See biographies by A. Darling (1972), I. Ross (1972), and M. Ophuls (1986).
Eliza Rosanna Gilbert (February 17, 1821 – January 17, 1861), better known by the stage name Lola Montez, was an Irish-born dancer and actress who became famous as a Spanish dancer, courtesan and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her Countess of Landsfeld.
Lola's mother was Eliza (or Elizabeth) Oliver, an illegitimate daughter of Charles Silver Oliver, of Castle Oliver in County Limerick, Ireland. Lola's mother was 15 when she gave birth to her, a year after she married Lola's father, Ensign Edward Gilbert of the 25th Regiment.
In 1823 the Gilberts moved to India, where Edward's regiment had been dispatched. But, shortly after arrival, he died of cholera. Her mother, who was now 19, married another officer, Lieutenant Patrick Craigie, the following year. Craigie quickly came to care for Lola, 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. But the "queer, wayward little Indian girl" quickly became known as a mischief-maker. On one occasion, she stuck flowers into the wig of an elderly man during a church service, on another, she ran through the streets naked.
At the age of 10, Lola was moved on 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 obviously made an impression on her teachers, as a Mr Grant, who taught art at the little school, was later to recall her as "an elegant and graceful child." He described her as having 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.
In 1837 sixteen-year-old Eliza eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James. The couple separated five years later, in Calcutta, and Eliza became a professional dancer under a stage name. Her London debut as "Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer" in June 1843 was successful, but she had been recognized as Mrs. James and a scandal arose over the imposture. The resulting notoriety hampered her career in England and she departed for the Continent, where she became famous more for her beauty and quick temper than for her dancing. At this time she was almost certainly accepting favours from a few wealthy men, and was regarded by many as a courtesan.
In 1846, she arrived in Munich, where she was discovered by, and became the mistress of, Ludwig I of Bavaria. She soon began to use her influence on the king and this, coupled with her arrogant manner and outbursts of temper, made her unpopular with the local population, particularly after documents showing that she was hoping to become a naturalized Bavarian citizen and be elevated to the nobility were made public. Despite the opposition, Ludwig made her Countess of Landsfeld on his next birthday, August 25, 1847. The entertaining rumour that at the time they met Ludwig had asked her in public if her bosom was real, to which her response was to tear off enough of her garments and prove it is entirely unfounded, and the story only first appeared many decades after Lola's death. It seems likely that Ludwig's relationship with her contributed greatly to the fall from grace of the previously popular king. In 1848 under pressure from a growing revolutionary movement Ludwig abdicated, and Lola fled Bavaria, her career as a power behind the throne at an end.
After a sojourn in Switzerland, where she waited in vain for Ludwig to join her, she made one brief excursion to France and then removed to London in late 1848. There she met and quickly married George Trafford Heald, a young army cornet (cavalry officer) with a recent inheritance. But the terms of Lola's divorce from Thomas James did not permit of either spouse's remarriage while the other was living, and the beleaguered newlyweds were forced to flee the country to escape a bigamy action brought by Heald's scandalized maiden aunt. Mr. and Mrs. Heald resided for a time in France and in Spain, but within two years the tempestuous relationship was in tatters, and in 1851 Lola set off to make a new start in the United States, where she was surprisingly successful at first in rehabilitating her image.
From 1851 to 1853 she performed as a dancer and actress in the eastern United States, then arrived at San Francisco in May 1853. There she married Patrick Hull, a local newspaperman, in July and moved to Grass Valley, California, in August. This marriage failed shortly after, and Montez remained in Grass Valley at her little house for nearly two years. The restored Home of Lola Montez went on to become California Historical Landmark No. 292.
Historian Michael Cannon claims that "In September 1855 she performed her erotic Spider Dance at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, raising her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no underclothing at all (actually a salacious rumour). Next day the Argus thundered that her performance was 'utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality'". Respectable families ceased to attend the theatre, which began to show heavy losses.” At Castlemaine in April 1856, she was “rapturously encored” after her Spider Dance in front of 400 diggers (including members of the Municipal Council who had adjourned their meeting early to attend the performance), but drew the wrath of the audience by insulting them following some mild heckling.
She earned further notoriety in Ballarat when, after reading a bad review in The Ballarat Times, she attacked the editor, Henry Seekamp with a whip. The "Lola Montes Polka" composed by Albert Denning was later rumoured to have been inspired by this event, but as the song was published in 1855 and the incident with Seekamp occurred months later in February 1856, this is scarcely probable. She departed for San Francisco on May 22, 1856, having had her fill of the turbulent Antipodes. She later engaged in lecture tours and finally moved to New York, where she lived out her last days.
She contracted pneumonia, lingering for nearly a month before dying one month short of her fortieth birthday. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York where her tombstone states: "Mrs. Eliza Gilbert / Died Jan. 17, 1861;" it also reads that she was 42 at time of death.
Montez also appears in Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser, where she has a brief affair with Harry Flashman. She is also a character in the film of the same name, in which she is played by Florinda Bolkan.
Montez is featured prominently in the final installment (Spider Dance) of the Irene Adler mystery series by Carole Nelson Douglas. Montez is rumored to be the title character's mother.
She has been portrayed by Carmen D'Antonio in Golden Girl (1951), Sheila Darcy in Wells Fargo (1937), Yvonne De Carlo in Black Bart (1948), and Rita Moreno in an episode of the 1950s TV show Tales of Wells Fargo.
In one of J.B. Priestley's last fictional works, The Pavilion of Masks, she is unmistakably the original for Cleo Torres, Spanish dancer and mistress of a German prince.
Montez was allegedly the inspiration for Jennifer Wilde's 1978 historical romance novel "Dare To Love," whose protagonist Elena Lopez is also woman passing herself off as Spanish who becomes an exotic dancer. In the book Elena has an affair with Franz Liszt, becomes friends with George Sand and has a friendship with the king of a small Germanic country obviously based on Ludwig I of Bavaria, then moves to California, all documented as having happened in Montez's life.
Lola Montez has a lake named after her in the Tahoe National Forest in Nevada County, California. Take I-80 east from Sacramento and exit at Cisco Grove.