There are contradictions and unknown facts surrounding the fascinating life of Lola Montez. Many of these were generated by Lola herself through two small autobiographies. She also wrote several performance scripts about her own life. She claimed to have been born in Limerick Ireland on June 23, 1818. At least that is the date on her tombstone, but her birth certificate came to light in the late 1990s correcting the first of many misconceptions about Lola.
Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born to Elizabeth Oliver and Edward Gilbert February 17, 1821. Elizabeth was fourteen when she married Edward on April 29, 1820 in Cork, Ireland, so it’s clear that Elizabeth was not pregnant with Eliza when she married as some have alledged. Edward, an Ensign in the 25th Foot Regiment was stationed in India in 1823 and took his family with him. Later that year, he died of cholera, and Elizabeth soon married Lieutenant Patrick Craigie.
Both her father and stepfather were good to Eliza, but when she was sent to Scotland for school, she didn’t adjust very well. She first lived with Craigie’s father, then with his sister, and then was sent to boarding school. One of her teachers described her as elegant, graceful, and beautiful, with an “air of haughty ease.” She was also extravagant, impetuous, and had a violent temper. But at this point, her misbehavior was limited to putting flowers in the wig of the man in front of her in church, and supposedly running through the streets naked.
When Eliza was reunited with her mother in 1837, her mother proposed an arranged marriage with a 64 year old widower. Her response was to elope with 31 year old Lieutenant Thomas James. Eliza and Thomas were properly married in Dublin by his brother, and headed back to India where Thomas was stationed. The marriage didn’t last long, however. We don’t know which of them, if either, strayed from the marriage, but when Lola left India, she took up with George Lennox on the ship on the way home. They were not very discreet and were observed both on the ship and in a London hotel together.
At the age of 20, Eliza, or Mrs. Betty James as she called herself, was estranged from her mother and had begun to develop a scandalous reputation by eloping, abandoning her husband, and then having an illicit affair. She also needed a way to support herself, so she decided to become a Spanish dancer. She took dance lessons and then traveled to Spain to learn Spanish and Spanish dance. On June 3, 1843, she made her debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, billed as Donna Lola Montez.
Lola’s talent was questionable, but she was considered to be extraordinarily beautiful with a fabulous figure. Unfortunately, she was recognized by someone in the audience who shouted her name calling her Betty James. Deciding that because of her reputation, London wasn’t the right place to perform, she left and began to tour Europe. In 1844, she met and had an indiscreet affair with Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer. When the affair died out, she decided to go to Paris.
In Paris, Lola’s career was not successful, but she had some success as a courtesan beginning an affair with Alexander Dujarier, a young newspaper editor and owner. With Dujarier she was part of a literary crowd where she met and was rumored to have an affair with Alexander Dumas, pere. In 1845, Dujarier died in a duel unrelated to Lola. After the trial where his assailant was acquitted, she left Paris to go to Munich.
Presenting herself to the Bavarian court as a Spanish noblewoman, Lola became acquainted with King Ludwig I. He was captivated by her and made her his official mistress. Ludwig lavished gifts on Lola including a house with all the trappings and a substantial income. On his birthday, February 17, 1847, he went so far as to make her Countess Marie von Landsfeld, and bestow Bavarian citizenship on her.
Not content to be only a mistress, Lola began to give him advice about politics, typically siding with the middle class and students. This didn’t sit well with his aristocratic advisers and councilors, but in time, Lola’s extravagant lifestyle even turned the lower classes against her. Faced with evidence of her duplicity, Ludwig stood by her, but revolution was in the making and Lola was forced to flee the country after a mob destroyed much of her home. Eventually, Ludwig was forced to abdicate and go into exile. Although Lola continued to write passionate letters to Ludwig (and ask for money), they weren’t reunited and Lola returned to London.
At this point, Lola’s exploits were being followed in the press, and satirized in the theater. In April 1848 “Pas de Fascination, or Catching a Governor” premiered in London as “Lola Montez or Countess for an Hour” by J Sterling Coyne. When she returned to London, Lola may have kept a low profile, but that didn’t stop her from marrying George Trafford Heald in 1848. The problem was, that although Thomas James had gotten an official separation from the Church of England, divorces at the time could only be granted by an act of Parliament, so Lola wasn’t officially divorced. George’s aunt became suspicious and brought a bigamy suit against her. With a warrant out for Lola’s arrest the couple was forced to flee. For a couple of years, they lived in France and Spain, but soon the relationship faltered and Lola once again took off to reinvent herself, this time to the United States.
By this time, Lola was no longer an unknown. Her life had been widely reported in the English speaking world. Nevertheless, she traveled and performed in the eastern US from 1851 to 1853 before heading off to San Francisco, arriving in May 1853. In July, Lola entered into her third “marriage” to a reporter named Patrick Purdy Hull. The marriage lasted less than 3 months and she bought a mine in northern California where she settled down for a while until 1855.
Lola had always been volatile, but her raving seemed to increase during this time. She was suffering from severe headaches and poor health. She specifically railed against the Jesuits, accusing them of trying to poison her and shooting at her. A number of humorous plays had been written about her life and performed in Europe, and these were performed in California. She also wrote her autobiography which was filled with misinformation, possibly to try to counteract some of the negative things that had been written about her in the press and for the stage. It’s possible that her delusions of grandeur and feelings of paranoia at this time were the result of syphilis spreading to her brain.
In June of 1855, Lola decided to resume her career with a tour of Australia. She met with mixed reviews. In Melbourne, the theater audience began to decline after a review saying that her performance was “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.” At Castlemaine, however, she received rave encores from a crowd of miners and the members of the Municipal Council. At one point, she attacked a reporter with a bullwhip in response to a bad review.
On May 22, 1856, Lola left Australia to return to San Francisco. On the return voyage, the man she had been involved with during her tour, and who had been acting as her manager, Frank Folland, fell overboard. It is unknown whether or not it was an accident or suicide, but his death seemed to have a profound impact on Lola. She sold her jewelry and gave the money to Folland’s children in an act that seemed out of character for her.
Either because of Folland’s death, or because she was tired of the constant battles for the affection of the public, she gave up performing and began writing and lecturing, usually on topics related to beauty and the evils of Catholicism. She lectured in the US, Ireland, and London. Briefly, she tried to reestablish herself in London, but went into debt and fled creditors by returning to New York. For the last two years of her life, she joined the church and began the life of a reformer, working with prostitutes. She lived these years largely in poverty and after a series of strokes died on January 17, 1861. Her tombstone read Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.
Lola was portrayed by Carol Martine in the film Lola Montès (1955) directed by Max Ophüls. The film was refurbished and re-released in 2008 and featured at the Telluride and Cannes film festivals. You can see the trailer here.
Notorious Australian Women by Kay Saunders