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Lola Montez: A Life

by Bruce Seymour
Yale University Press, 468 pp., $30.00

Lola Montez was caustic about the biographies that accumulated in her lifetime, accusing them of bearing no more resemblance to her than to the man in the moon. The inaccurate biographies continued after her death in New York in 1861. Typical is Edmund B. d’Auvergne’s account, published in London in 1909, of the Spanish dancer who caused the abdication of a besotted King Ludwig I of Bavaria. It is fulsomely lubricious, in the Edwardian mode. He depicts her as the last of the long and illustrious line of women, including Aspasia and Cleopatra, before whom kings bent the knee in homage. There’s a sense of male complicity in his description of Lola as “a splendid animal, always doing what she wished to do.”

Even Lola Montez’s latest biographer, Bruce Seymour, seems a little more sexually partial than he should be. He admits, in a coy confession in his preface, that his friends now see him as Lola’s final victim, “seduced by charms that transcend time.” But in spite of (or because of) Bruce’s obvious emotional involvement with the castanet-clicking, pistol-packing Lola, this is the first biography that benefits from systematic professional research. Seymour, a lawyer and nineteenth-century scholar, has discovered in the King Ludwig I Archive in the Bavarian State Library some of the most fascinating records of European royal intrigue to emerge in recent years.

Not least of his achievements in this excellent biography has been in unraveling the lies and the disguises of that queen of obfuscation, Montez herself. The beautiful Spaniard Donna Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez made her debut on June 3, 1843, at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. She wore a tight black velvet bodice, a swishing red, blue, and purple skirt, and a long black lace mantilla, and performed a quasi-Spanish dance, “El Oleano,” sandwiched between acts of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

Lola Montez was not Spanish. She was born in southern Ireland. Her dancing techniques had been acquired only a few months before her inaugural performance from a Spanish dancing master based in London, bolstered by a short visit to Cadiz. Already the hissing was beginning. When it came to hissing Lola Montez would develop the hide of a rhinoceros. Gentlemen in the audience, recognizing the real Lola, complained to the management that this was not the tragic widow of Don Diego Leon, the rebel hero who had died in an attempted putsch against the oppressive Spanish court, but the notorious divorcée Mrs. James.

Does Seymour quite comprehend the Irish gift for fabrication? Lola turned Irish blarney into a fine art. She was born Eliza Gilbert. Her mother, herself the illegitimate daughter of a prominent Cork family, was pregnant when she married in Christ Church, Cork, at the age of fourteen. Eliza’s father was an ensign in the British army, a handsome boyish figure with light-blond side whiskers and an elegant moustache. Parade-ground trimness was always to excite her. Two of her husbands, and several of her lovers, were personable British military men.

She lived fast, the antithesis of Victorian idealized female serenity. Seymour comments correctly, “If one theme runs through Lola’s whole life, it is a longing for new adventures, new challenges, new faces, and new horizons.” This was the speeded-up cinematographic quality that has attracted film makers to her story, most notably Max Ophuls, whose film Lola Montès, based on a French novel, appeared in 1955.

Her childhood was a restless one. At three she was taken to India, where her father died of cholera and her mother soon remarried. Her stepfather, Lieutenant Patrick Craigie, came to modest fame as the inventor of an Anglo-Indian savory named Craigie Toast. The child Eliza was both neglected and spoiled, carried around half-naked by her native ayahs. Intimations of nakedness would become her stock in trade. At six she was sent home for schooling, throwing tantrums as she traveled. The “little tigress,” as a guardian described her, was emerging. Enforced confinement, especially on board ship with a husband or a lover, always saw her at her worst.

Now began the gradual process of self-transformation. From 1832 Eliza attended a girls’ boarding school in Bath, in a crescent with a view across the city “dominated by the gray eminence of the venerable abbey.” (Seymour can sometimes come dangerously near to sounding like Sir John Betjeman satirizing Americans.) The curriculum of this small school was enterprising for its period, offering French and Latin as well as the usual female accomplishments. Eliza was phenomenally quick on the uptake, a journalist manqué many of whose closest friendships and greatest enmities would be with journalists. Was her surprisingly broad, if ill-digested, knowledge of literature, art, and philosophy first acquired in Bath?

She was now calling herself Eliza Rosana Gilbert. At seventeen she eloped with her mother’s traveling companion, Lieutenant Thomas James, married hastily, and returned with him to India. Seymour is short of source material for his early chapters; he is chiefly dependent on the unreliable Lola Montez memoirs, published in German in 1851, and the autobiography appended to her collected lectures, published in New York in 1858. But back in India the documentation opens out. There are careful descriptions of the (already regretful) young bride in the letters of Emily Eden, sister to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Auckland. In the military hill town of Simla she “looked like a star amongst the others, the women were plain.” At Karnal Miss Eden gives Eliza a pink silk gown and a ride on her own camel, and observes her keenly: “She is very young and lively, and if she falls into bad hands, she would soon laugh herself into foolish scrapes.”

There is indeed an attractive self-mockery in Lola. Her marriage to James soon ended in acrimony. James had been in the habit of noting down his wife’s transgressions in a pocket notebook. On the voyage back to England, doubly disgraced by her original elopement and failed marriage, she was banned from the Captain’s table on grounds of her “unguarded and flighty” behavior with George Lennox, young nephew of the Duke of Richmond. The Captain’s maid stationed herself outside the cabin door, knowing that the rolling of the ship sometimes threw the door open. She was rewarded by the sight of the couple kissing, Mrs. James dressed only in her stays and petticoats. More than once Lieutenant Lennox was caught in the act of lacing up the stays.

She was at her most creative in her most despairing moments. At the age of twenty-two, deserted by Lennox, sued for divorce by James, with no means of financial support, she invented a new masculine-féminine persona, acquired her foreign accent (which was never quite consistent), learned to roll the cigarettes she chain-smoked and which became her symbol. It seems likely that Lola Montez was the first woman to be photographed while smoking. She also became addicted to pungent small cigars.

In early Victorian London the Spanish were in fashion. Seymour reminds us that many of the popular ballerinas of the period, including Fanny Elssler, Marie Taglioni, and Fanny Cerito, were introducing Spanish boleros, chacuchas, and fandangos into their repertoire. He might have added that within another decade Pepita, “the Star of Andalusia,” would be dancing on the very London stage where Lola made her debut. Pepita, the daughter of a Malaga barber, was for many years the mistress of the aristocratic English diplomat Lionel Sackville-West, and was the mother of the future Lady Sackville and grandmother of Vita Sackville-West. As with Lola Montez, it appears that the success of her performance relied more on bravura sexuality than finesse of technique.

One of the strengths of Seymour’s book is the record it provides of Montez in performance, drawn from contemporary newspaper reviews. The “El Oleano” dance contained what became a famous sequence, “death to the tarantula,” in which the dancer searched in her skirts to find the spider. (In 1853 in San Francisco a reporter felt that the search was in regions “rather higher than was proper in so public a place.”) Once located, the spider was destroyed in a series of movements designed to show Lola as contemptuous avenger: “the head lifted and thrown back, the flashing eye, the fierce and protruded foot which crushed the insect.” Audiences were to learn to clamor for the Spider Dance, whipping up the expectation: “Spider, Spider, Spider!” To a late-twentieth-century reader, one of the striking aspects of her story is her shrewd understanding of the commercial value of hype.

The debacle at Her Majesty’s Theatre in summer 1843 put paid to further public appearances in London, and Montez set out on a European tour. She created a career that depended partly on a veneer of propriety: her contacts in Dresden appear to have believed her story of having delighted Queen Victoria with her singing, although it was not true. At the same time she was dicing with indecency. The first explicit references to her blatant sexuality occur in a review of her performance in Berlin later in the summer of 1843:

Her dancing, however, was no dancing at all but a physical invitation. If it is said of Taglioni that she writes world history with her feet, so it can be said of Donna Montez that she writes Casanova’s Memoirs with her whole body.

A female Casanova? Much of the scandal that attached to Lola springs from her taking the sexual initiative. One of the first of her quarries was Prince Heinrich LXXII, a German relative of Queen Victoria’s and feudal lord of a bucolic principality of 165 square miles in Thuringia, in southeastern Germany. All male children in the Reuss dynasty were named Heinrich. Montez herself proposed the visit to the capital city of Ebersdorf to visit Heinrich LXXII, who was distinguished by the title of Serenissimus. With her peculiar capacity for commotion she upset the rustic breakfast at his hunting lodge of Weidmannsheil, threatening His Serenissimus with the little dagger she kept in her belt. Expelled from the kingdom she replied with the comeback that makes Montez the model for the Hollywood wisecracking woman, “That’s not such a long trip!”

In Berlin she established herself quickly in court circles. Her reputation with celebrity audiences was always more stable than with the general public or the press. In 1843, in a dazzling silver-and-white costume, she danced a command performance of “Los Boleros de Cadix” before King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and Czar Nicholas I of Russia, who was then on a state visit to Prussia, at the Neues Palais in Potsdam. The Czar’s visit provided the occasion for one of the incidents essential to the Lola Montez legend. It was on the Berlin military parade ground that Lola—mounted and wearing her fashionably cut “amazon” riding habit—struck with her whip at the gendarme attempting to prevent her from entering the area reserved for the nobles who accompanied the Czar and King.

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