By Sarah McCleave
The first known reference to Lola in the Antipodean press marked one of her violent escapades – an event that nearly landed her in prison. Under the title ‘A Dancer in Trouble’, The Australian for 24 August 1844 inaccurately described our subject as the nineteen-year-old Mlle Montez, a Spanish dancer and the daughter of a deceased Spanish General, “who has for some time been much admired … for her great talent, is likely to be put in prison for some time.” Whilst in Berlin she attended the ‘grand Review’ on horseback, and when her horse was alarmed by some firing and “rushed amongst the suite of the two sovereigns”, she reacted badly to a gendarme who had struck her horse a blow with his sabre – striking the man across the face with her whip. Lola was subsequently issued with a summons that she reportedly (according to this ‘Letter from Berlin’) tore up. Lola was then arrested “for having manifested marks of disrespect to the orders of justice” – a charge which could have carried a sentence of 3-5 years’ imprisonment. The Adelaide Observer (12 October 1844) repeated the tale in a section of material on ‘Spain’. For nearly three years thereafter the Antipodean papers apparently chose not to run stories concerning Mlle Montez – until she elected to pen a letter concerning her origins, originally addressed to the Paris-based publisher Galignani. This missive found its way into The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser of 25 August 1847:
I was born in Seville in the year 1823. My father was a Spanish officer in the service of Don Carlos; my mother, a lady of Irish extraction, was born at the Havannah, and married for a second time to an Irish gentleman, which I suppose is the cause of my being called Irish, and sometimes English, ‘Betsy Watson ,’ ‘Mrs James’, &c. &c. I beg leave to say that my name is Maria Dolores Porres Montes, and I have never changed that name. As for my theatrical qualifications, I never had the presumption to think I had any; circumstances obliged me at a more advanced age than usual, in consequence of the misfortunes of my family, to adopt the stage as a profession – which profession I have now renounced for ever, having become a naturalized Bavarian, and intending in future making Munich my residence. …Lola Montez, Munich, March 31.  as reproduced in https://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 15 July 2023.
The Maitland Mercury distanced itself from presenting this letter as factual reportage, asserting “We do not answer for its authenticity.” (Indeed, the sterling archival research of Bruce Seymour has established beyond doubt that Lola’s origins were 100% Anglo-Irish.1) But as a crafted story of origin this is intelligent in addressing inconvenient biographical details (her identity as ‘Mrs James’ is explained away) while making a bid for her readers’ sympathy (“I never had the presumption … in consequence of the misfortunes of my family …”). Lola is distancing herself from her theatrical career – possibly trying to open doors that would be closed to a mere actress – but subsequent events pushed her back onto the stage, probably not at all unwillingly.
Lola’s connection to king Ludwig I of Bavaria and a series of Bavarian scandals which she generated excited much press coverage in the late 1840s; typical is an oft-repeated report of 32 persons arrested for creating a disturbance when Lola, forced to leave Bavaria as its revolution erupted, passed through Hamburg.2 In Australia, Lola’s consequent celebrity status is affirmed when The Sydney Morning Herald (first among many broadsheets to do so) advised its readers of
Handsomely Framed Engravings Just Landed, in Salacia. Mr Edward Salomon, will sell by auction, at his Rooms, George-Street, Tuesday May 30, at 11 o’clock … [including] Lola Montez – a beautiful engraving in maple and gold frame …Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1848 in https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/
This was followed by another well-circulated report of king Ludwig’s abdication “into temporary retirement with Lola Montez” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1848). The inaccuracy of this story was revealed before the month was out, as the Hobart Courier for 29 July 1848 – under the heading ‘Lola Montez and her new admirer’ – recounted her association with Robert Peel 3rd Baronet, “our Charge d’Affaires in Berne”, with whom Lola – described as a “fair and fiery fury” – is seen promenading on a daily basis, followed by a varied train of gentlemen, girls, and children. Peel, with an “aim to be conspicuous” surely equaled by the object of his admiration, even hosted a dinner for her to which the English ambassador had been invited.
Montez’s bigamous marriage with George Trafford Heald was the next event to receive multiple coverage, led by The Sydney Morning Herald on 20 November 1849. By 11 January 1850 the Melbourne Argus broadcast Lola’s origins as Miss Eliza Gilbert, a former attendee of a boarding school in Monkwearmouth (Sunderland). Eliza’s former drawing teacher Mr Grant remembered a “beautiful and elegant child”, but one who demonstrated an “indomitable self-will”. This revelation did not prevent the Irishwoman from being received as the persona ‘Lola Montez’ when she arrived in Australia some five years later – although the Argus would maintain a critical stance in its subsequent coverage of her. The Antipodean press was engaging with Montez as a personality rather than as a performing artist – until The Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser for 13 August 1853 reprinted a review of one of her Californian performances as ‘American News’. The level of interest that Montez could generate on a stage is evident in this account:
Seldom is actress or artist greeted with such a house as was the renowned Countess of Landesfeldt last evening at the American. The building was literally stowed with human beings. …the people … were impatient till [Lola Montez] appeared. In the character of Yelva, Madame Lola’s powers of pantomime were exhibited, and she portrayed the sufferings of the orphan with a great deal of truthfulness and effect … Following this came … the Dance. The dance was what all had come to see, and there was an anxious flutter and an intense interest as the moment approached … She was greeted with a storm of applause, and then she executed the dance, which is said to be her favorite, and has won for her much notoriety. The Spider Dance is a very remarkable affair. It is thoroughly Spanish, certainly, and it cannot be denied that it is a most attractive performance. As a danseuse, Madame Lola is far above mediocrity. Indeed, some parts of her execution was truly admirable. She was heartily applauded … [and] is sure to have fine success with us …Alta California of 28 May, reproduced 13 August 1853, found in https://trove.nla.gov.au/.
Australia, by finally acknowledging Montez as a performer, joined other nations in expressing a fascination with her pièce de resistance – the Spider Dance. In 1853, a ball organised by G Pickering of Sydney promised “all the late polkas – and especially Lola Montes’ Spider Dance, which is just now creating such a sensation in Europe and California.”3 Lola brought this sensation to Australia in the latter months of 1855; the sensations that the Argus of Melbourne (20 September) chose to record were shock (“a public exhibition of this kind”) and moral condemnation – the latter directed at any of the theatres who chose to let Montez perform (“they have no right to insult respectable ladies by inviting their attendance”). The Hobart Courier (25 September 1855) gleefully reproduced this journalistic exemplar of moral outrage alongside an eloquent letter Lola had penned in response, in which she reasonably pointed out that the tarantella is a national dance performed by all classes of Spaniards; she is not attempting to cater for a “morbid taste for immoral representations”, but rather views the dance as a piece of “high art”. Montez’s readiness to engage with the press and her skill at identifying the best possible angle from which to present herself promoted her fame as a professional in tandem with renewing her status as a celebrity. In the image below Adelaide-based artist John Michael Skipper (1815-1883) depicts Lola the professional rendering the Spider Dance with vivacity and grace. The featured image for this blog is the same artist’s take on Lola the celebrity – engaging in the provocative act of being a woman who dared to smoke in public.
And yet Lola’s departure from San Francisco for Australia on the Fanny Major (6 June 1855) with a self-assembled theatre company apparently had generated no press coverage at her destination.4 Her Antipodean coverage picked up suddenly and in a sustained manner from 23 August 1855, with her company’s début performance at the Royal Victoria theatre, Sydney, in “the deeply-interesting drama”, Lola Montez in Bavaria (Sydney Empire, 23 August 1855). Lola gained a favorable review for her acting from the Sydney and Sporting Review (25 August 1855), which opened by remarking: “This extraordinary and gifted being made her appearance … before the most crowded audience that was ever jammed into the Victoria.” Noting that her notoriety did not prevent her from eventually winning over a “particular” American public, the paper continued by observing,
the Lola Montes of reality, [is] a different personage fromthe Lola Montes of notoriety.Her entrée was modest and elegant, and throughout the long performance she played with a mingled fervour, grace, playfulness, and pathos that fully gained the favour of all.…. We glory in the boldness of the woman who … challenges her tale to be gainsaid.She not only vindicates her character during that particular career, but appeals to history to confirm her statement …Reproduced in https://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 14 July 2023.
Lola invariably attracted partisan press coverage, in large part because her celebrity status permeated nearly every account we have of her. Her Antipodean period saw performance successes and failures, the rupture of many professional alliances (she broke with her original company some months into the tour), and the tragic loss of her married lover the actor Frank Folland on the return journey to the USA.5 On her arrival Stateside Lola cultivated a profile as a public lecturer. In this pursuit she was quite successful, as her capacity to engage and fascinate was in this format perhaps less compromised by technical limitations (as compared with her dancing or acting). Lola’s final American years were also marked by her fervent interest in Christianity, by accelerating poor health, and an early death on 17 January 1861 in New York City. Despite the sad brevity of her existence, the eventful life and career of ‘Lola Montez’ continued to exert a fascination that is still evident in our own time.
The next post will consider the posthumous reception of Lola Montez.
- On Lola Montez’s origins, see Bruce Seymour, Lola Montez a Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 1-8.
- Trove’s earliest reference to this story is 27 October 1847 in The Courier (Hobart, Tasmania).
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 1853, p. 2; see https://trove.nla.gov.au/, accessed 14 July 2023.
- Seymour (page 331) discovered no evidence of advance publicity; independent research on Trove found only three stories connected with Lola Montez during 1855 in the months prior to her arrival, and none of these related to her professional activities. This is in direct contrast with her American sojourn, for which Montez and her Paris agent generated a good deal of advance publicity (see the previous blog).
- For Lola’s Antipodean period, see Seymour, pp. 331-349; for her final American years, see Seymour, pp. 350-393.