Some women go through life accepting the small rewards that fall their way, comfortable in their unexamined existence and not asking much from the world. Others look around and say to themselves, "no - this will not do. I was born for more than this". Lola Montez was the latter kind of woman. Famous both for her self-created "Tarantula Dance"as well as being the inspiration for the expression "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets". Miss Montez serves as an excellent example of what one can do if possessed of a little drive and ambition, as well as what can happen if that same drive is not controlled.
Born Eliza Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, Lola was the daughter of a British Army captain, stationed in India. He died when she was just a small girl, an event that left a deep void in her heart - one she tried the rest of her life to fill. Her mother subsequently married the captain's best friend, and life proceeded comfortably, though Lola would never forget that men sometimes abandon women when they are needed the most.
Living in India until she was a young lady, Lola was then sent to Europe, to be schooled in Paris and London. Upon the completion of her studies, Lola's mother decided to redeem her investment in the girl, and tried to marry her off to a young officer in Calcutta.
Learning of this plan, Lola married the first man she could find, a certain Captain James. He was an impulsive choice, and the marriage floundered from the start. Upon their Return to Calcutta, which at the time was much more fashionable than now, he quickly left Lola and pursued a series of other women. Lola wanted a divorce, but she could never determine with precision just where to send the papers. She eventually forgot about it - something that would have consequences later in her life.
Deciding to make a clean break of things, Lola set off once again for Europe. Her mother highly disapproved of Lola by this point, and refused to provide her with financial help. Her stepfather, who had always admired the young woman's physical charms, was quickly persuaded to give her a check for £1,000, which she used to pursue a career in the art of modern interpretive dance.
Landing first in Spain, Lola immediately began to absorb the culture and language of the land. She realized that it was the small dollop of Spanish blood in her veins that gave her the passion and zest for living she possessed. Learning the basic moves of Flamenco dancing,Lola changed her name and returned to England to begin her new career.
Lola premiered her Tarantula Dance at Her Majesty's Theater in London. She was disappointed to see that the audience was not sophisticated enough to appreciate the modern elements of her performance, which consisted of the discovery while dancing of a large, furry spider crawling on her clothes, and her frantic attempts to remove it - ultimately losing many garments in the process. Icy with fury, but without a way to vent it, Lola departed for Poland, where she hoped to receive a better reception.
Upon her arrival in Poland, Lola experienced a transformational event that would help her enormously in later life. While on horseback at a reception for the Tsar of Russia, Lola lost control of her steed, and was almost catapulted into the lap of the Tsar himself. She was prevented from this - people would later claim she had engineered the entire situation - by a quick thinking soldier who grabbed the horse's lead. Startled by all the confusion, Lola reacted instinctively and brought her riding crop down across the young man's face. Though apologetic that she had drawn blood and scarred such a handsome man for life, she nevertheless could see a new found respect in the eyes of those around her, and determined that a whip would be her constant companion from this day forward.
The following day, she gave a command performance for the Viceroy of Poland, who was immediately besotted and asked her to become his mistress. While appreciating that someone had at last seen her as the artist she was, Lola couldn't help but shiver at the thought of the toadlike Viceroy touching her body; and she respectfully declined. An enraged Viceroy determined to destroy her artistic reputation, and had stooges placed at her next performance, to boo her throughout her dance.
It wasn't long before Lola learned who was behind the changing attitudes of her public, and the next time booing occurred, she stopped the show and explained to the crowd exactly what was happening. They were full of sympathy and support, and began what many feared would evolve into a full-scale revolution. Fearing retribution, Lola eventually sought asylum in the French embassy, where the ambassador helped smuggle her out of the country.
Continuing her European Tour, Lola met and fell in love with Franz Liszt, the great composer. Though passionate about him, Lola realized that a love between two artists was fraught with peril. Indeed, Mr. Lizt became jealous of Lola's talents and began a series of public humiliations, designed to put her in her place. At an official ceremony, dedicating a statue to Beethoven, Mr Liszt ignored her completely, until Lola was forced in exasperation to dance on the table tops, dishes crashing to the floor around her. Realizing that he could never love her the way she deserved, the cowardly Liszt departed in the night, leaving a distraught Lola to pick up the pieces of her life.
Proceeding to Paris, Lola immediately saw that mid 19th Century Europe was not ready for such an avant-garde artist as herself. She was booed once again, and this time lost her temper, removing her garters and throwing them at the audience in a rage. Seeing that she was hot blooded, audiences subsequently began to boo her purposely, solely to watch her remove her garters. Things were not moving in the direction Lola wanted, and she began carrying her whip onstage to tame the rowdier elements of the crowd.
At this time, Lola met the great love of her life, Henry Dujarier. A very wealthy, cultured man, he introduced Lola to the leading figures of the day, including Chopin and George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Balzac. Their happiness could not last long, however, and the unlucky man was killed in a duel defending Lola's honor. This was not only a life-changing event in the young woman's life, but also contributed greatly to her reputation as heartbreaker.
A disconsolate Lola moved to Bavaria, where she was to achieve her greatest triumphs and tragedies. Auditioning for the State Theater, Lola was scandalized when the management wouldn't allow her to appear, citing moral clauses too obsolete to be of any consequence. Determined to defend her dignity, Lola rushed to the Palace and stormed the offices of King Ludwig, badly ripping the bodice of her dress in the process. Seeing how distracted he was by the tear in her garment, Lola ripped the bodice off completely, so that she could have his undivided attention. It wasn't long before a sympathetic king was telling the stage manager that Lola would be performing tout de suite. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.
Lola's dancing career was now in full flourish; and King Ludwig, overcome by both Lola's artistry and beauty, fell helplessly in love and built the dancer her first Palace. He also gave her a gold trimmed coach which he had upholstered in ermine, the official fur of Royalty. This small fact was not unnoticed by Lola, who repaid the king with a loyalty he had never before experienced, even by his cabinet.
Always astute, Lola sensed almost immediately that there was something afoot in Bavaria. Alerted by a close friend, Lola detected what she thought was a conspiracy among the Jesuits of the country, and helped Ludwig form a new government, free of their influence. Being a foreigner, she didn't realize that she had been manipulated, and was shocked by the people's outcry at this turn of events. Ludwig's subjects actually thought that Lola was determined to begin a new wave of religious repression, though nothing could be less true. She began carrying her whip with her at all times now, and not just for show, so frightened was she. She kept a large bulldog by her side, as well, so as to defend herself from the marauding gangs of priests she saw everywhere around her. After a particularly distressing misunderstanding, in which a Jesuit was bitten on the backside by Lola's ever-watchful hound, people began to call for her expulsion from the country. The cries of discontent were heard most clearly from the University.
Always one to inspire loyalty in those around her, a mere whisper of her distress was enough to cause an enraged Ludwig to order the University closed. This proved to be a mistake, as leaders of the world since the dawn of time have come to learn. The students rebelled, and there was very little to be done, though Lola tried to calm the situation. However, she had lost all credibility with the students. Afraid for his position, Ludwig was forced to send her away, though he promised to support her for life.
Alone in the world once more, the ever resourceful Lola was befriended by a certain George Head, a rich young man soon to be even richer. The two planned to marry, but his mean spirited family spoiled the arrangement by disclosing Lola's first union to Captain James. Though a youthful indiscretion, Lola had never formally ended the marriage and would be a bigamist if she took another husband. Though George proved his character and married the hypnotic woman, his fortune wasn't great enough to meet all of her needs; thus, George was finally forced to give her her freedom once again. Never recovering from his guilt at disappointing Lola, George eventually drank himself to death. Lola went to America to start afresh.
Once in the States, the headlines and controversy began anew. Lola was forced to buy an even larger whip, and used it with great success on several impolite reporters and newspaper editors. The puritanical Americans, shocked at the excesses they saw in Lola's dance work, couldn't wait for the tour to end. The only memorable event for Lola was her fortuitous meeting with Patrick Hull ,who became her constant companion throughout the tour. It must be said that if not for her art, Lola might well have settled in America with Mr. Hull. He provided the restless artist with much needed stability; and the grizzly bear he gave her as a pet became one of her closest friends in the States. She cried before selling it to the circus upon her departure.
Lola's theatrical options were now becoming rather limited. When bookings dropped off, she was forced in desperation to compromise her art, adding more tarantulas to her dance and removing even more clothing in the process. Her public, as well, became somewhat more coarse, and demanded that she "take it all off". If not for her prudent use of her whip, all efforts at crowd control would have failed.
After an Australian tour that was even more disappointing than the American one, Lola returned to the States, feeling rather poorly. Though she thought at first that she was merely suffering from depression, she realized when her hair began to fall out and her weight to plummet that she'd better seek medical advice.
The doctor confirming the worst, Lola was forced at last to reassess her life. She tried to make peace with her mother, but the cruel woman, who'd had her stationary bordered in black since the day Lola first left India to storm the stages of the world, was only interested in her sick daughter's jewels. When they were not forthcoming, she departed once again for the Colonies. Lola was alone, and without a friend in the world.
Her money gone, Lola began to see that the word of God was more important than riches and fame, and
"got religion" to use that vulgar phrase. In her dying days, she was cared for by a priest - though she determined first that he was not a Jesuit, having so many bad memories of that faith. This unnamed priest was so overcome by Lola's devotion to God, he made it his mission to care for her until the end. A priest is not rich, however, and Lola died in circumstances much less comfortable than she had come to expect from life.
Looking back at Lola, it is easy to say we could have done it better - but that would be looking with a modern eye. In her time, women's options were much more limited. Lola's decision to take the stage, and to force the world to accept her on her own terms, was evidence of her bravery and the purity of her soul. Born far ahead of her time, one wonders what she would have accomplished in our current age. With today's new permissiveness, it is quite likely that she'd have enjoyed great success - and who knows? Maybe she'd have ended up as the ambassador to France. Stranger things have happened
( Jeff Woloson )