All of you who live in the northern U.S., Canada, or other frozen climes, read no further. I spend six months of the year, every year, in Mexico, so I was delighted to discover a writers’ group only a ten-minute drive from my house. Amazingly, because this is a small town, there are about fifteen of us, with a wide range of experience in the writing field, including two editors. We meet once a week in the air conditioned VIP lounge of the Marina and sit in comfortable armchairs or sofas. Our view through the bougainvillea-framed windows is of the boats – from little fishing craft and floating palaces. Could anything be more perfect? I am in heaven.
Let me state right away that I am not advocating sedition. This post is to introduce my readers to a fascinating woman who did just that.
You know that song: Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets? Meet Lola.
She was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo in Ireland in 1821. When Eliza (as she was known) was two her father, a soldier, was posted to India. Shortly after the young family arrived, her father died of cholera. Her mother, who was only nineteen, married another soldier.
Eliza was a wild child and spoiled. It was decided to send her to Scotland to be managed by her stepfather’s Calvinist father. At the age of ten, she moved again, this time to Sunderland and the care of her stepfather’s sister, who had set up a boarding school there. After Sunderland, came Bath to complete her education.
At the age of sixteen, to spoil her mother’s matrimonial plans for her, Eliza eloped with and married Lieutenant Thomas James. Five years later, back in India, they separated. Eliza became a professional dancer, adopting the stage name Lola Montez the Spanish dancer. Debuting in London, she was recognised as Mrs James, which put a damper on her burgeoning career. After dancing in a few European capitals, she settled in Paris, where she met and had an affair with Franz Liszt, who introduced her to George Sand. As part of that literary circle, she also made the acquaintance of Alexandre Dumas, pere, and possibly has an affair with him, too. Meanwhile, no doubt she was accepting favours from wealthy gentlemen to pay for her extravagant lifestyle. One of her lovers was challenged to a duel, shot and killed. Whether Lola had anything to do with the quarrel, I don’t know.
In 1846, still only twenty-five-years-old, she arrived in Munich preceded by a blare of trumpets and an improved pedigree. She was of noble Spanish birth, kin to both the French and Spanish Bourbons and the wife of an English peer. Her dancing had taken London by storm. In a sense, that part was true. She had been driven off the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre by a storm of hisses. Never mind, Munich was impressed, although on the two occasions when she danced for them, the people confirmed London’s verdict. It was probably at the theatre that she met King Ludwig I. He was a cultured man and patron of the arts. He often honoured visiting artistes by inviting them to the Residenz.
Well, she couldn’t dance, but she must have been beautiful, judging by her string of eminent lovers, and she soon became the mistress of Ludwig, who was sixty at the time. He immediately bought her, and furnished, a large house near the Residenz, where he spent a great deal of his time. If Lola had confined herself to shenanigans in the bedroom with her ageing lover, all might have been well. But she was vain, arrogant, given to bursts of temper, loved the limelight, and, like most royal mistresses, greedy. She wanted to be naturalised as a Bavaria citizen so that Ludwig could bestow a title on her. In spite of opposition from government and people, the king made her Countess of Landsfeld and a canoness of the Order of St. Theresa, an honour usually reserved for Bavarian ladies of the highest birth. To maintain her new dignities, he also granted her a generous allowance.
At this point, Lola began interfering in politics, in opposition to the Ultramontanes, the ruling party. Her house became a gathering place for social climbers, intriguers and malcontents, and Lola herself was the heroine on a new stage. As her influence grew, so did the opposition to her. Karl von Abel, the Prime Minister, published a document against the king’s proposal to naturalise her and was promptly dismissed. His successor was more accommodating and Lola obtained the coveted certificate. Students rioted, led by their Ultramontane professors. On one occasion, Lola was mobbed in the street. She defended herself valiantly with her riding whip until she could take refuge in a church. The Ultramontane professors were dismissed. The government fell.
A new government was formed by Prince Ludwig von Oettingen-Wallerstein, which became known as the Lolaministereum. Yes, the talentless adventuress from Ireland became the virtual ruler of Bavaria because the besotted king could deny her nothing. But worse was to come. The revolutions of 1848 were sweeping Europe and more riots broke out in Munich. The king dismissed the Lolaministereum. (How she must have wept!) Feeling he had lost the love and trust of his people, Ludwig abdicated in favour of his eldest son.
Lola had no intention of spending the rest of her life catering to the needs of an old ex-King, who possibly might blame her for the loss of his throne. She was ripe for more adventures. After spending brief periods in Switzerland and France, she returned to London where she met and married a cavalry officer named George Heald, who had just come into an inheritance. Unfortunately, the terms of her divorce from Thomas James stipulated neither could remarry while the other was alive. To avoid bigamy charges, the newly-married couple made haste to the continent, living for a time in France and Spain. Within two years the relationship was over and George, apparently, drowned.
In 1851, still only thirty-years-old, Lola set off to make a new start in the U.S., where she once acted in a play called Lola Montez in Munich. She married a newspaper man and moved to California, but the marriage soon failed. A doctor named as co-respondent in the divorce proceedings was murdered soon after.
In 1855, Lola was on the hop again, this time to Australia to entertain miners during the gold rush. Apparently, at the Royal Theatre in Melbourne, while prancing about the stage, she raised her skirt so high the audience could see she wore no underwear. Not surprisingly, her performance resulted in a blistering attack on her morals by a newspaper and decent folk stayed away from the theatre which began to lose money. Mind you, the miners were more appreciative.
The following year she returned to San Francisco. Somehow, during the voyage, her manager fell overboard. (Has anyone noticed how men around Lola tend to die in suspicious circumstances?) Getting a bit long in the tooth, she was unable to make a comeback.
She spent her last years doing good work among rescued women, but she was beginning to show the signs of syphilis. The body that had served her so well and which she had used so productively was wasting away. She died on January 17th, 1861 at the age of 39.
There’s probably a moral here somewhere, but I won’t go there. Lola was one of those women who rejected the traditional social mores of the Victorian age and lived life as she pleased when the lives of most women were so circumscribed. Good for her!