Friday, October 12, 2007

Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets - The racy life of Lola Montez

'Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl,
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
But while she tried to be a star," Copacabana by Barry Manilow.

'She is fatal to any man who dares to love her,' Alexandre Dumas, pere.

"I have known all the world has to give -- ALL!" Lola Montez shortly before her death in 1861.

She is considered one of the first tabloid celebrities, the 19th Century's answer to Madonna. Her lovers included Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria. She was an actress, a writer, a lecturer, and the most famous Spanish dancer in the world who couldn't actually dance. Later in her life, she was able to charge more for her lectures than Charles Dickens. Her name? Lola Montez.

In her lifetime, she claimed to be the illegimate daughter of Byron, the daughter of Carlists from Spain, the daughter of a Spanish grandee stolen by gypsies, and many others, but the reality was far simpler and less dramatic.

Lola was actually born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert on February 16, 1821, although some biographers claim that she was born earlier in 1818, and Lola herself shaved years off her birth. Research indicates that the 1821 birthdate is the correct one. She later claimed that Lola was a nickname for Dolores which she was christened, but there is no record of the name Dolores on her baptismal certificate.

Her father, Edward was a soldier in the British army, and her mother Elizabeth Oliver was the illegimate daughter of the High Sheriff of Cork and Irish MP Sir Charles Oliver and Mary Green who was herself illegitimate and of partial Spanish ancestry.

The family soon set off for Calcutta where Eliza's father was posted. Soon after they arrived, he died from cholera. His widow remarried a year later to another career army officer Captain Patrick Craigie, the son of the Provost of Montrose in Scotland. Eliza's mother was still young, only 18, and became caught up in the social life in Calcutta. Craigie, while he adored Eliza, felt that she was growing up wild in India and decided to send her back to live with his relatives in Scotland.

Although it seems somewhat cruel to send a 5 year old away with strangers, many children were sent back to England to be educated. However, it's not to hard to imagine that Eliza's mother wouldn't have wanted reminders around that she was a mother, while flirting with the officers.

Eliza stayed with Craigie's family for about 8 months. It was not a success. She was rebellious and chafed against life in a small town. The contrast between the heart and lush climate of India with the harsh winters of Scotland must have been a shock to the little girl, who had been abandoned first by her father's death and now by her mother and stepfather. "The queer, wayward Indian girl," as Eliza was known, scandalized the town by running down the street naked.

At the age of 10, Lola was sent to a schoool run by her stepfather's older sister, Catherine Rae, and her husband in Sunderland. Lola clearly made an impression on her teachers. One of them, a Mr. Grant, who taught art later recalled that she was an elegant and graceful child, with eyes of "excessive beauty," an "orientally dark complexion," and an air of haughty ease. He also noted that she "the violence and obstinancy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety," to her aunt.

In 1832, Eliza was sent to a boarding school in Bath, England where she lived until her mother came back to England in 1837. It was not a happy reunion. Her mother had planned to marry her off to a "rich and gouty old gentleman of 60 years," as Eliza put it in her memoirs. The man in questions was Sir Abraham Lumley, a Judge of the Supreme Court in India. Looking for away out, Eliza eloped instead with her mother's admirer, Lt. Thomas James, an army officer on leave who had accompanied her mother from India to Bath. She had just turned 16.

Eliza quickly realized that she had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire to quote an old cliche. Instead of the glamour and balls and excitement that she expected from married life, Eliza was now stuck in the backwaters of Ireland, and she quickly became restless. The cracks in the marriage began to show. Eliza had known very little about her husband before they eloped. Now she learned that he was not the person that he had seemed to be at first. She claimed that he started to drink heavily and to slap her around.

Despite returning to India with her husband, the marriage was doomed. In 1842, he either abandoned her for another woman, or she left him when she couldn't take his violence and infidelity. However, she was shunned by her mother for bringing disgrace to the family. Armed with 1,000 pounds from her step-father, she had no choice but to return to England.

However, in Madras, a dashing army officer named Lennox, joined the ship. He was the grandson of the Duke of Richmond, and he and Eliza became lovers. When they arrived in London, they continued their affair and Lennox introduced her to several influential men. When word of their affair reached her husband, he filed for divorce siting her adultery with Lennox.

Lennox soon proved no more constant a lover than her husband. He soon left her with no means of support. Eliza now faced a quandary that many 'fallen' women in that era faced. She was virtually unemployable as a governess or a lady's companion. Instead of turning to prostitution, Eliza decided to go on the stage.

Unfortunately she didn't have the talent for acting, due to her inability to take directions from anyone. Instead she decided to become a dancer. She'd studied ballet as a child, but she was too old now to launch a ballet career. Instead Eliza decided to take herself off to Spain for 6 months to learn flamenco and the language. When she arrived back in London, she no longer Eliza Gilbert James but Lola Montez. Or to be exact Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez, "the proud and beautiful daughter of noble Spanish family."

Thus started the second chapter in her life. She was engaged to perform at Her Majesty's Theater, but her appearance was not a success. She was recognized by several acquaintances from her time with Lennox who blew her cover with the theater's management by shouting out 'Why it's Betty James,' when she stepped onto the stage. Her contract was subsequently cancelled. Lola later claimed that London audiences were incapable of appreciating the subtle quality of her dancing.

Lola was not a very good dancer. She had no sense of rhythm or timing, what she did have was a sense of theatricality. Her costume consisted of a black lace dress with a high color, the better to frame her face, and her magnificent bosom, and a decoration of red roses. She was also remarkably beautiful, with lustrous dark hair, ivory skin, and stunning blue eyes. Her most famous dance, The Tarantula, chiefly consisted of Lola conducting a frenzied search of her person for the elusive spider. Inevitably she would reveal a great deal of leg to the audience, in an era when people covered their piano legs. The secret of her later success was her utter shamelessness and her ability to play it straight.

After the disaster of her London debut, Lola took herself off on a tour of the continent, where she took up with wealthy nobility who had a penchent for beautiful women. She had a violence about her that both attracted and repelled men. Audiences either loved or hated her. Critics were divided too, they weren't sure if she was serious or if she were in on the joke.

She entranced Prince Heinrich who's family ruled over small regions in Germany. She danced in Dresden, Berlin and Warsaw, where she inadvertantly started a riot after she refused the attentions of the Viceroy of Poland, who fell desperately in love with her. He offered her an estate, and handfuls of diamonds if she became his mistress, but Lola found him repulsive. The director of the theater where she was appearing suggested that she might be wise to reconsider. Lola, in a rage, threw him out.

That night when she appeared on stage for her performance she was met by boos and hisses from a certain section of the audience. It was clear that it was pre-arranged. It happened the next night and the next. Finally Lola had had enough, she stormed the footlights and told the audience exactly what was going on. The crowd cheered and applauded her courage.

An immense mob escorted her back to her hotel. Unbeknownst to Lola, the Viceroy and the theater manager were suspected of being traitors, working with the Tsarist government, and they were much hated by the Polish people. Instead of leaving, the crowd stayed, rioting started in the streets, and Warsaw was on the brink of revolution. Lola was asked quietly to leave.

Her most notable affair at this time was with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who was also one of the most dynamic pianists of the era. What Byron was to poetry, Liszt was to classical music, a Victorian rock star. He'd already cut a swathe through the women of Europe, who threw themselves at him, when he met Lola.

At first the love affair was quite passionate, they travelled everywhere together, quarrelling and making-up with equal frequency. Their two gigantic egos were destined to collide. She had a tendency to annoy him while he was trying to work, and she flew into jealous rages when he played even the slightest attention to other women. He was also jealous of her notoriety and her ability to upstage him. Things came to a head while he was unveiling a statue of Beethoven in Bonn. Lola hadn't been invited, so she gatecrashed the banquet, and in front of the royalty and other dignitaries, she leapt onto a table and danced among the dishes. He finally managed to escape by locking her in their hotel room, after leaving sufficient funds to cover the damage he knew she would inflict on the room when she discovered that he had left.

Lola was gaining a reputation, not for her dancing, but for her volcanic temper, and her ability to manipulate the press by giving interviews, in which ever city she was appearing. Like a lot of people who reinvent themselves, Lola began to actually believe that she came from a noble but improverished Spanish background. While she was in Berlin, during ceremonies to arranged to honor the Tsar of Russian, Lola arrived alone and on horseback. When she tried to enter a section of the parade grounds reserved for royalty and nobility, a policeman tried to stop her by grabbing the reigns of her horse. Lola, enraged, struck him with her riding crop. Needless to say, she was forced to leave the city.

When her mother heard about her daughter's latest scandal, she decided that Lola was now dead to her. She went into mourning and had her stationary edged in black. In Paris, Lola's growing notoriety helped gain her an engagement at the Port St. Martin theater. When she was booed by the audience in the middle of her performance, Lola in a fit of temper, took of her garters and flung them into the audience to their delight.

It was in Paris that Lola met the man who would become the great love of her life. Alexandre Henri Dujarier was the co-editor and literary critic of La Presse. Intigued by the stories he had heard about Lola, he went to see her dance. Introduced backstage, they were immediately taken with each other. They became lovers, and Dujarier began to show her a world she had never entered before. Paris at this time was the literary and artistic capital of Europe. Dujarier took Lola to the salon of writer George Sand, where she met literary lights like Dumas, Victor Hugo, Balzac and Theophile Gautier, who wrote the libretto for Giselle.

For once Lola was appreciated for her intelligence and conversation. She had always been interested in politics, and under Dujarier's influence, she became an ardent Republican. Dujarier proposed to her and she accepted, despite the fact that any marriage would be bigamous. Just when it seemed as if her life was finally settling down, the idyll came to an end. In March of 1845, Dujarier left Lola and went to a supper party alone. There was much drinking and carousing going on, when one of the other guests, Jean de Beauvallon, a rival newspapermen, picked a fight with Dujarier for neglecting to publish a feuilleton of his Memoires de M. Motholon. At first they decided to settle the dispute with cards, but Dujarier was unlucky and couldn't settle his losses. Both men were fried and their nerves were frayed from the long night. More wine was consumed and de Beauvallon made the mistake of being tactless about an old affair of Dujarier's. That was the last straw and Dujarier challenged him to a duel.

Unfortunately Dujarier was no fighter, and although he opted for pistols, he was no great shot either. Before he left, he wrote out his will and left two letters, one for his mother, and the other for Lola. de Beauvallon had no intention of killing Dujarier, to save face he tried showing up at the appointed place late, but Dujarier was still waiting for him. He even tried to get out of it by offering him warm pistols. According to the duelling code, warm pistols meant that they had been practiced with, and was against the code. However, Dujarier was either determined or incredibly foolish. After taking their places, Dujarier fired first and missed. de Beauvallon's didn't. Dujarier died before his body reached Paris.

Lola was devastated with grief. Though she was uninvolved in the argument, she was blamed all the same. When de Beauvallon was tried for murder, Lola showed up to testify against him, dressed in masses of silk and lace. The court was taken aback when she declared that she would have fought de Beauvallon herself because she was the better shot.

At this point in her life, it could be safe to say that something broke in Lola after the loss of Dujarier. Her whole life up until this point had been one of loss and abandonment. Her utter recklessness in her next adventure in Munich seems more now of a woman still grieving over the loss of her lover, and determined never get as much as she could out of the next man before the inevitable abandonment.

Tomorrow - Lola Montez, Part II - from Munich to New York

1 comment:

Martin Meenagh said...

What a moving, funny story--thank you for the post.This is an excellent blog, by the way