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.
Montez acted in a way that was not just unwise but defiantly unwomanly. In the behavior that put her so far beyond the pale, how much was reckless spontaneity and how much calculation? The costume, the timing, the crowd effects: the whole perfectionist drama of Lola’s imperious arrival on the Friedrichfelde suggests the degree to which it had been staged.
The notoriety that went before her could always fill a theater, but only once or twice. Montez’s career was inherently mouvementé. What makes her an extraordinary woman of her period is the ingenuity of her persistences.
Officially ejected from Warsaw, where she had denounced the chief of police, Colonel Abramowicz, before the Grand Theatre audience for indecent advances, banned from performing in St. Petersburg, Montez determined that her professional and sexual salvation lay with Franz Liszt, then at the height of his fame as a concert performer and recently appointed director of music to the Duke of Weimar. Seymour accepts Montez’s own account of an impetuous train ride from Berlin to attend one of his concerts, which may have been either in Dessau or in Köthen. Their eyes met “for one electric instant.” Afterward she sent a note asking him to call.
According to her memoirs she proposed to Liszt almost at once that they “unite their artistic paths” and travel together. It is certainly clear that she returned with him to Dresden, checking in with him at his favorite hotel, the Hotel de Saxe. It also rings true that Lola quickly found her role as Liszt’s appendage irksome: “I had been reduced,” she wrote, “to a pale, lightless satellite of a great star, I, who had otherwise been spoilt by the accustomed feeling that I was the sole and unchallenged source of light and warmth in my part of the artistic firmament.”
In Berlin one of Montez’s many gentlemen admirers had been Eduard von Bülow, the writer and translator. The dancer Imagina in his story “Die neue Melusine” is an approximation of Lola, the black Spanish hat pushed to the back of her head, red and white camellias in her hair. The power of Imagina’s appearance derived from her expression of ecstatic involvement in her dancing. Her playing of the castanets was masterful. It was Lola who introduced von Bülow’s son Hans to Franz Liszt, whose pupil he became. Hans von Bülow’s marriage to Liszt’s daughter Cosima was sabotaged by Richard Wagner, who later married her himself. Wagner was no aficionado of Lola Montez, calling her a “heartless, demonic being.” Liszt himself, like many of her ex-lovers, remained an admirer long after they had quarreled.
Her amatory networks in the leading cities of European culture contributed to Montez’s professional success. Liszt provided letters of introduction for Lola when she first arrived in Paris in 1844. She was popular with the denizens of the Jockey Club, connoisseurs of women as of fine specimens of horse. But her debut at the Opéra was disastrous, in spite of the élan with which, after the first leap, she stopped on full point and, “with a movement of prodigious agility,” detached one of her garters. Le Siècle reported, “The lorgnettes were riveted to the sight.” There was a typical hubris about Montez’s appearance in the stronghold of European classical ballet. The critics in Paris were particularly caustic. Wrote Théophile Gautier, in La Presse, “We could say that Mlle. Lola has a small foot and pretty legs. As for the way she uses them, that’s another matter.” Seymour does not tell us in how much detail she read her own reviews. In any case Montez was not a brooder. She was apt to harangue unenthusiastic audiences or, as reported after a bad evening in Warsaw, to expose her posterior to the auditorium.
In July 1844 the London magazine Era reported: “Mlle Lola Montez…has left a card at the Shooting Gallery of Lepage…, entirely perforated with pistol balls, in firing rapid double coups.” Her Paris lover and protector, Alexandre Henri Dujarier, co-owner and cultural editor of La Presse and friend of Alexandre Dumas, was not, alas, so skillful with the pistol. In a duel that had no connection with Lola, he was shot at close range in the Bois de Boulogne and his bloody corpse returned to Lola at his lodgings. With the scandal surrounding the death of Dujarier, her hopes of building a professional career in Paris were at an end.
Montez arrived in Munich in the autumn of 1846, after a long summer of consolatory travel during which one of her lovers had been Robert Peel, the younger, diplomatic son of the recent British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. She applied to perform at the Munich Royal Court Theatre. Such was Ludwig I’s control over the administrative detail of the city that permission could only be given by the King himself. Seymour dismisses as apocryphal the story that at their private audience Ludwig gestured toward Lola’s well-formed bosom and inquired, “Nature or art?” at which Lola seized a pair of scissors and ripped open her tight black velvet bodice. But, as Seymour rightly says, the circulation of the story reveals much about the public conception of the relationship between Lola and the King. This achieved a level of sexual innuendo comparable to the crisis in Britain in the 1930s that led to the abdication of Edward VIII. King Ludwig I was soon calling her “Lolitta.”
Seymour co-edited the German edition of their correspondence, now in the Bavarian State Archives. He uses his own translations of the letters as the basis of his detailed and absorbing account of their relations. It is strangely appropriate that the research and writing of this narrative of obsessiveness and risk-taking was funded, so Seymour tells us in his preface, by his winnings from the television game show Jeopardy!
By the time Lola Montez made her Munich debut, dancing “Los Boleros” in a play entitled The Enchanted Prince, King Ludwig had commissioned Joseph Karl Stieler to paint her for his Gallery of Beauties. This was his collection of portraits of his most-admired women, hung in a special room in the new north wing of the palace and regularly open to the public. In honor of Lola, Ludwig, the poet-king, composed his first verses in Spanish—“Yo te quiero con mi vida…,” “I love you with my life, my eyes, my soul, my body, my heart, all of me”—and gave her a magnificently bound edition of his three published volumes of poetry. Sixty-year-old Ludwig rapidly rejected his initial suspicions that the dancer was a secret agent of the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, sent to lure the ultra-conservative King into the liberal camp. He described his new, invigorating passion to his friend Heinrich von der Tann:
I can compare myself to Vesuvius, which seemed burned out, until it suddenly erupted once again.
Seymour’s prose is too lumbering to capture precisely the subtleties and ironies in the correspondence between the credulous king and the upwardly mobile Lola Montez, who was soon to be translated by royal decree, and in spite of his advisers, into the Bavarian Countess of Landsfeld. Seymour’s attempts at imagined dialogue are particularly jarring. But the correspondence has its wonderful moments.
Expertly, Lola teases and torments King Ludwig, keeping him intrigued. She sends him a cast of her foot in marble. One of the recurring themes of the correspondence is King Ludwig’s fascination with her dancer’s feet: “I take your feet into my mouth where I have never had any others, that would have been repugnant to me, but with you it’s just the opposite.” Evidently he preferred her feet to be unwashed. It appears they actually had sex very infrequently, Lola making her excuses on grounds of ill health (she is thought to have contracted malaria in India) and fear of pregnancy. Seymour believes the night of love recorded in June 1847 is in fact the only whole night they spent together. The letters show that from around this period Lola’s erotic hold on the King increased. He tells her he has resisted kissing his in-laws on the lips, reserving such kisses for his mistress. He describes how he is wearing the flannel she has sent him under his clothes, reversing it so that he can be certain that at least one of the sides has touched Lolitta’s body. Has she worn the flannel “in both places,” he inquires?
Montez was creating mayhem in the classical city King Ludwig had created, the most conservatively Catholic of all the major cities in the Europe of that time. While Ludwig’s letters became more personal, more pleading, hers became more political. Her overt political ambitions appear to have begun in St. Petersburg, where she claimed so absurdly that the Czar and Czarina and the ministers wanted her opinion on affairs of state. In Munich, because of the power of her sexual dominance over King Ludwig, her interventions were real, and Lola soon began giving him her instructions on ministerial appointments and dismissals and direction of state policy, particularly over religious affairs. Seymour quotes from the King’s diary, which shows his apprehensiveness. “She is meddling in personal matters of state…concessions made to her, she wants more…Where will it lead?”
Ludwig’s previous liaisons had been with actresses, nonentities on the political scene. Lola developed into a grand intriguer, a compulsive meddler with the histrionic quality of Lady Caroline Lamb. The King’s chief minister, Karl von Abel, and his cabinet were pushed into mass resignation over the issue of Montez’s naturalization as a Bavarian citizen. Ludwig lost all credibility with his people after the affair was publicized throughout Europe. By the spring of 1847 he was a pathetic figure. As he pushed his way through a whistling and jeering crowd of almost six thousand people beneath the Countess’s windows in the Theresienstrasse, he himself had to cry out, “Hats off before the King!” Lola, back in her theatrical element, stood on the balcony brandishing her dagger at the crowd. Her neighbor across the street heard what he described as her “truly mocking laughter from hell.”
Seymour’s book is at its best when he shows Ludwig on a disaster course. He unravels an immensely complicated story with great skill, connecting the crisis in Munich to the events of 1848 in a Europe on the verge of revolution, and bringing out the element of farce that attached inevitably to whatever Lola did. Most movingly he brings out the wavering emotions of a King en route to abdication who could not bring himself to disbelieve in his Lolitta, however clear the evidence of her multiple unfaithfulness. Some of the most poignant letters are those that King Ludwig did not send. Even after he has given up his crown in favor of his son Maximilian, even after Lola, finally thrown out in Munich, has moved, at his expense, into the Château de l’Impératrice at Pregny in Switzerland, once the home of Empress Josephine, he remains enthralled. He describes himself kissing Lola’s letters, in his English garden, wandering forlornly around the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace. He still found her letters so exciting they gave him an erection. “My heart is yours,” she told him titillatingly, in between renewed demands for money, “my cuño too, and all of me.”
Lola Montez strikes me less as the harbinger of twentieth-century women’s independence that Bruce Seymour suggests, more of a throwback to the swashbuckling actress-adventuress of seventeenth-century London. Her intransigence reminds me of Charlotte Charke, Colley Cibber’s daughter, a wild girl-actress specializing in male leads. Her wiliness and shamelessness has something of the vigor of the writer Aphra Behn, sent by Charles II to Holland as a spy. Behn, as a playwright, hid her sex behind a smokescreen of male bawdy. Like Montez, these were bold and desperate women, living on their wits. After the break with Ludwig, Montez returned to England. She was still only twenty-nine and, after Queen Victoria, the most famous woman in the Western world. She was to marry twice more and acquire another multitude of lovers, some perceptibly lower down the social scale. In 1852 she launched a new career as an actress in America, starring in what Seymour calls an “early docudrama,” Lola Montez in Bavaria, probably the first historical play in which the protagonist played herself. For a time it was enormously successful. Sometimes she would throw her Spider Dance in free.
Montez lived for two years in Grass Valley, California, where she attacked the editor of the Grass Valley Telegraph with her horsewhip in the Golden Gate Saloon. In 1855 she formed a theater company to tour Australia, where another unfavorable journalist, the editor of the Ballarat Times, fell victim to her whip. After 1857, back in the States, she became a respected middlebrow lecturer, attracting large audiences for her talks on “Gallantry,” in which she praised King Ludwig, and “Heroines of History and Strong-minded Women.” After she was jilted in Paris by her last aristocratic suitor, the Polish Prince Ludwig Johann Sulkowski, a passing stranger on the Left Bank of the Seine who inadvertently stood on her skirt was given a sharp slap. Finally she made a late-life conversion, inspired by reading Bunyan, and ended her days religiously in Greenwich Village, calling herself (inaccurately) Mrs. Heald.
It is a triumph of Bruce Seymour’s tenacity that his final chapters seem almost as fascinating as those of his central story about Lola and the King. When her mother came to see her on her deathbed, Lola made it clear she was unwelcome, blaming Mrs. Craigie for driving her into the paths of sin.
June 20, 1996