The Queen of the Spider Dance

Her name was Lola and she was a showgirl….except that her name wasn’t Lola and her show wasn’t any good. Her real name was Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert—which was quite the mouthful for a stage name—so Lola Montez it became. She invented the role of a mysterious Spanish entertainer and played it for much of her life but everything about her persona was a lie. She was actually Irish, born in Grange, County Sligo, and by the time she passed away on this day in 1861, she had lived a full, dangerous, and notorious life.

Eliza Gilbert (the shortened version of her given name) was born to a self-serving mother and left largely to her own devices. At the age of six, she was shipped off to relatives and boarding school, where she learned how to play various musical instruments and by the time she was a teen, she was already an entertainer. She was also gorgeous and manipulative. Her willful behavior, terrible temper and vanity had already begun to take shape. She eloped when she was 17 and the soldier she married was one of the only men she had ever met. It was in her words a “runaway match”, designed to earn her more freedom but it tied her to her abusive husband for longer than she would have liked. When the abuse got physical, Eliza fled to her mother.

It was not the happy reunion she may have wished for. Mom wanted nothing to do with her and gave her only two options. Go back to the abusive husband or take a little money and set sail for England. When she landed in London, she barely had enough money to survive and wanted no part of dull, honest work. She quickly became a kept woman, foolishly believing that her aristocratic lover would eventually marry her while conveniently forgetting that she was already married herself. When her husband found out about the affair he divorced her—brutally and publicly—destroying any reputation she had left and making sure that she couldn’t legally remarry ever again. After a self-destructive cycle of booze, pills, and lovers, Eliza began Spanish dancing lessons. They inspired her and shortly thereafter, she went to Spain.

By the time she returned, she was Donna Lola Montez, a scandalous “Spanish“ entertainer.

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Her debut was successful, but not well reviewed and when someone in the audience recognized her, they threw a serious kink in her reinvention. She left England and began traveling through Europe and gaining a reputation for crude humor, loose morals, and a white hot temper. If her audience didn’t shower her with the proper praise and affection, she actually whipped them. Her biggest claim to fame was the notorious Spider or Tarantula Dance. It wasn’t really a dance, so much as it was an excuse to lift her skirts and fall out of her clothes in a teasing manner. Needless to say, she grew to be quite famous in the mid-1800s for this made up dance and her “shows” often sold out, even if her next one was canceled by the promoters or authorities. This happened frequently, due to her temper, her attacks on her audiences, and her general lack of real skill. She never settled down quietly though – in fact, she spent her down time collecting lovers and toppling powerful men. She bounced from one to the next, accepting “gifts” from each for her company and services, while dodging creditors in every country she visited. One of her affairs was a beloved Spanish composer. Another was a prominent French editor, but the jewel in her crown (ahem) was actually a King.

King Ludwig of Bavaria was immediately and hopelessly smitten with Lola… and her feet. He had a major foot fetish and a healthy obsession for the wild “Spanish” woman. He showered her with money, gave her a house, made her a Countess and unfortunately for him, listened to her. She had never been keen on authority or religion and even though she knew very little about politics, she succeeded in getting King Ludwig to turn his back on the conservatives in his court – including the Jesuits that he had relied on. She recruited her own private army whose motto was “Lola and Liberty” and used them as bodyguards while she wielded her new powers. Predictably, the ousted clergy and the Bavarian population revolted, turning against the King and his overreaching mistress. King Ludwig abdicated his throne because of his love for Lola and exactly one hour later, she was banished from Bavaria and stripped of her wealth and power. She broke his heart just a few months later by marrying someone else.

That marriage also lasted less than a year. Her fiery temper and abrasive personality made Lola hard to live with and her young husband abandoned her. Out of options and unwelcome in most of Europe, she headed west and landed in New York City. There she wrote her version of her life story, turning her humiliations and failures into triumph. Within a few weeks, she was starring on Broadway in Montez in Bavaria – a tale of a young, innocent, Spanish girl trapped in the middle of the Bavarian revolution. She was a much better actor than dancer, and it was one of the first times in her life that she had good reviews, even though the story was yet another lie. She used her new fame to travel the states and to renew her Spider Dance but she knew she had to do something different quickly. She was getting too old to be a “dancer”  so she began writing lectures on everything from how to stay beautiful to American slavery. Miraculously, they were also a success.

While her professional life was taking off, her personal life was still in shambles. She continued taking lovers and marrying some of them, only to have them leave her again in a few months. She met a “prince,” sold all of her belongings and gave up a small fortune to meet him in Paris, only to find out that he was married, not a prince of anything and a con artist. She quickly restarted her lecture series around Europe in order to make it back to America and during this time, she finally returned to her homeland of Ireland for a short visit in 1858. She spoke in a few major cities as Lola Montez and left again, never to return.

Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert Donna Lola Montez was barely in her forties when she died. In her short life she had traveled the world and reinvented herself over and over again. She had been “married” at least five times. She had gone from being a courtesan to a Countess and back again, from a talentless but entertaining dancer to a prominent and popular lecturer, and from a fallen woman herself to donating and running charities for them. In America she really did find a new home and a good amount of respectability. She owned a house in the Gold Rush town of Grass Valley, California,  and rented a home in New York City. She resurrected her Spider Dance once or twice to travel between the two before giving it up completely.

Lola died on this day, January 17th, in New York after a few more marriages, a large stroke and a bout with pneumonia. She is buried in Brooklyn and her headstone is modest. It’s engraved with her real name (albeit shortened)—Eliza Gilbert— and the cemetery doesn’t exploit their infamous resident, even when her visitors are compelled to make up a “Spanish” spider dance or two. This happens more frequently than you might think.

In Grass Valley, they celebrate the bawdy and naughty bits of her life and her memorial marker there says “Lola Montez,” along with a very complimentary if not exaggerated view of her importance. The house she lived in is a landmark building and was once a museum dedicated to her. Lola’s legends live on and one thing about her is true and undisputed – she was a most unusual Irish woman and her life story is like no other.

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3 thoughts on “The Queen of the Spider Dance

  1. What an interesting story! I admire her energy and creativity in spite of everything else.

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