Famous both for her self-created ‘Spider Dance’, as well as being the inspiration for the expression, ‘Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.’ Barry Manilow’s 1978 smash hit “Copacabana” tells the story of: ‘Lola, she was a showgirl, with yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there”. Girlfriend of bartender Tony at the Copacabana, Lola was a character thought up by Manilow, although he could have certainly found lyrical inspiration in the stranger-than-fiction biography of Lola Montez.
Born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, known by the stage name Lola Montez, she was a dancer and actress who became famous as a ‘Spanish dancer’, courtesan, and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. She was the first woman to be photographed smoking a cigarette.
Lola’s mother, Eliza(beth) Oliver was the child of Charles Silver Oliver, a former High Sheriff of Cork and member of Parliament for Kilmallock, Co Limerick and their residence was Castle Oliver. In December 1818, Ensign Edward Gilbert met Eliza Oliver when he arrived with the 25th Regiment. They were married on 29 April 1820, and Lola was born the following February, refuting persistent rumours that her mother was pregnant with her at the time of the wedding. The young family made their residence at King House in Boyle, Co 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. However, when her baptismal certificate came to light in the late 1990s, it was established that Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was actually born in Grange, Co 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. Shortly after their arrival in India, Edward Gilbert died of cholera.
Montez spent much of her girlhood in India but was educated in Scotland and England. At age 19, she eloped with Lt Thomas James; the couple separated five years later, and in 1843 Gilbert launched a career as a dancer. Her London debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre, billed as ‘Donna Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer’ was disrupted when she was recognised as Mrs. James. The fiasco would probably have ended the career of anyone less beautiful and determined, but Montez received additional dancing engagements throughout Europe. During her travels she reputedly formed liaisons with Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas, among many others.
Late in 1846 Montez danced in Munich, and King Ludwig I of Bavaria was so struck by her beauty, he made her Countess of Landsfeld, and offered her a castle. Under Montez’s influence (the cabinet became known as the ‘Lolaministerium’), Louis inaugurated liberal and anti-Jesuit governmental policies, but his infatuation with her helped to bring about the collapse of his regime in the revolution of 1848. In March of that year Louis abdicated in favour of his son. Montez proceeded to the United States via Switzerland, France and London, returning to her work as an entertainer and lecturer.
From 1851 to 1853 Montez performed in the United States. Her third marriage, to Patrick P. Hull of San Francisco in 1853, ended in divorce. Montez settled in New York City after an unsuccessful tour of Australia (1855–56) and gathered a following as a lecturer on such topics as fashion, gallantry, and beautiful women.
Montez published Anecdotes of Love; Being a True Account of the Most Remarkable Events Connected with the History of Love; in All Ages and among All Nations (1858), The Arts of Beauty, or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascination (1858), and Lectures of Lola Montez, Including Her Autobiography (1858). The international notoriety of her heyday persisted long after her death and inspired numerous literary and balletic allusions.
On 30 June 1860, Montez suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed 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, before dying a month short of her fortieth birthday on 17 February 1861. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, where her tombstone states: “Mrs. Eliza Gilbert / Died 17 January 1861”
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, and the second was in jail.
Featured image: Portrait by Joseph Stieler, 1847