Hidden historical heroines (#07: Lola Montez)


Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld (17 February 1818 – 17 January 1861) – better known by the stage name Lola Montez – was an Irish-born dancer who found world-wide fame on the stage and as a courtesan. 

Her mother, Elizabeth Oliver, was the daughter of an Irish MP. She married a solider – Ensign Edward Gilbert – in 1820 and duly returned to his posting in India with him. Shortly after their arrival, Gilbert died of cholera. A year later, Elizabeth had remarried, to another army officer – Lieutenant Patrick Craigie.


Craigie seems to have been a caring step-father, but little Eliza’s half-wild and uncontrollable ways were obviously a concern, as it was agreed that Eliza should be returned to Britain for her schooling. She went to live with her step-grandfather in Scotland. The “queer, wayward little Indian girl” quickly became known as a willful trouble-marker. On one occasion, she stuck flowers into the wig of an elderly man during a church service; on another, she ran through the streets naked.


So it is not much of a surprise that at the age of ten Eliza was bundled off again, to her step-aunt this time, who fortuitously had just opened a boarding school. However just a year later, Eliza was moved yet again, to a more ‘sophisticated’ school in Bath.


As Eliza’s sixteenth birthday approached, her mother proposed a marriage with a rather unappealing 64 year old widower. Eliza’s response was to elope with Lieutenant Thomas James (like her mother, she seems to have liked a man in uniform). The newlyweds headed back to India, where James was stationed. The marriage did not last long – within a few years Eliza was back in London, going now by the name “Mrs. Betty James.”


Estranged from her mother and step-father due to her elopement, Eliza needed a way to support herself. She trained as a dancer and became proficient in “Spanish dance”. On June 3 1843, she made her debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, billed under the exotic name of Donna Lola Montez.


Contemporary reviews don’t seem to reflect that ‘Lola’ had any great talent at dancing, but she is recounted as extraordinary beautiful and with a great figure. Unfortunately, she was far too well known and people in the audience recognised her as ‘Betty James’. Lola decided the continent would be a better place to launch her career, offering her a blank slate for personality as well as reputation.


For the next few years Lola essentially shagged her way around Europe (please excuse the bluntness of the phrasing, but it does seem to be appropriate!). In 1844 she settled briefly in Paris, where she was accepted into the rather bohemian culture there at the time. She had gloriously indiscreet affairs with men with her new ‘arty’ circle: composers, writers and journalists; when one of the latter, Alexandre Dujarier, was killed in a duel (unrelated to Lola, but my, what an aside!) she decided it was time to leave Paris and headed to Munich.


She presented herself to the Bavarian Court as a Spanish noblewoman. Legend held that when she was introduced to the Bavarian King, Ludwig I, he expressed disbelief that such a perfect bosom as hers could not be real; Lola’s response was to remove enough layers of her clothing to prove that said bosom was indeed the real deal.


Ludwig was instantly infatuated. He showered Lola with gifts – houses, horses, jewels – gave her an income from the crown and, on his next birthday, even bestowed Bavarian citizenship on her and elevated her to the nobility by making her ‘Countess Marie von Landsfeld’. Unsurprisingly, Lola was extremely unpopular with the rest of the court.

True to her opinionated and independent ways, Lola began giving political advice to Ludwig; her policies were mainly in favour of the middle class or academics – infuriating the nobility further – but unfortunately, these lower classes were unimpressed by Lola’s extravagant lifestyle; she couldn’t win.


Revolution had been brewing in Bavaria for many years, and was about to reach boiling point. Ludwig abdicated. Lola fled to Switzerland after a mob destroyed most of her house. Lola wrote a spree of passionate letters to Ludwig asking to be allowed to return to his side (and for some money too, of course), however the pair were never to be reunited. Lola returned to Britain where she may have been astonished to discover she was a tabloid darling, a veritable celebrity, even satirized on stage in “Lola Montez or Countess for an Hour” by J Sterling Coyne.


Not long after her arrival in London, Lola met and quickly married George Trafford Heald, a young army cornet (cavalry officer) with a recent inheritance. Unfortunately, whilst she had a legal separation from her first husband, divorce at this time could only be provided by an Act of Parliament, making this marriage bigamous. Lola and Heald fled the country after Heald’s scandalised aunt filed a bigamy suit and an arrest warrant was issued for Lola’s arrest. They lived in France and Spain but after only a year or two Lola found herself once again with a marriage in tatters and, in 1851, Lola decided once again to journey somewhere she could have a fresh start.


From 1851 to 1853 Lola worked across the east coast of America as a dancer and an actress, including in a play entitled Lola Montez in Bavaria. In the summer of 1853 she settled in California with husband number three, 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; her restored house is now a registered Californian Historical Landmark.


Lola had from her earliest childhood been recorded as argumentative and volatile, but her tempers seemed to increase at this point in her life. She was also suffering from severe headaches and generally poor health. She turned her attention to writing her autobiography which was filled with misinformation and, indeed, flat out lies. It is more than likely she was attempting to ‘spin’ her life story, the better to counter the negative things that had been written about her in the press and included in the various plays and shows that had been written to mock her. Some historians point to her raving and paranoia that she was being poisoned as evidence that she had syphilis and it was spreading to her brain.


In 1855 Lola decided to revive her career and traveled to Australia where there was a gold-rush and plenty of miners to entertain. Tabloid gossip at the time reported that during a performance of her particularly erotic Spider Dance at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, she raised her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore “no underclothing at all”. Probably as a result, papers started to report that Lola’s shows were ‘utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality’, leading to a sharp decline in attendance. After receiving one particularly bad review, Lola attacked the editor of the paper with a whip! In 1856 she set off back to the United States, thoroughly fed up with Australia.


On this voyage, her then lover and manager, Frank Folland, fell overboard and drowned. It was unclear whether it was an accident or deliberate suicide, however it hit Lola hard. Uncharacteristically, she sold her jewellery and gave the proceeds to Folland’s children.


Her failures in Australia, Folland’s death, and the constant scrutiny of the public had wearied Lola. She soon retired from the stage, settling in New York, where she began the life of a reformer, lecturing, writing and working with prostitutes and other destitute women. After a debilitating series of strokes she contracted pneumonia and died a month shy of turning 40. She is buried in Brooklyn, New York, with a tombstone that names her not as the exotic “Donna Lola Montez”, but rather “Mrs. Eliza Gilbert” – her maiden surname (if you can remember all those surnames ago).


A post-script to the tale of this remarkable, tempestuous woman: Lola may have been chased from the one place she felt at home and from the side of the one man she seemed devoted to by the hatred of the Bavarian people, but ever since the 20th century, Germans have admired her for her pluck and liberalism in defiance of the old Bavarian conservatism.


One thought on “Hidden historical heroines (#07: Lola Montez)

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