Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld (17 February 1821 – 17 January 1861), better known by the stage name Lola Montez, was an Irish dancer and actress who became famous as a “Spanish dancer”, courtesan, mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her Countess of Landsfeld. She used her influence to institute liberal reforms. At the start of the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, she was forced to flee. She proceeded to the United States via Switzerland, France and London, returning to her work as an entertainer and lecturer. For a time she visited Australia.
Eliza(beth) Oliver (Lola’s mother) was the daughter of Charles Silver Oliver, a former High Sheriff of Cork and member of Parliament for Kilmallock in County Limerick; his residence was Castle Oliver. Eliza Oliver was his youngest child. In December 1818, Ensign Edward Gilbert arrived with his regiment, the 25th Regiment and met Eliza Oliver; they were married on 29 April 1820. Little Eliza was born the following February, which refutes persistent rumors that her mother was pregnant with her at the time of the wedding. The young family made their residence at King House in Boyle, County Roscommon until early 1823, when they journeyed to Liverpool, thence departing for India on 14 March.
As with many other aspects of her life, discrepant reports of the birth of Eliza Gilbert have been published. For many years it was accepted that she was born in the city of Limerick, as she herself claimed, possibly on 23 June 1818; this year was graven on her headstone, which seemed to make it the literal ‘last word’. However, when her baptismal certificate came to light in the late 1990s it was established that Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was actually born in Grange, County Sligo on 17 February 1821. She was baptised at St Peter’s Church in Liverpool on 16 February 1823 while her family was en route to her father’s post in India. As her mother’s family was in County Limerick, it is not hard to see how little Eliza could have been told ‘we’re from Limerick’ and assumed that the city was meant.
Shortly after arrival in India, Edward Gilbert died of cholera. Her mother, who was now 19, married another officer, Lieutenant Patrick Craigie, the following year. Craigie quickly came to care for little Eliza, but her spoilt and half-wild ways concerned him greatly.
Eventually, it was agreed she would be sent back to Britain to attend school, staying with Craigie’s father in Montrose, Scotland, at first. But the “queer, wayward little Indian girl” quickly became known as a mischief-maker. 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.
At the age of ten, Eliza was moved on again – this time to Sunderland, England. When her stepfather’s older sister, Catherine Rae, set up a boarding school in Monkwearmouth with her husband, Lola joined them to continue her education.
Eliza obviously made an impression on her teachers, as a Mr Grant, who taught art at the little school, was later to recall her as “an elegant and graceful child.” He described her as having eyes of “excessive beauty”, an “orientally dark” complexion and an air of “haughty ease”. But he also revealed, “The violence and obstinacy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety to her good kind aunt.”
Eliza’s determination and temper were to become her trademarks. The little girl’s stay in Sunderland lasted only a year, as she was then transferred to Bath for a more “sophisticated” education.
In 1837, sixteen-year-old Eliza eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James. The couple separated five years later, in Calcutta, and she became a professional dancer under a stage name. Her London debut as “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer” in June 1843 was successful, but she had been recognized as Mrs. James and a scandal arose over the imposture. The resulting notoriety hampered her career in England and she departed for the Continent, where she became famous more for her beauty and quick temper than for her dancing. At this time, she was almost certainly accepting favours from a few wealthy men, and was regarded by many as a courtesan.
Life as a courtesan:
In 1844 Lola made an unsuccessful Parisian stage debut as a dancer in Fromental Halévy’s opera, Le lazzarone. She met and had an affair with Franz Liszt, who introduced her to the circle of George Sand. After performing in various European capitals, she settled in Paris, where she was accepted in the rather Bohemian literary society of the time, being acquainted with Alexandre Dumas, père, with whom she was rumoured to have had a dalliance. After the 1845 death of her lover, newspaperman Alexandre Dujarier, in a duel, unrelated to her, she left Paris.
In 1846, she arrived in Munich, where she was discovered by, and became the mistress of, Ludwig I of Bavaria. The rumour was that at the time they met Ludwig had asked her in public if her bosom was real, to which her response was to tear off enough of her garments to prove it. She soon began to use her influence on the king and this, coupled with her arrogant manner and outbursts of temper, made her unpopular with the local population, particularly after documents were made public showing that she was hoping to become a naturalized Bavarian citizen and be elevated to the nobility. Despite the opposition, Ludwig made her Countess of Landsfeld on his next birthday, 25 August 1847. Along with her title, he granted her a large annuity.
For more than a year she exercised great political power, which she directed in favor of liberalism and against the conservatives and the Jesuits. Her influence became so great that the ultramontane administration of Karl von Abel was dismissed because that minister objected to her being made Countess Landsfeld. The students of the university were divided in their sympathies, and conflicts arose shortly before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848, which led the king, at Lola’s instigation, to close the university. In March 1848, under pressure from a growing revolutionary movement, the university was re-opened, Ludwig abdicated, and Montez fled Bavaria, her career as a power behind the throne at an end. It seems likely that Ludwig’s relationship with Montez contributed greatly to the fall from grace of the previously popular king. Her reputation in 19th century Germany was highly negative, but in the 20th century Germans came to admire her pluck and liberalism in defiance of Bavarian conservatism.
After a sojourn in Switzerland, where she waited in vain for Ludwig to join her, she made one brief excursion to France and then removed to London in late 1848. There she met and quickly married George Trafford Heald, a young army cornet (cavalry officer) with a recent inheritance. But the terms of her divorce from Thomas James did not permit of either spouse’s remarriage while the other was living, and the beleaguered newlyweds were forced to flee the country to escape a bigamy action brought by Heald’s scandalized maiden aunt. The Healds resided for a time in France and Spain, but within two years, the tempestuous relationship was in tatters, and in 1851 she set off to make a new start in the United States, where she was surprisingly successful at first in rehabilitating her image.
From 1851 to 1853, she performed as a dancer and actress in the eastern United States, one of her offerings being a play called Lola Montez in Bavaria. In May 1853, she arrived at San Francisco. There she married Patrick Hull, a local newspaperman, in July and moved to Grass Valley, California, in August. This marriage failed shortly after, and Montez remained in Grass Valley at her little house for nearly two years. The restored Home of Lola Montez went on to become California Historical Landmark No. 292. Montez served as an inspiration to another aspiring young entertainer, Lotta Crabtree. Lotta’s parents ran a boarding house in Grass Valley, and Lotta soon attracted the attention of neighbor Montez, who encouraged Lotta’s enthusiasm for performance.
In June 1855, Montez departed for a tour of Australia to resume her career by entertaining miners at the gold diggings during the gold-rush of the 1850s, arriving at Sydney on 16 August 1855.
Historian Michael Cannon claims that “In September 1855 she performed her erotic Spider Dance at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, raising her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no underclothing at all (actually a salacious [and unfounded] rumour). Next day the Argus thundered that her performance was ‘utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality’. Respectable families ceased to attend the theatre, which began to show heavy losses.” At Castlemaine in April 1856, she was “rapturously encored” after her Spider Dance in front of 400 diggers (including members of the Municipal Council who had adjourned their meeting early to attend the performance), but drew the wrath of the audience by insulting them following some mild heckling.
She earned further notoriety in Ballarat when, after reading a bad review in The Ballarat Times, she attacked the editor, Henry Seekamp with a whip. The “Lola Montes Polka” composed by Albert Denning was later rumoured to have been inspired by this event, but as the song was published in 1855 and the incident with Seekamp occurred months later in February 1856, this is scarcely probable. She departed for San Francisco on 22 May 1856, having had her fill of the turbulent Australia.
Later life in the U.S.:
In America, she eventually gave up acting and gave lectures on Gallantry, Heroines of History and other subjects; these were very well received. Her book The Arts of Beauty, or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet was published in 1858 and did a brisk business. She finally moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she lived until her death. She spent her last days in rescue work among women. In November 1859, the Philadelphia Press reported that Lola Montez was “living very quietly up town, and doesn’t have much to do with the world’s people. Some of her old friends, the Bohemians, now and then drop in to have a little chat with her, and though she talks beautifully of her present feelings and way of life, she generally, by way of parenthesis, takes out her little tobacco pouch and makes a cigarette or two for self and friend, and then falls back upon old times with decided gusto and effect. But she doesn’t tell anybody what she’s going to do.” On 30 June 1860, she suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed for some time. In mid-December she had recovered enough to walk with a slight limp and went out for a stroll in the cold weather. She contracted pneumonia, lingering for nearly a month before dying one month short of her fortieth birthday. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York where her tombstone states: “Mrs. Eliza Gilbert / Died Jan. 17, 1861”. It also incorrectly reads that she was 42 at time of death.