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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.