DCSIMG

Racy life of our Lola

A SUNDERLAND schoolgirl grew up to become one of the most notorious women of the Victorian era. SARAH STONER tells the story of Lola Montez, a dancer who inspired the love of kings and the hatred of angry mobs.

"I HAVE known all the world has to give – ALL!" Lola Montez admitted before her death from pneumonia in New York in 1861.

Indeed, the popular 19th-century catchphrase "Everything Lola wants, Lola gets" was inspired by the dancer and adventuress.

Kings fell at her feet, she was deadly with a pistol, horse-whipped her enemies and brought down a German monarchy.

And with her death at the age of just 39, Lola's story passed into legend. Books, films and even operas have all been inspired by her.

There was little to suggest, however, just what a notorious life Lola was to lead when she was a pupil in Sunderland years before.

Born in County Sligo, Ireland, in 1821, Marie Eliza Rosanna Gilbert – as Lola was christened – moved to India with her parents in 1823.

Her father Edward, an ensign with the British Army, had opted to swap Irish police duties for better-paid adventures abroad – it proved a fatal decision.

After weeks of travelling, Edward died of cholera just miles from the base. His 19-year-old widow, Eliza, married again within a year.

Lola's new stepfather, Lieutenant Patrick Craigie, quickly came to care for the girl, but her spoilt and half-wild ways concerned him greatly.

Eventually, it was agreed she would be sent back to Britain to attend school, staying with Craigie's father in Montrose, Scotland, at first.

"The queer, wayward little Indian girl" quickly became known as a mischief-maker.

On one occasion, she stuck flowers into the wig of the elderly man during a church service, on another, she ran through the streets naked.

At the age of 10, however, Lola was on the move again – this time to Sunderland.

When her stepfather's older sister, Catherine Rae, set up a boarding school in Monkwearmouth with her husband, Lola joined them to continue her education.

Lola herself obviously made an impression on her teachers, as a Mr Grant, who taught art at the little school, later recalled.

He described her as an elegant and graceful child, with eyes of "excessive beauty", an "orientally dark" complexion and an air of "haughty ease".

But he also revealed: "The violence and obstinacy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety to her good kind aunt."

Lola's determination and temper were to become her trademarks. After all, whatever Lola wanted, Lola got.

The little girl's stay in Sunderland lasted only a year, as she was then transferred to Bath for a more "sophisticated" education.

At 16, Eliza decided it was time to marry off her daughter. A horrified Lola rebelled by eloping with the first man she could find.

Lola's marriage to Lieutenant Thomas James caused a huge scandal and floundered from the start. He was a domineering man and she found life as a married woman a chore and a bore.

Deserting her Indian marital home in 1840, Lola fled back to Britain to stay with Catherine Rae, who she loved as a surrogate mother.

James sued for divorce, citing adultery, the following year, which was granted on the condition neither party ever married again.

With scandal of elopement, adultery and divorce now attached to her name, Lola could no longer hope for a normal life. Life as a stage performer was the best of the limited opportunities left open to her.

At first Lola took lessons with the famous actress Fanny Kelly, who ran an academy at her Soho home. Acting, however, was not her forte.

Next she turned her attention, much more successfully, to dancing, travelling to Spain to learn the Flamenco. The trip inspired the 21-year-old to change her name to Lola Montez and reinvent herself as a Spanish dancer.

Lola premiered her self-designed Tarantula Dance at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1843 to a mixed reception. Some critics raved about her, but she was also recognised as the ex-Mrs James. Articles attacking Lola soon started appearing in the press and she left Britain to pursue fresh challenges abroad – including a new friendship with Prince Heinrich.

The prince, whose family ruled over small regions of Thuringia in Germany, was to be the first in a long line of Lola's Royal admirers.

Dance performances in Dresden and Berlin followed, and she soon became a favourite in court circles, performing for the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia and nobles from throughout Europe.

Indeed, it was in Berlin that she famously horse-whipped a police officer, who was trying to remove her from a Royal parade field. The incident caused yet another scandal, so she left the city for Poland.

Lola's dancing, however, almost caused a riot in Warsaw. She was placed under house arrest and then expelled from the country after pulling a dagger on the policeman sent to guard her.

Never one to remain depressed, however, Lola embarked on a romance with composer Franz Liszt, after their eyes met across a crowded concert hall. Their love was doomed, however, when Liszt became jealous of Lola and repeatedly humiliated her in public.

Another love lost was Alexandre Henri Dujarier, co-owner of La Presse, who she met in Paris in 1844. Ironically, while she perfected her shooting skills in city galleries, he died during a pistol duel following a gambling argument.

October 1846 saw Lola heading for Bavaria, keen to earn some money by performing in the Munich Oktoberfest. It was here she would achieve her greatest triumphs – and tragedies.

After auditioning for the State Theatre, Lola was told her dancing might cause moral offence. Determined to defend her dignity, she pleaded with the King Ludwig of Bavaria himself for help. The King agreed to let her dance and, ironically, Lola made her debut in a play called The Enchanted Prince.

Ludwig soon became smitten by Lola, and the dancer enjoyed a new role – as his mistress.

Within weeks she had a powerful hold over Ludwig. He built Lola a palace and named her the Countess of Landesfield. Indeed, such was her influence on him, she was dubbed the uncrowned queen.

But the people of Munich turned against Lola as she became ever more arrogant. On one occasion she slapped two men who objected to her relationship with Ludwig and, on another, she was trapped inside a shop by a mob after her dog attacked a passing Jesuit deliveryman.

Eventually, as the hatred for Lola grew, so Ludwig's entire cabinet resigned. Lola's affair had toppled the government and, after a revolution in 1848, the King also abdicated.

Forced into exile and relying on Ludwig for handouts, Lola returned to London. Within months, however, she had met and married Army officer George Trafford Heald.

But the marriage was seen as bigamy, as it broke the conditions of her divorce, and Lola had to flee to France or face life behind bars.

But the couple quickly ran up huge debts in Paris and George eventually deserted his wife. Lola, alone yet again, ended up back on the stage to help pay her bills – in America.

Once in the States, however, the controversy began anew and Lola was forced to buy an even bigger whip – using it on impolite reporters and restless audiences. Her tour was not a success.

After an Australian tour that proved even more disappointing, Lola returned to America to present a series of literary lectures. As New York sweltered in a heat wave in June 1860, however, she suffered a stroke.

The condition left her unable to move or speak for several months but, by December, she had recovered enough to hobble outside for a breath of fresh air on Christmas Day. It was to prove the death of her.

Lola developed pneumonia and, on January 17, 1861 – a month before her 40th birthday – she died. Her life quickly passed into legend.

And even in death she caused controversy. Her headstone was inscribed with a name she never used – her maiden name of Eliza Gilbert preceded by Mrs.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page