EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.
Lola Montez was without a doubt one of the most famous women to try her luck in the California gold rush.
Lola, an internationally known, Irish-born dancer and stage actress who had previously shocked critics and audiences in Europe with risqué personal behavior and seductive performances, broke all the rules. She was beautiful, sexy and liberated, and therefore controversial amid the highly conservative social mores of the Victorian Age.
One admiring French critic wrote, “The dance of Lola Montez is poetry in motion, sometimes fantastic, often lascivious, but always attractive.”
Before the erotic dancer even reached California, her promiscuous reputation had preceded her. Among her many well-publicized, romantic conquests in Europe were a dashing Parisian journalist and the famous Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, as well as her stint as the mistress of an aging king.
‘ELIZA’ — THE YOUNG REBEL
Born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland on Feb. 17, 1821, her father, Edward Gilbert, was an officer in the British army, and her mother the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Irish politician.
When “Eliza” turned 3 years old, the family moved to India where her father died of cholera shortly after their arrival. Within a year, her mother remarried, and Eliza was sent to live with relatives in Scotland. When she turned 11, she was enrolled in an English boarding school where she received an education in liberal arts.
Eliza was a precocious teenager, and by the time she was 16 had blossomed into an attractive young woman. At that time, her mother arrived from India with news that it was time for Eliza to marry, and she suggested that they return together to India where she knew a few eligible bachelors, all of them much older than Eliza.
Her mother’s matrimonial plans left Eliza cold, so she rebelled and eloped with a handsome, 30-year-old army lieutenant named Thomas James, an “admirer” of Mrs. Gilbert who had traveled from India with her. The following year, Lt. James returned to India with Eliza, but after a few years together, she grew unhappy and returned to Scotland alone.
‘LOLA MONTEZ, THE SPANISH DANCER’
Mrs. Eliza James was only 19 years old, but her reputation was already soiled by her elopement with an older man, and she had no chance at an honest relationship as long as she was still married to James, who remained stationed in India.
These became minor details to the spirited Eliza, and within 10 days of boarding a London-bound ship, she was flirting with a 20-year-old officer named George Lennox.
Before long, the couple was spending time together in their cabins, and once again, Eliza’s inappropriate behavior shocked those around her. The relationship between Lennox and Eliza continued in London until family members pressured Lennox to end it.
When news of the adulterous affair reached Thomas James, he charged Eliza with adultery and sued for divorce. It was the end of Eliza’s childhood dreams of a conventional life and the beginning of a wild career as an internationally known entertainer and seductress extraordinaire.
Eliza escaped the shame of appearing in an English divorce court by traveling to Spain to create a new persona. She took acting classes, learned traditional Spanish dances, and began smoking cigarettes and cigars.
Upon her return to England in 1842, she hit the stage as “Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer.” Over the next two decades, she would become the most notorious of 19th-century courtesans and her affairs the subject of worldwide gossip.
Her striking beauty garnered immediate attention, with her fair skin, jet-black hair and large, deep-blue eyes, and she captivated the hearts and minds of powerful men as she danced seductively on stages throughout Europe.
During Lola’s tour in Germany, elderly King Ludwig of Bavaria was so enamored that he showered her with gifts and jewels. But trouble started when he awarded Lola the title of Countess and asked her to live with him and rule the country.
The people of Bavaria revolted and rioted in the streets, chanting slogans condemning “Countess Montez.” Lola fled with a strongbox filled with treasure while the disgraced king abdicated his throne.
ARRIVAL ON THE WEST COAST
It was May 1853 when Montez first arrived in San Francisco. Glamorous and boldly unconventional, Montez had a special quality about her that attracted ardent fans based more on her persona and beauty than on her talent.
Only 30 years old, Lola had had numerous scandalous public affairs, but the young, cosmopolitan population of San Francisco loved it. When she performed, spectators packed the house, despite ticket prices ten times the price of her previous East Coast engagements.
Montez’s signature stage move was her “Spider Dance,” during which she frequently pulled up the folds of her skirt as if she had discovered imaginary spiders in her dress.
Under her multi-colored petticoats were flesh-colored tights, and when she lifted her skirt it exposed her shapely legs to the delight of the mostly male audience.
In keeping with her spontaneous nature, two months after she arrived in California, Lola married Patrick Hull, a 32-year-old San Francisco journalist who she had just met in Panama.
She married Hull in a Catholic ceremony at a local church, despite the fact that she had not yet divorced her previous husband.
That afternoon the couple sailed for Sacramento to begin Lola’s tour of the California mining camps in the Sierra foothills where their marriage soon fell apart.
Montez initiated divorce proceedings against Hull, claiming incompatibility. After performances in Marysville, Grass Valley and Nevada City, Lola quit the stage and moved to Grass Valley where she purchased a small cottage.
Apparently, Lola needed a break from her fast-paced career. The actress spent several years in Grass Valley hunting, exploring mines, and entertaining visitors while writing her memoirs.
MAKING HER WAY TO DONNER LAKE
Even in retirement, the eccentric actress continued to draw media attention. She had always loved animals, and at her cottage she established a menagerie that included a dogs and cats, pet birds, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and even a young male grizzly bear cub. She also had a greenhouse built where she grew exotic plants and flowers.
In July 1854, Montez joined an extended horseback excursion up and over Donner Summit of the Sierra Nevada. The group explored Donner Lake and camped near the abandoned cabins of the Donner Party, pioneers who had been trapped there by snow just seven years before.
Intrigued by the historic event, Lola collected as souvenirs a few bones that still lay around the area. One result of this packing trip into the Sierra was the naming of topographical features for her, including 9,148-foot high Mount Lola north of Donner Pass, as well as upper and lower Lola Montez lakes.
Lola had stormed into the Golden State and then quickly “retired” in the Sierra foothills, but by 1855, she had either renewed her love for performance or was running out of money.
Due to high interest rates, political corruption and the increasing difficulty in extracting gold from the earth, California was suffering from its first economic recession, but gold had been discovered in Australia, and Lola decided that a tour “down under” would refill her coffers.
Once there, however, Lola’s temper tantrums and dysfunctional love affairs broke up her troupe. While returning to California, her agent and lover, Noel Follin, angry with Lola for cheating on him, committed suicide at sea.
Montez performed a few more times in San Francisco and Sacramento before selling her properties and jewelry and moving to New York City.
In New York, Lola became an avid fan of Spiritualism, whose followers held séances to converse with the dead. In June 1860 she suffered a major stroke and was partially paralyzed.
By mid-December she had recovered enough strength to begin walking again, but that winter she contracted pneumonia and died on January 17, 1861, at the age of 42.
Lola Montez was a troubled woman who lived a wild life, but along the way she had helped many others who were less fortunate than her.