Exercise, not philosophically and with religious gravity undertaken, but with the wild and romping activities of a spirited girl who runs up and down as if her veins were full of wine. – Lola Montez
Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known by her stage name Lola Montez, lived her life as she advised women to exercise, running around the world like a wild young girl with “veins full of wine”. Like so many courtesans she started out in the theater, in her case as a dancer; like Mata Hari she had a prosaic origin, was noted for her precociousness, married too young, created an exotic stage persona which won her the attentions of wealthy men, lived like a “jet-setter” long before there were jets and died far too young (though this last can be said of many famous courtesans).
Eliza was born on February 17th, 1821 in Grange, Ireland, the daughter of Edward and Eliza Gilbert. When she was two her father (an ensign in the British Navy) was transferred to India, but he died of cholera soon after their arrival and left his 19-year-old wife to care for a toddler alone in a strange country. The following year she married Lt. Patrick Cragie, who grew to love the child but became concerned with her wildness and precociousness; eventually he and her mother decided her high spirits might be better controlled by an English education. Accordingly, she was sent to live with Cragie’s father in Scotland, but proved too much for the older man to handle; she soon developed a reputation for pranks (even on strangers) and inappropriate behavior such as running through the streets naked. By the time she was ten her step-grandfather had enough of her and packed her off to Sunderland to live with her stepfather’s older sister, who had opened a girls’ boarding school. This arrangement was even shorter-lived; though her art teacher later remembered her as “an elegant and graceful child” of unusual beauty and exotically-dark complexion, he also stated that “The violence and obstinacy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety to her good kind aunt.” Eliza was therefore sent to another boarding school (not run by relatives) in Bath, where she remained for five years until she eloped to India with Lt. Thomas James.
This escapade was the source of a great deal of confusion about the particulars of her early life; since she lacked parental permission to leave school or marry, Eliza simply lied about her birthday and origins, claiming to have been born in Limerick on June 23rd, 1818; this became her official birth date ever after, and indeed was even graven on her tombstone in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn. Since she was not baptized until the day before her second birthday (February 16th, 1823) in Liverpool (en route to India), her baptismal certificate with the correct date remained undiscovered until it was located by biographer Bruce Seymour while researching the second edition of his book Lola Montez, a Life in 1996.
In 1842, Mr. and Mrs. James separated in Calcutta under a complicated divorce agreement which barred either of them from remarriage while the other was alive; whatever the reason for this strange condition, it was later to cause Eliza considerable difficulty. The beautiful 21-year-old became a professional dancer under the stage name Lola Montez, by which she was known for the rest of her tumultuous life. She made her way back to London and debuted there the following year as a “Spanish dancer”, but was soon recognized and the resulting scandal drove her to relocate to the Continent, where she quickly became famous for her beauty and fiery temper rather than for her rather mediocre dancing ability. It is very likely that she only maintained the dancing as advertisement for her real profession, prostitution to a select clientele of wealthy customers; however, she seems to have truly believed that she was a great dancer and that those who said she wasn’t were merely trying to insult her. And that was bad, because she tended to attack men who insulted her with a whip, and on a few recorded occasions actually shot at them.
After touring across Europe for about a year (during which time she is said to have received 1000 rubles for a “private audience” with Czar Nicolas I in St. Petersburg) Lola met the composer Franz Liszt in Dresden; the two became lovers for a while, but Liszt (who had a considerable reputation as a ladies’ man) soon tired of Lola’s histrionics and fled one night while she slept. Soon afterward she settled in Paris, where she was accepted into fashionable literary society and was said to have slept with Alexandre Dumas, père (though it is not known whether this was a professional transaction or a personal one). She then fell in love with a newspaper editor named Alexandre Dujarier, but he was killed in a duel (which had nothing to do with her) in 1845 and she brokenheartedly left Paris and resumed touring.
In 1846 she was hired to perform in Munich, but when the theater manager saw her performance he fired her immediately. The infuriated courtesan then went to the palace to complain to King Ludwig I of Bavaria about the breach of contract; due to her reputation the King agreed to give her an audience, and he was so smitten with her beauty that he ordered the manager fired and gave her a long contract to dance in the theater. He also hired her for more personal duties, and was soon deeply in love with her; he granted her an allowance, built her a small palace and even created her Countess of Landsfeld. Lola easily dominated the aging monarch, and instituted liberal reforms which appalled the Church, the aristocracy and Prince Metternich of Austria, who offered her an enormous bribe if she would only go away. When Lola refused the money (literally throwing it back at the messenger), Metternich instigated a student riot against her, prompting her to order the university closed. This was, of course, exactly what Metternich had hoped would happen; Lola’s haughtiness, bad temper and overt control over the King had made her extremely unpopular, and the riot grew into a full-scale revolution which forced King Ludwig to abdicate in March of 1848. Lola fled to Switzerland, where she remained for a few months before returning to London later that year.
It wasn’t long before Lola met and married George Heald, a young cavalry officer with an inheritance, but Heald’s aunt hated her and investigated the terms of her divorce from James; when she discovered the remarriage clause she filed charges of bigamy against Lola, and the couple fled to France. The relationship was as short-lived as all of her arrangements, and in 1851 she set off for the United States to make a fresh start. For the next two years she performed as a dancer and actress on the East Coast, then in May of 1853 travelled to San Francisco, where she married a newspaper publisher named Patrick Hull and opened a saloon and brothel in a mining town named Grass Valley. Hull soon divorced her and returned to San Francisco, but Lola remained for two years, entertaining a number of wealthy and politically-powerful clients and inspiring young Lotta Crabtree, who went on to become the most popular American actress of her time.
By June of 1855 the California gold rush was over, but the Australian gold rush was in full swing so the ever-adventurous Lola decided to profit from it. Her erotic “Spider Dance” caused an uproar in Melbourne, but the Diggers loved her until she demonstrated her legendary temper against a few hecklers and the editor of The Ballarat Times (who had given her a bad review). Lola and Australia had had enough of each other by May, so she returned to San Francisco, wrote a book of beauty secrets (one of which was applying strips of raw beef to the face to prevent wrinkles), then went on tour lecturing on feminism and the proper treatment of women by men and society. The lectures seem to have been heartfelt, because she eventually settled in New York and spent her entire fortune on rescuing streetwalkers, even living among them in a squalid boarding house. But on June 30, 1860 she suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed her and seems to have induced a mild religious dementia; she recovered enough mobility that by December she was on several occasions seen limping down the street, praying out loud. She soon contracted pneumonia and died on January 17th, 1861, just one month short of her 40th birthday. The ever-colorful Lola never failed to surprise observers and provoke controversy, either in her life or after her death, and the various details of her life and legacy are still contested to this day in every country she visited.