The story of Lola Montez is full of untruths and myths – she made up most of them herself. Even the time and place of her birth is disputed. She was born in Limerick in 1818 or Grange, Co.Sligo in 1821. It doesn’t help that she consistently lied about her age.
Nominally a dancer (her dancing skills were, apparently, negligible), she was, in fact, one of the most sought after courtesans of her era. Through a combination of good looks, charm and supreme self-confidence she managed to inveigle her way into the upper reaches of 19th century European and American society. Along the way she reinvented herself more often than a nervous chameleon.
Among her celebrated European conquests were King Ludwig of Bavaria, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and the creator of the Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas. Her unique selling point as a performer was the Tarantula Dance (also known as the Spider Dance). This involved the sudden ‘discovery’ in the course of a routine of a large furry spider in her clothes (it was actually made of rubber, cork and whalebone). Her frenzied attempts to remove the spider would, of course, necessitate the removal of much of her clothing as well. This made her very popular indeed with men right across the continent of Europe. [See the Spider Dance here]
Sometime in the 1850s she decamped to the USA and eventually arrived in the burgeoning city of San Francisco. She sought to create a sensation and didn’t have to try very hard. Whenever she ventured out she was accompanied by two greyhounds. A parrot adorned her shoulder. She made good copy.
She quickly snared the publisher and former gold rush miner, Patrick Hull. The attraction, she claimed, was based on his ability to tell a funny story. He must have run out of jokes fairly rapidly as the relationship was quickly on the rocks. When other female artistes began to send up the Spider Dance in their own acts Lola took to the road.
In 1854 she embarked on a tour of the music and concert halls of the mining towns of California. But the boom towns were not as susceptible to Lola’s charms as the slightly more sophisticated San Francisco. Some of the miners, unimpressed by her dancing skills, booed her off the stage. Lola didn’t take all this lying down. A newspaperman who gave her a bad review was threatened with a horsewhipping while a second was challenged to a duel.
In the past Lola had demonstrated that such threats of physical violence were not all aggressive bluster. She had once whipped a theatre manager and had broken the nose of her agent with a heavy brass candlestick.
After an unsuccessful tour Lola settled down near the mining town of Grass Valley in Northern California. One story about her that gained local currency was that she habitually bathed in champagne and dried her much admired body with rose petals. She is also said to have shared her life with a pet bear. It couldn’t last, the money ran out, and she was soon on the road again.
By the end of her life Lola was so far down on her luck that she passed away in a dilapidated boarding house in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. She was forty years old (or thirty-eight, or forty-two).
Lola Montez died 153 years ago, On This Day.