FE­BRU­ARY 17, 1821 –JAN­UARY 17, 1861

The New European - - Eurofile | Great Lives - BY CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY

In the early sum­mer of 1843 Her Majesty’s The­atre in London an­nounced a per­for­mance of Rossini’s The Bar­ber of Seville.

“Be­tween the acts of the opera,” the notice read, “Dona Lola Mon­tez of the Teatro Real, Seville, will have the hon­our of mak­ing her first ap­pear­ance in this coun­try in the orig­i­nal Span­ish dance, El Olano.”

No-one knew it at the time but this was to be the first pub­lic ap­pear­ance of one of Europe’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary phe­nom­ena, a woman of in­ven­tion, sin­gle mind and beauty enough to bring down kings.

Her per­for­mance was sensation enough for the Times to re­view the mys­tery Ibe­rian dancer with­out even men­tion­ing the opera, prais­ing “a kind of na­tional re­al­ity about her that was most im­pres­sive”. For the Evening Stan­dard cor­re­spon­dent mean­while, “there is be­fore you the per­fec­tion of Span­ish beauty”.

The thing was, this dark-eyed, cas­tanet­clack­ing Spa­niard wasn’t from Seville at all and far from be­ing a reg­u­lar at the Teatro Real had never per­formed in pub­lic be­fore. To cap it all she wasn’t even re­motely Span­ish. As the ap­plause rang out, one man squinted through his opera glasses at the stony-faced, curt­sey­ing dancer about whom he was cer­tain there was some­thing fa­mil­iar.

“Why it… it’s Betsy James!” he splut­tered and the leg­end of Lola Mon­tez be­gan.

The next day the man wrote anony­mously to the press. “The ‘Senorita’ whom [the the­atre] seeks to palm off on the credulity of opera sub­scribers is a per­son­age who has re­ceived for some time past in the nomen­cla­ture of Mrs James, and who, though a re­mark­ably pretty woman, knows more of many other things that she knows of danc­ing and more of the lo­cal­ity of Clarges Street than she does of the Teatro Real, Seville.”

Yet for all the as­ton­ished cor­re­spon­dent’s ef­forts and in­sin­u­a­tions, the comet that was Lola Mon­tez had al­ready launched it­self across the skies of Europe. In a few short years she would blaze across the con­ti­nent and be­yond, danc­ing, par­ty­ing and con­sort­ing with some of the most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal and cultural fig­ures of the age, hav­ing men duel over her and bring­ing down at least one ma­jor Euro­pean monarch. She had no ma­jor gifts be­yond her beauty and per­son­al­ity and got by on sheer force of will, a no­to­ri­ously short tem­per and a suc­ces­sion of whop­ping lies of­ten so as­ton­ish­ing in their chutz­pah that they al­most had to be true.

She would reg­u­larly claim to be the il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of Lord By­ron, for ex­am­ple, and a few weeks be­fore her stage de­but had found her­self shar­ing a train com­part­ment from Southamp­ton to London with the Earl of Malmes­bury. At first di­verted by her beauty, the earl be­came en­chanted by her tale of poverty and ex­ile. She had been mar­ried to a Span­ish aris­to­crat, she ex­plained, who had been re­cently ex­e­cuted for lead­ing a putsch against Queen Is­abella. Forced to flee she had ar­rived pen­ni­less in Eng­land where, de­spite her grief, she would try her luck there as a dancer. So charmed was the Earl that as soon as they reached London he rec­om­mended her to the man­ager of Her Majesty’s The­atre.

In fact this Lola Mon­tez, the danc­ing Span­ish widow of a ro­man­tic rev­o­lu­tion­ary, was born El­iza Gil­bert in the west of

Ire­land to a teenage soldier of the Bri­tish army and the 13-year-old il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of an Ir­ish aris­to­crat. That day, in that rail­way car­riage, El­iza was con­signed to the past and Lola was born.

Am­a­teur psy­chol­o­gists might iden­tify the roots of the Lola Mon­tez phe­nom­e­non in the early death of her mil­i­tary fa­ther, al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter mov­ing the fam­ily to In­dia when El­iza was two: dur­ing her life­time she mar­ried three sol­diers and moved con­sis­tently from older man to older man.

In In­dia her mother soon mar­ried a Scot­tish soldier who sent El­iza home for her school­ing to his dour, Pres­by­te­rian par­ents whose lives were im­me­di­ately dis­rupted by a head­strong, mis­chievous child with a fiery tem­per. When she took to run­ning naked through the streets of Mon­trose El­iza was sent away to school, even­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at a Bath es­tab­lish­ment de­signed to bring her into line (later a teacher would re­call how El­iza’s “beau­ti­ful coun­te­nance” was tainted by her “ha­bit­ual expressions of in­domitable self-will”).

In 1837, El­iza, barely 16, eloped to Ire­land with a Bri­tish army lieu­tenant named Thomas James, largely to ward off a mar­riage ar­ranged by her mother to the el­derly ad­ju­tant-gen­eral of Ben­gal, a man de­scribed by El­iza as “a gouty old ras­cal of 60 years”. The mar­riage broke down af­ter both par­ties proved se­ri­ally un­faith­ful, prompting her ar­rival in London and de­ci­sion to start all over again as Lola Mon­tez.

De­spite the press sensation caused by her out­ing, Mon­tez stood res­o­lutely by her new iden­tity, threat­en­ing le­gal ac­tion and in­sist­ing she was a na­tive of Seville even four years af­ter the event when she was still writ­ing to the Times to “beg leave to say my name is Maria Dolores Por­rys Mon­tez and I have never changed that name”.

She de­camped across the Chan­nel when the heat of scan­dal had failed to die down but con­tin­ued to demon­strate a knack for sensation, usu­ally thanks to her tem­per. Barely four months af­ter her stage de­but she nar­rowly avoided prison for horse­whip­ping a Ber­lin gen­darme who’d grabbed her steed when it be­came bois­ter­ous dur­ing a pa­rade by the King of Prus­sia. She moved on to Paris where in 1844 she met and com­menced af­fairs with Franz Liszt and Alexan­dre Du­mas and em­barked upon an in­tense re­la­tion­ship with em­i­nent news­pa­per pub­lisher Alexan­dre Du­jarier, who was soon killed in a duel sparked by an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing Mon­tez at a party.

To escape the fall­out she tracked down Liszt in Bonn, barged into a ban­quet he was at­tend­ing, leapt onto the ta­ble, com­menced danc­ing and kicked a tureen of con­sommé into the lap of a duke. The next morn­ing the trau­ma­tised com­poser crept out of his ho­tel room, locked her in­side, left a sum of money with the own­ers to cover the in­evitable dam­age Mon­tez would cause when she woke to dis­cover him gone and dis­ap­peared from her life for good.

In 1846 she ar­rived in Bavaria where she em­barked upon a re­la­tion­ship with King Lud­wig I. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, when Lud­wig first met Mon­tez he pointed at her bo­som and en­quired, “Na­ture or art?”, to which the dancer re­sponded by rip­ping open her dress and re­veal­ing more than enough to an­swer be­yond doubt.

The el­derly Lud­wig – a no­table ec­cen­tric who en­joyed noth­ing more than walk­ing the streets of Mu­nich incog­nito and knock­ing peo­ple’s hats off – was im­me­di­ately smit­ten, build­ing a palace for Mon­tez, award­ing her a whop­ping stipend and des­ig­nat­ing her the Count­ess of Lands­feld.

Mon­tez ex­er­cised con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence over the love­struck monarch and per­suaded him to in­tro­duce a num­ber of lib­eral poli­cies de­signed to re­duce the in­flu­ence of the church. Such power be­hind the throne made her so un­pop­u­lar at all lev­els of Bavar­ian so­ci­ety that she trig­gered an 1848 upris­ing that forced Lud­wig to ab­di­cate. “My crown for Lola,” he had promised and was true to his word.

Again she es­caped the fall­out, mov­ing first to London for an­other ill-starred mil­i­tary mar­riage be­fore em­bark­ing in 1851 on an at­tempted dance con­quest of

Amer­ica. Ar­riv­ing even­tu­ally in Cal­i­for­nia at the peak of the Gold Rush, Mon­tez opened a sa­loon fur­nished with the de­tri­tus of her ex­tra­or­di­nary life: Louis XVI cab­i­nets, jew­ellery pre­sented to her by Lud­wig, a red-baize, gold-leaf bil­liard ta­ble with dragons carved on its legs and a per­form­ing bear. But that ven­ture – along with a plan to lead Cal­i­for­nia to in­de­pen­dence from the US as ‘Lo­la­land’ dis­cov­ered among pa­pers af­ter her death a month short of her 40th birth­day – failed and she spent her syphilis-rid­dled fi­nal years giv­ing lec­ture tours de­tail­ing the events of her re­mark­able life.

Alexan­dre Du­mas once said that Lola Mon­tez “was born to be the evil ge­nius of ev­ery­one who cared for her”, some­thing ar­guably con­firmed by the trail she left of de­throned kings, bro­ken marriages and a string of paramours ei­ther dead, ter­ri­fied or sim­ply heart­bro­ken. It’s im­pos­si­ble to say what drove her on but that night at Her Majesty’s, as the ap­plause and cheers washed over her new start and new iden­tity, Lola Mon­tez must have felt ca­pa­ble of ab­so­lutely any­thing.

Photo: Getty Im­ages

IN­DOMITABLE: The ex­tra­or­di­nary life of dancer and ad­ven­turess Lola Mon­tez be­gan as El­iza Gil­bert in Ire­land in 1821

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