In the nineteenth century, an age before PR and spin, some figures from history were allowed to lead more bizarre, unfiltered lives in public than anyone of the modern era, and Lola Montez (pictured below) was no exception.
Although she later claimed Spanish ancestry (to make her more exotic to Victorian audiences) Lola was Irish-born plain old Eliza Gilbert in the village of Grange, Co. Sligo in 1821, the daughter of a British army officer. When she was still a child, her father was given a posting in India and it was while moving his young family here that he died of cholera. Thus, began several upheavals for Lola: her mother remarried, she was sent to live with the relatives of her stepfather in Scotland and then to boarding school in England. As she grew, it was noted that her behaviour was particularly troublesome for a young lady and at 16 she eloped with a soldier against her parents’ wishes. She soon embarked on a public affair with another man and her marriage ended in scandalous divorce. Ostracised by English society, she changed her name, moved to mainland Europe and embarked on a career as a dancer.
She was renowned for her lack of talent but that did not stop her. Although she had been taught formal dance when at school in England, her dance moves for the stage were largely her own invention. Her signature was the ‘tarantula’ dance, where she mimed being covered in invisible spiders as she shook them from her clothing and stamped on them. It was said that in doing so audiences could see her underwear. In an era when women were supposed to fully cover themselves and have a certain comportment, this dance caused a sensation and crowds flocked to see her.
She had an ‘excessive beauty’ and a fiery temperament and had many affairs - always favouring handsome men - notable conquests included the famous Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and the (not so beautiful, but well connected) author Alexandre Dumas: such contacts opened many doors financially and socially. However, in Paris she was ‘outed’: even though she had affected a heavy accent and wore exotic veils and dresses, her conversational Spanish was actually very poor.
After this she travelled to America with a new young husband, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He would not be the last: Lola had trouble keeping partners the same way that Spinal Tap would have when trying to keep their drummers, with demises just as unfortunate and mysterious. Montez became a tabloid sensation in America, carrying a horse-whip on stage ready for those who might offend her (one story is that she confronted and whipped a theatre critic who wrote her a bad review).
Next, she toured mining towns in Australia, and was well established as a star at this point. However, many of her shows by now consisted of her appearing on stage, drunk, to shout abuse at audiences - who responded with rapturous applause.
She returned to the United States and began to tour again, but at this juncture she began to be laid low by syphilis. Having turned to religion, she spent her final days living quietly in New York helping other ‘fallen’ women. In the summer of 1860 she had a stroke which caused paralysis, and she later died with her hand resting on a bible. She was aged 39.
There are so many interesting characters in Irish history, but the most interesting are those who decide that the lives mapped out for them at birth are not enough. Lola Montez is one of those non-conformist characters. She was a scandalous celebrity in the mid nineteenth century when there weren’t many stars around. Her lack of talent and tempestuous private life meant that she was an early prototype of the type of celebrity so familiar to us today: famous for being famous.