On this day in 1821, Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, one of the 19th century’s most colourful figures, was born in Ireland. Better known as Lola Montez, she was an adventuress, dancer, and entertainer who performed across Europe, Asia, and the United States. She gained notoriety for her liaison with the Bavarian King Louis I, who made her Countess of Landsfield.
The breathtaking life of Lola Montez spans continents, includes liaisons with some of Europe’s most eminent figures, and has inspired a variety of references across dance and literature. Although her birth date and place is disputed, it is thought that she was born in either Limerick or Grange in Ireland’s county Sligo, before her family left for India where her father had been posted. She is thought to have spent her childhood in India—despite her father’s untimely death shortly after arrival—and became known for her mischievous ways early on. The young girl was shipped back to Britain to attend boarding school where her beauty and spontaneity made a strong impression.
Whilst still in her teens, she eloped with a British lieutenant, but the marriage would not last. Following their separation in the early 1840s, she launched her career as a dancer in Calcutta. Soon after this, she debuted in London as “Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer” and the rest is history—and a particularly good one at that.
Predictably, scandal followed as she was called out as the lieutenant’s wife, but the beautiful Lola Montez would not be stopped at such passé nonsense. Her travels continued and she danced across Europe. Gilbert’s life was beginning to take shape and her work brought her into intimate contact with great writers like Alexandre Dumas and musicians like Franz Liszt.
In 1846, she is said to have danced for the Bavarian King Louis I. Overwhelmed by the dancing beauty, the King was rumoured to have asked Montez in public if her bosom was real. The great entertainer, rising to the situation, removed a few layers of her dress to reveal that it was indeed authentic. The story has little validity, however it does shed some light on the public’s view of Lola Montez and the energy of her performances. Nonetheless, Louis was somehow convinced in the end, and he offered her a title, castle, and substantial annuity. She remained his mistress and held considerable influence over his court pushing a liberal agenda until his regime fell in 1848.
Following a jaunt to London where she embarked on a second unsuccessful marriage—despite having never officially divorced the lieutenant—Montez left for the United States. She continued dancing for a few years in the early 1850s, married again, and settled briefly in California where she taught a young Lotta Crabtree, who would go on to become an incredibly popular entertainer and actress. Following a tour of Australia, Montez returned to the US, where she finally settled in New York City.
Montez would go on to publish a number of books, including the remarkably titled The Arts of Beauty, or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascination in 1858, along with an autobiography. She devoted her time to philanthropy in her final years and is thought to have undergone a religious conversion.
Along with her immense cultural legacy, Lola Montez also has a lake and mountain named after her in California, Lola Montez Lake, and Mount Lola, both nearby Lake Tahoe.
Photo Credit: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Photo Caption: Painted portrait of Lola Montez by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1847.