FEMME FATALE, ETC.: Born as Eliza Gilbert, in Limerick, Ireland, 1818.
Famous (but bad) dancer; mistress to many, including Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas; acquaintance of Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Lamartine; intimate of kings and prime ministers; de facto ruler of Bavaria as King Ludwig I declined; belle of the California gold rush; would-be Queen of Lolaland. Early feminist of sorts and writer of a book of beauty tips. Homicidal temper; carried a whip. One of the most outrageous women of her time.
The Victorians delicately referred to her as "La Grande Horizontele."
Although she claimed to be an illegitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron (and at other times, of a matador), actually her father was an 18 year old lieutenant (or captain, depending on the historian) in the British army, and her mother a 13 year old chorine. The father died of cholera in India when Eliza was 7.
Her mother remarried, and she was shipped "home" to Scotland, where her stepfather's pious Presbyterian parents were jolted by her running obstreperously through the streets, stark naked. She was quickly shuttled off to school in Paris, where she developed her gift for languages, as well as honing to perfection her unbelievably ferocious and violent temper. Finished with school at 19, she eloped to Ireland, marrying a lieutenant named Thomas James. However, he soon ran off with a captain's wife, leaving Eliza on her own, but not without friends.
She wanted to become an actress, but immediately learned that, quite frankly, she couldn't act; so she decided to fabricate another show business career of her own design. With the help and support of two admiring gentlemen, Lord Malmesbury and Lord Brougham, Eliza changed her name to Lola Montez, and launched herself somehow as a "Spanish dancer."
The first performance in London was dreadful, as she couldn't dance either; the show closed to hisses, boos, and catcalls. In Lola's view, those oafs didn't have a chance of recognizing subtle quality; as far as she was concerned a star was born. For several years, Lola drifted about Europe taking irregular dancing engagements wherever she found them; life was interesting, and her string of lovers grew.
So did her temper. When a man annoyed her, she typically would slash him across the face with the whip she always carried. On one occasion when a lover proved to be disappointing, she fired her pistol at the luckless romeo as he dodged ricocheting bullets while escaping down the street with his pants around his knees. But, on first meeting, she was charming, very charming.
Whatever Lola wanted, Lola got.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, Lola got a "private audience" with the Czar, and then received from him 1,000 rubles for services provided...
In Dresden, she got the composer Franz Liszt, and the two of them enjoyed a burning passion, until Lola became jealous of the attention Liszt received from his legion of admirers. To upstage him, she burst in upon a banquet he was holding for royalty, and leaped up upon the table to dance among the dishes, spilling consommé into the lap of a duke.
At last Liszt (who had a reputation as the great lover of the age) was so completely worn out by Lola, that as she slept, he locked her in their hotel room and fled. At the front desk he left a generous sum of money for the furniture he knew she would smash when she awoke.
In Warsaw, where she had gone to dance, the Viceroy of Poland - a rich old man - fell madly in love with Lola. He offered her his best country estate and mounds of diamonds if she would become his mistress. Apparently Lola found his appearance to be so repulsive that she refused. The viceroy was mortally insulted by the refusal, and he retaliated by trying to get her fired from the dancing engagement. While she was on stage, Lola promptly announced to the audience what was going on: hearing this, the audience rioted and the riot spilled out into the streets, to the great chagrin, anger, and embarrassment of the viceroy (not to mention his wife and other mistress.)
Lola found the greatest love of her life in Alexandre Dujarier, an editor, but, sadly, he was promptly killed in a duel.
Some months later, Lola resumed her dancing in Munich, but the theater manager took one look at her performance and fired her on the spot, claiming that her work was appallingly bad. Infuriated, Lola went directly to the palace to appeal her case to the King. Still in costume, she charged right into the astounded King Ludwig's private study, demanding "justice." Taken aback, the King attempted, clumsily, to be urbane and sophisticated as he inquired if her lovely figure was a work of nature or of art. Obviously, he really didn't know what to say, and finding herself in control of the situation, Lola snatched a pair of scissors from his desk and slit the front of her dress to the waist, thrusting her dazzling bosom into the King's face. Before she left the palace she received a substantial engagement at the Munich Theater. The manager was fired.
Ludwig fell desperately in love with Lola. He gave her an ample allowance directly from the public treasury. He built her a splendid little palace, and he himself designed a marble fountain for it which sprayed perfumed water in an arched plume. Ludwig was an aged and fading man, and Lola easily began to rule his kingdom for him, as well as his imagination. She took exuberant control and made enemies fast, frequently cracking the whip - literally.
She harassed the Jesuits and introduced Napoleonic law. Her "rule" was strikingly liberal, to the dismay of the archconservative Austrian Prince Metternich, who ruled Europe between the two Napoleons. Sensing disaster in Bavaria, Metternich offered Lola the equivalent of $250,000 if she would go away quietly. She threw it in his emissary's face.
Metternich would have none of this, and organized student riots against her. Lola fell into his trap. Haughtily, she had Ludwig close down the university. The students rioted again, but this time they were joined by thousands of tradespeople who stood to lose the students' business. The whole town was under siege and barricaded; revolution was imminent. "I will never abandon Lola," the King said, "My crown for Lola," he said. Indeed it cost him his crown as he was forced to abdicate. Lola made the very next (midnight) train out of town, a victim of her own political incompetence.
Resilient though she was, Lola never fully recovered after the death of Dujarier and her loss of Bavaria. She did still carry on in her usual mercurial manner, embellishing her notorious reputation in a variety of ways, but somehow the edge was off. She was arrested for bigamy; arrested again for stabbing a man (another poor lover), etc., etc.
The severest charge against her involved the mysterious disappearance of one of her lovers from aboard a ship which was anchored in harbor at Fiji. Some native witnesses mentioned a man being tossed overboard from one of the better cabins, but nothing could be clearly proven. It seems that most other passengers had been driven off by the raucous noise coming from Lola's cabin, so there was a shortage of reliable witnesses of suitable station... Charges against her of ritual murder, performed in connection with a Black Mass held in the jungle of a nearby island, were considered to be specious, although no conclusive evidence of any sort was discovered.
At the age of 35, after having suffered through severe episodes of sickness and marriage, she needed a fresh start and set off for California and the gold rush. The ruffian miners appealed to her sensibilities and she felt that she belonged. She opened a frontier saloon in a boisterous mining town called Grass Valley. Boom time mining camps have seen some amazing things at even more amazing prices, but Lola's enterprise was a show stopper of the first order:
Louis XVI cabinets, ormolu mirrors, Ludwig's jewels, Kanaka houseboys, a pet bear, a swan bed, gold leaf everywhere, one extra large deep-red-top billiard table with dragons carved on its legs, and every Governor, Senator or millionaire she could find and haul into the place. The nightly show had one act - Lola at her loosest. It was a hit, at last.
Letters discovered after Lola's death demonstrated that all this was produced in support of a plot on Lola's part to gain influence and assistance to "capture" California from the USA, cause it to declare independence and be named "Lolaland," with herself as Queen.
Weirder delusions and fantasies soon appeared. Lola faded into mysticism and a bizarre version of astrology, taking refuge. She did revive for a short time, and wrote a book of her most important beauty secrets (to prevent wrinkles, she suggested tightly binding many thin strips of raw beef all about the face, covering it completely - except the eyes. The beef was to remain there until all the "vibrant energy" had soaked in. There was no mention of how long that might take however.)
And she went on a lecture tour. "Let historical justice be done to the intellect of woman," she implored. "I am content to leave the history of her heart and moral life, without comment, to defend itself by contrast with that of the other sex." She didn't give many lectures.
At the age of 41 she had a schizophrenic collapse, abandoned the West and all her travels, and spent the last two years of her life on the streets of New York as a pauper. She shuffled along, speaking aloud to herself, urging God to forgive her wicked life.
At 43 she died of a stroke in a wretched boardinghouse, alone.
Her two children, one of whom ran a lamp shade store in California, declined to claim the body. Both were "constrained by the pressures of business" the first one said, which was an interesting perspective, since the second was in jail.
© Jerome C. Krause