Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Montez, Lola (1818–1861)

by Michael Cannon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Lola Montez, by C. D. Fredericks, 1856

Lola Montez, by C. D. Fredericks, 1856

State Library of Victoria, H2994

Lola Montez (1818-1861), dancer and courtesan, was born in Limerick, Ireland, and christened Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna, daughter of Ensign Edward Gilbert and his fourteen-year-old wife who claimed descent from Spanish nobility. Her father died in 1824 and her mother married Major John Craigie, later adjutant-general of the British army in India. Educated at boarding schools in Britain and France, Lola was ordered by her mother at 19 to marry an aged judge; instead she eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James whom she married in Ireland on 23 July 1837. In 1839 James took her to Simla, India, but eloped with another woman. Lola returned to England in 1842 and James won a judicial separation on the ground of her adultery on shipboard.

Lola visited Spain and trained as a dancer, calling herself Donna Lola Montez. She made her début before royalty at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, on 3 June 1843; although beautiful and accomplished she was hissed off the stage when recognized as James's wife. Penniless she fled to Europe, giving performances which were then considered suggestive in Warsaw, Paris and elsewhere. In turn she became the mistress of Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexandre Dujarier, part-owner of La Presse. After Dujarier was killed in a duel on 11 March 1845, Lola went to Munich posing as a Spanish noblewoman. The ageing King Ludwig I of Bavaria fell in love with her, buying a large house and settling an annuity on her. Lola exerted great political influence for a time; ministries rose and fell at her bidding and she won support from radical university students. On 25 August 1847 Ludwig created her Countess Marie von Landsfeld but the Bavarian aristocracy and middle class refused to acknowledge her. On 7 February 1848 street riots broke out against her influence and on the 10th thousands of burghers marched on the palace to demand her expulsion. Presented with proof of her background and infidelities, Ludwig gave way but also insisted on abdicating the throne. Lola fled to Switzerland when her Bavarian rights were annulled.

In April 1849 Lola returned to London, going through the form of marriage with a young Guards officer, George Trafford Heald, on 19 July. On 6 August she was arrested on a charge of bigamy but released on bail. She fled with Heald to Spain, where he drowned next year. Lola returned to the stage, touring Europe and America, carrying a cowhide whip and often a pistol, and becoming involved in innumerable assaults, scandals and legal actions. In gold-rush San Francisco, she gave the first performances of her notorious 'Spider Dance'. On 1 July 1853 she went through the form of marriage with Patrick Purdy Hull, owner of the San Francisco Whig. He soon sued for divorce, naming a German doctor as co-respondent: a few days later the doctor was found shot dead in near-by hills.

In May 1855 Lola appointed a young actor Noel Follin as her manager. In June they sailed for Sydney in the Fanny Major with their own company. They arrived on 16 August and opened with local actors at the Royal Victoria Theatre on the 23rd in a farrago entitled 'Lola Montez in Bavaria'. Two weeks later Lola and Follin (who had changed his name to Folland) decamped from Sydney. A sheriff's officer followed them on board the Waratah with a debtor's warrant of arrest; Lola undressed in her cabin and dared the officer to seize her but he left on the pilot boat without her. Lola opened at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on 13 September in her Bavarian role; when audiences diminished she began to perform the 'Spider Dance'. She was denounced by the press but the mayor of Melbourne, sitting as a magistrate, refused an application for her arrest. From 26 November to 31 December she played to full houses in Adelaide, returning to a 'rapturous welcome' at Sydney in January 1856. She opened at Ballarat on 16 February in a series of sketches; greeted by packed houses she invited miners to shower nuggets at her feet as she danced. The Ballarat Times attacked her notoriety; Lola retaliated by publicly horsewhipping the editor, Henry Seekamp, at the United States Hotel. On 21 February he published another critical article; she swore a warrant for his arrest on a charge of criminal libel but failed to appear when the case came up for trial. She had meanwhile been assaulted by the wife of her goldfields impresario and took a full month to recover. From 1 April Lola successfully toured Bendigo, Castlemaine and other Victorian towns, then sailed with Folland for San Francisco. Near Fiji on the night of 8 July he was lost overboard: no official investigation seems to have followed.

Rapidly ageing, Lola failed in attempts at a theatrical comeback in various American cities. She arranged in 1857 to deliver a series of moral lectures in Britain and America written by Rev. Charles Chauncy Burr. She seems to have been genuinely repentant but then was showing the tertiary effects of syphilis and her body began to waste away. Aged 42 she died on 17 January 1861 and was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, as Mrs Eliza Gilbert.

Select Bibliography

  • C. C. Burr, Autobiography and Lectures of Lola Montez (Lond, 1858)
  • Illustrated London News, 20 Mar 1847, 26 Jan 1856
  • New York Herald, 20 Jan 1861
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1865
  • Table Talk, 13 Aug 1886
  • J. A. Panton memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Michael Cannon, 'Montez, Lola (1818–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/montez-lola-4226/text6815, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Lola Montez, by C. D. Fredericks, 1856

Lola Montez, by C. D. Fredericks, 1856

State Library of Victoria, H2994

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Montez, Maria Dolores
  • James, Maria Dolores
  • Gilbert, Eliza
Birth

1818
Limerick, Ireland

Death

17 January 1861

Cultural Heritage
Occupation