Some women rise to glory in broad daylight, but Lola Montez played a shadowy game of thrones. Her exploits in royal bedchambers make women like Madame de Pompadour look saint-like in comparison, yet when it comes to this temptress’s dark, glittering life, that’s only the beginning. After all, as Alexandre Dumas once wrote, “She is fatal to any man who dares to love her.” He was right.
Lola Montez’s birth matches the rest of her dangerous life. Born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert to a prominent Irish family in 1821, her humble beginnings soon turned tragic. Shortly after the family moved to India, her father passed brutally and violently from cholera, leaving the infant girl alone with her teenaged mother Elizabeth. And yes, this was a recipe for certain disaster.
Though Mother Gilbert remarried and tried to keep her family respectable, her little girl had other ideas. Foreshadowing her wild adulthood, young Lola loved to play vicious pranks, including sticking flowers in an old man’s wig during a church service and—my personal favorite—running around the streets in nothing but her birthday suit.
As Lola grew into a teenager, it became harder and harder to deny her exquisite good looks, and she started developing the irresistible features that would make her infamous. She had large, dark eyes, jet-black hair, and a small, heart-shaped face to go with her mischievous personality. So it wasn’t long before she got into more serious trouble.
Lola’s mother, still determined to make a proper society girl out of her, soon planned to marry the teen off to a decrepit but respectable 60-year-old man. Instead, Lola got a swift and brutal revenge. Defiant down to her bones, she ran off with her mother’s admirer, Lieutenant Thomas James, marrying him in 1837. This was a very bad idea.
Anyone could have told the young couple that an act of rebellion wasn’t something to build a life on, but Montez found that out the hard way. Five years of marriage brought infidelity on both sides, and she separated from James by 1843. Instead of accepting spinsterhood, though, our girl went to London to earn her keep as a sultry professional dancer…which is where things got truly messy.
This new phase was the birth of “Lola Montez” as we know her. While making her London debut, plain old Eliza Gilbert appeared on stage as the exoticized “Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer,” a fallen girl of supposedly noble birth. She quickly became the talk of the town for her sensual performances and rocketed to fame. Only, that fame came at a high price.
While earning rave reviews for her risqué dancing, Montez’s worst nightmare happened: Someone from her old life recognized her. An old acquaintance outed her as “Mrs. James” and the entire crowd booed her. The scandal was so fierce, Montez had to flee from England for the continent. From then on, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.
As a little girl, Lola suffered from uncontrollable rages, but when she grew up, these temper tantrums didn’t get better…they only got crueler. At the climax of her notoriety, she carried a whip around wherever she went and lashed it out on anyone who displeased her, including members of the public, bored theatre-goers, and critics who gave her bad reviews. Later in life, she upgraded to a bigger whip.
Montez valued her freedom above all else, except maybe her extravagant tastes. Soon enough, both got her into trouble. While on the continent, Montez started “accepting favors” from rich European men, and it quickly became common knowledge that the “Spanish Dancer” was also acting as a courtesan. And believe me, you’ve heard of her lovers.
During the height of her dancing fame, Montez visited the beds of luminaries like genius composer Franz Liszt and, at least according to the whispers, the carousing Three Musketeers writer Alexandre Dumas. These men opened up opulent doors into high society for her, and Lola Montez wasted no time taking advantage of this.
By all accounts, Lola’s relationship with Franz Liszt was the very definition of dysfunctional. The pair were both beautiful, arrogant, and volatile, and while their passion started out fiery, it soon turned sordid. In one story, a spiteful Lola crashed a party Liszt was attending without her, then made a nasty spectacle of herself by dancing on tables.
In the end, Liszt reportedly abandoned Lola in an utterly cruel way. Instead of facing the madcap dancer or the sharp wrath of her riding whip, the composer simply snuck away from her bed in the night while she slept, never to return to it. Ouch, that one had to hurt. But Lola’s most dangerous affair was still yet to come.
Around this time, Lola met newspaper tycoon Alexandre Dujarier, who pulled her even further into the glittering intellectual world of Bohemian Paris and helped publicize her dance routines among the smart set. Lola considered Dujarier among the greatest loves of her life, which makes his infamously violent end all the more tragic.
Dujarier more than matched Lola’s infamous temper, and one evening at a party, he was in a foul mood over one of their lovers’ quarrels. Well, he took his anger out on the journalist Jean-Baptiste de Beauvallon, challenging the man to a duel—and ending up dead. Thing is, he wasn’t the last man to perish in the name of Lola Montez.
Unsurprisingly, Montez made her lover’s demise all about her. Though she was heartbroken over Dujarier’s fatal duel, she found the strength to appear at his attacker’s trial. Dressed to the nines in black silk and lace, she testified against him—and her words scandalized the court. Under oath, she hissed that she should have fought the duel, because she was a “better shot.”
By 1846, the mourning Lola had already moved on, and to much bigger prey. That year, she arrived in Munich and set herself up for a series of performances at the State Theatre. So when the managers told her she couldn’t dance at the risk of causing moral outrage, Lola came up with a cunning plot…that led her right to the King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
Whether or not Lola intended all along to ensnare the monarch, she certainly got her wish. One day, she strutted into Ludwig’s palace unannounced, begging him to let her dance. All the king needed was one look at our sultry heroine, and he was convinced. He let her into the State Theatre to perform, and it wasn’t long before he let her into his bedroom, too. And thus, Lola’s infamy began.
One story from when Lola met Ludwig is utterly scandalous, even for Lola Montez. According to this rumor, when the King set eyes on her, he asked if her chest was real or padded. In order to prove she was au naturel, Lola ripped open her bodice and displayed her god-given goods to the monarch. I mean, would you expect anything less?
Lola may have started a fairy-tale tryst with King Ludwig, but their romance had a dark side. Not only was she a blushing 25 years old next to Ludwig’s 50, Montez was far from honest with her new beau. She let him believe her falsified “Spanish noble” back-story, even though she was neither Spanish nor noble. If you think this will come back to bite her, you’d be right.
Once Lola got into the royal bedchamber, she set up shop in a big way. She grew immediately addicted to Ludwig’s power, and quickly exerted almost unprecedented control over the hopelessly devoted Ludwig, turning him—gasp—more liberal in his views, and even getting him to fire some of his top advisors. Her addictions only grew from there.
In the summer of 1847, Lola outdid even herself. After months of needling, she somehow convinced King Ludwig to turn her into the Countess of Landsfeld, despite the fact that only Bavarian citizens could get titles and the fact that Lola wasn’t even a noble in the first place. Yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Lola was a dynamo in the sack. Yet pride comes before the fall…
The people of Bavaria despised Lola—and she took that very, very personally. When groups of students in Munich started protesting her influence, her response was brutal. She simply demanded that King Ludwig close down the university. Guess what? He actually did. They say absolute power corrupts, but that went double for Lola Montez, and in 1848, it all came to a terrifying climax.
In her short time as a royal mistress, Lola Montez tore an entire nation apart. Soon enough, anti-Montez protesters started fighting in the streets with Lola’s supporters, who dubbed themselves “the Allemania.” Meanwhile, Ludwig refused every appeal to reopen the university…until his entire cabinet resigned. That’s right, Lola destroyed the Bavarian government. Was she done yet? *laughs nervously*
Unsurprisingly, the once-popular King Ludwig’s approval plummeted as long as Lola was whispering sweet nothings into his ear, but even he couldn’t have predicted just how bad things would get. By March 1848, the revolutionary voices grew so loud, poor Ludwig actually had to abdicate in favor of his son. Add “Destroyer of Kings” to Lola’s rap sheet.
As Bavarian Enemy Number One, Lola had to escape the country, fleeing to Switzerland and hoping Ludwig would join her to save her from the nightmare. She had a rude awakening. Wrapped up in his own difficulties, Ludwig never joined her or rescued her. Instead, Lola jumped right back into her bad girl ways.
In exile, Lola sure moved on quickly. Later that same year, she met the young officer George Trafford Heald, who was seven years younger than her but much richer and from a well-respected family. Montez always did love a rich man in uniform, and in a few short months they were married. As it turned out, this was the beginning of a country-wide scandal.
Early into the union, George Heald’s family made a shocking discovery. See, when Lola divorced from her first husband (remember him?) Thomas James, they agreed that neither of them could remarry while the other was still alive. This was more than just bad news: It meant that Lola Montez was now a bigamist. This did not go down well.
Instead of shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well, kids will be kids,” Heald’s family went after Lola like desert vipers. They got the British government to track her down, and Lola had to flee the country yet again, this time with her new husband in tow. She and Heald settled down on the continent, but do I have to tell you it wasn’t happily ever after?
Lola Montez did not know how to pick men. Like so many of her other beaus, George had a temper to match his wife’s ire, and soon enough they were fighting like cats and dogs. But one day, Lola took it to the next level. During a particularly brutal spat, she heartlessly stabbed Heald. He survived…this time. Their union did not.
In 1850, George Heald ended up deserting his somewhat-lawful wife, leaving her in Paris with a mountain of gambling debts and yet another chip on her shoulder. But let this be another warning to you: Do not cross Lola Montez. Reportedly, George later drowned. Now, I’m not saying Lola did it, but her track record on “lovers left alive” wasn’t great. Before long, it would get even worse. Seriously.
When 1852 rolled around, Lola Montez needed to rehabilitate her image, big time. So she came up with an ingenious plan. With most of her bridges burned in Europe, she traveled to America for a much-publicized tour, arriving on the Eastern seaboard dressed like a man and decked out in spurred boots and her signature riding whip. She then got right down to courting scandal.
Montez’s American infamy started almost the moment she set foot in New York. When she landed, a throng of admirers greeted her and her outsized reputation, but woe on anyone who got too close. When one fan dared to touch her coattails, Lola lashed out with her whip and gave him a beating he’d remember for the rest of his life.
During this time, Lola earned herself a fitting claim to fame—a love of performing for gold-diggers. Not only did she post up during the Gold Rush in San Francisco, she also later traveled all the way to Australia and entertained miners. But being down under apparently really made Lola let loose, because it was here she gave the performance of her life…and that wasn’t exactly a good thing.
During a September 1855 performance in Melbourne, Lola showcased her soon-to-be notorious Spider Dance. In this version of the Tarantula, Lola pretended to search for a spider in her garments, which inevitably let her lift her skirts higher and higher, letting the audience know she didn’t have any underwear on. The crowd was beside itself, and one critic called it “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.”
Lola was a very bad girl when she was in Australia. While in Sydney, a warrant went out to detain her for an outstanding gambling debt, and an officer even got as far as her cabin door before the former royal mistress foiled him in the most “Lola” way possible. She undressed completely while inside her room, and then dared the officer to come in and seize her. She bet right that day, because he couldn’t work up the courage and she got off scot-free.
In 1853, three years had passed since Lola Montez’s last marriage, so it was high time to get another one. That year, she wed California newspaperman Patrick Hull. Somehow, it was probably her worst marriage to date. The union lasted mere months, and a doctor who co-signed the divorce papers ended up slain in a separate incident. Is this the last fatality in Lola’s story? Nope!
Not everyone found Lola irresistible. In fact, Montez’s own mother practically disowned her after everything her daughter put her through—and in typical family fashion, she did it with high drama. Mama Elizabeth Gilbert took to publicly wearing mourning clothes for a time, just to signal to anyone and everyone that her child was dead to her. I see where Lola gets it from
Lola was a wild thing, so it only made sense that she kept other wild things. When she traveled around the gold rush towns, she made sure to bring an entire menagerie with her, including her prized tamed grizzly bear, who she loved taking for walks around the towns. I mean, all the better to get people to notice you, right?
Surprise, Surprise: During her tour of Australia, Lola fell in love again, this time with her tour manager, Neil Follin. In May 1856, the new couple embarked on the long boat voyage back to the States—and then tragedy struck. In yet another cruel twist of what I’ll generously call “fate,” Neil mysteriously fell overboard and perished. At this point, people were starting to get really suspicious.
Not even Lola Montez’s considerable charms and bedroom eyes could get her out of this one, at least at first. Soon enough, people started questioning her in relation to her latest beau’s violent disappearance. Montez responded by saying pertly, "I have been wild, and wayward, but never wicked.” Okay…but is that a yes or a no, Lola?
Montez was so influential, she also made her mark on classic literature. Critics widely believe that she inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create the character of Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes’s female counterpart in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Like Adler, Montez was a seductive woman who managed to yield immense political power through her personal relationships.
Look, Lola didn’t say yes to just any man. In fact, her rejections could be even more scandalous than her affairs. Early on in her career, the Viceroy of Poland fell head over heels for her, offering her lands, influence, jewels, and just about anything that would entice her into his bed. Lola, who found him repulsive, said no. She’d pay for it.
The Polish manager of the theatre where Montez was performing during this time just so happened to be the Viceroy’s friend, and he had a strange way of showing loyalty. That evening, the manager did a creepy solid for his pal and arranged it so that members of the audience would hiss and boo at Lola’s dances. At first, Lola was confused. Then, when she got wise to it, she simply aired all the Viceroy’s dirty laundry to the crowd, winning them over in the process. Point to Lola.
Even during her own time, people complained that the so-called “Lola Montez” was just appropriating Spanish culture to perform her dances, and she didn’t even do it well. Yes, the cold hard truth is that Lola wasn’t very talented. Her dances were unoriginal, more than a little colonizing, and also technically inept. But what she lacked in morals and actual skills, she more than made up for in stage presence.
Thing is, you probably knew about Lola Montez before you even knew about Lola Montez. The popular and still-iconic song “Whatever Lola Wants”—you know, the one that goes “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”—may have originated in the 1955 musical comedy Damn Yankees, but the saying was inspired by our one and only Lola. Now that is making a name for yourself.
Of all the lies Lola Montez told about herself, the best one involved the biggest womanizer in history. At the height of her fame, she claimed she was the illegitimate daughter of the philandering poet-jerk Lord Byron. It might not have been true in actual fact, but given Lola’s own infamy, it was certainly true in spirit.
In the late 1850s, something strange started happening to the great Lola Montez. She returned to America, began to get a respectable lecture series going, and started living a much quieter and reclusive life, admitting only a few close friends into her circle. This wasn’t like the old Lola at all, and some people suspected something was very wrong…
Today, some historians believe that at the end of her life, Montez paid gravely for the sins of the past. Indeed, there is some evidence that at this time, she was progressing into the tertiary stages of syphilis. In this phase, the disease can start to affect neurological functions as well as cardiovascular health, which would explain Lola’s gradual slowing down. Sadly, it also gave her a heartbreaking end.
In 1860, possibly as a result of her untreated syphilis, Lola Montez suffered a massive stroke. Her body was already wasting away, and it quickly became fatally frail. That winter, then, she had no defenses when she contracted pneumonia, and the great temptress passed on January 17, 1861, exactly one month away from her 40th birthday.
Although Lola Montez and King Ludwig spent years apart from each other, the old king never forgot about the love of his life. Though he outlived Montez by seven years, he continued loving her from afar, even dutifully writing her letters and, most importantly, sending her a hefty allowance well after his forced abdication.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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