorance. When she was dying, her old friend Ludwig wrote to say that it was ‘a great consolation to hear her dying as a cristian [sic]. LM was a much distinguished lady.’
The spectacle Lola presents is all too familiar: that of someone whose fame was founded on nothing other than her appetite to be noticed. For a 19th-century woman this was no small achievement. The dismaying thing about the Lola story is that she achieved a rare fame, power and influence, yet had no idea what to do with it. Certainly it appears never to have occurred to her that she had anything to offer other women. The ‘Women’s Rights Movement in America’ was one of her lecture subjects, but it seems to have been little more than an opportunistic stunt, another silly dance in a lifetime of silly dances. She claimed that she had once been an intimate friend of George Sand, but there is no reason to believe her. As Morton puts it, Lola was ‘a predator but sadly one who rampaged almost for the sake of it’.
At the end of his book, Morton compares her to Becky Sharp, and suggests that Thackeray may have had her in mind when writing Vanity Fair, since his friend Savile Morton was one of her conquests. This seems implausible: Becky is much too clever for Lola, and Lola was much too successful for Becky. In the Max Ophüls biopic Lola Montès (1955), the sinister monocled ringmaster played by Peter Ustinov announces that her life story is one of ‘passion et gloire’. Lola, played rather blandly by Martine Carol, can’t achieve glory in any way except through passion, and so she is ruined and forced to parade herself at the circus for the public’s pleasure, as the ultimate symbol of fallen womanhood – ‘the most sensational act of the century’. This seems too tragic. The real Lola was only too happy to parade herself, at every opportunity, to play at being ‘Lola Montez’, just as Marilyn played at being ‘the girl’ or Madonna has played at being ‘Madonna’. In Truth or Dare, the documentary that followed one of Madonna’s tours, her then lover Warren Beatty comments: ‘She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk . . . What point is there of existing [off-camera]?’ Similarly, it was said of Lola that ‘her whole existence was a public performance and it never occurred to her to close shutters or draw curtains.’ But unlike Madonna, Lola couldn’t invite the cameras in to film her when the curtains were closed.
It is too easy to say that Lola showed up the ridiculous men who fell for her in all their absurdity – above all poor Ludwig, who emerges from this tale as an utter fool. She did more than that: she showed these men up by behaving as though she was one of them. After all, most of the men who fell for her shared with her the fact that their fame, power and influence were based on nothing: they too were trading on their names. This didn’t stop them from treating the world as though it were their oyster, and bedding whom they liked. When Lola did it, it looked like a trick of the light. Which is all it ever was.