Amongst a number of miniature portraits I saw recently in the Castle of Nieuschwanstein, Bavaria, built by the eccentric if not mad, King Ludwig II, friend and admirer of Wagner, is one of the Irishwoman Lola Montez. There are many criteria by which one can be deemed to be Irish, and the most common is to have been born here. If that is the case then Lola Montez was Irish, despite the Duke of Wellington’s aphorism that being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse.
As with many colourful figures in history, it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction in Lola’s life. That she was born in Ireland does not appear to be in doubt, but the question is when and where. The options are that she was born in Limerick in 1818 or that she was born in Grange, Co. Sligo in 1821; the latter is probably the case. She was christened Eliza Rosanna, the daughter of a British officer by the name of Gilbert and she claimed her mother was a Spanish beauty, but it appears that her mother was not Spanish, but the illegitimate daughter of Charles Oliver, of the Irish Oliver family and a member of the Westminster Parliament.
When Eliza was two she moved to India with her parents where, shortly after their arrival, her father died. Her mother re-married the following year and in 1826 aged five, Eliza was sent back to Scotland to live with relatives of her stepfather. In 1832, aged 11, she was sent to boarding school in Bath, England. When she was 16 she married a Lieut. Thomas James who had accompanied her mother back to England from India. The marriage was short-lived and Eliza had a number of liaisons before disappearing to Spain from where she returned to England as Lola Montez, saying that she was the daughter of a Spanish noblewoman. Early on she claimed that her real name was " Maria Dolores Porris y Montez" , but after she finally admitted that she was born in Ireland and not in Spain she used Lola Montez.
In 1843 she made her debut in London as a Spanish dancer. She invented a Tarantula Dance during which she would discover a large furry spider in her garments and removed many of them while she expelled the spider. Three years later she danced in Munich before King Ludwig I of Bavaria, the mad king’s grandfather, who was smitten by her and took her as his mistress. On his birthday in 1847 he made her Countess of Landsfeld. The following year 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe, Lola was forced by an angry mob to flee and subsequently Ludwig was forced to abdicate, in no small measure because of her.
In 1851 she turned up in the United States and lived by her dancing. She moved from the east coast to California in 1853 and married Patrick Hull, a marriage about which little is known. This was the time of the California Gold Rush and Lola was reduced to dancing for the miners who didn’t always receive her well. She made a living by giving dancing lessons to the children of miners. She is reputed to have kept a pet bear in her front garden and could be seen walking it on a lead.
After her Grass Valley, California, house, little more than a cabin, was destroyed by fire Lola took her dance routine to Australia where she toured for a year with no notable success and then returned to New York. There she lived by giving lectures on the use of cosmetics.
During her busy life she wrote ‘The Arts of Beauty or Secrets of a Lady's Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascination’ and ‘Lectures of Lola Montez Including Her Autobiography.’ Lola was one of the more colourful characters of the 19th century and much contradictory information has been published about her. Some of this comes from her own autobiography - a source of much of the misinformation about her. Other fable came from ‘memoirs’ and ‘biographies’ during her lifetime.
No matter what we may think of her, Lola was a woman of character and determination. She overcame the insecurities of her early life by turning herself into a famous character of the world of entertainment. The pinnacle of her short life was as mistress of Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, which ended in circumstances that were beyond what even Lola could influence. Nothing daunted, she re-invented herself and travelled halfway round the world doing what she could do best – dance and live the theatrical life that was the essence of who she was.
At one time much was made of the impoverished conditions in which she lived in New York, but it has been shown that in fact she lived her last years there in modest comfort. She died of pneumonia aged 40 in January 1861, having gone out on a bitterly cold day shortly after she had recovered from a mild stroke. She was buried in Green-Wood cemetery, Brooklyn.