Note: this is the introduction to a short series on Lola Montez. Read the next two articles, “The Showgirl ‘Full of Sin’ or ‘Respectable Theatre’?” and “Lola Montez Denies Conventions in Her Image”.

 

 

“Feel the fire where she walks

Lola Montez so beautiful

Shady and a tempered dame

Blinding your eyes with her Spider Dance

Her performance utterly erotic, subversive to all ideas

And for public morality

And cool as she was, she didn’t care

See the miner throw his gold

Lifting her skirt, howling loud like a wolf

Hell raising and full of sin

When Lola was dancing and showing her skin

Where she walks

She will be captivating all the men

Don’t look in her eyes

You might fall and find the love of your life

Heavenly but she’ll catch you in her web

The love of your life”

Volbeat, “Lola Montez” (2013)

When the Danish rock-metal band Volbeat released their album Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies comprised of songs about legendary characters of the American West, the track “Lola Montez” immediately emerged as a favorite among fans and critics alike.[1] The lyrics tell the story of Lola Montez, a showgirl among the many who flocked to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s with hopes of reinventing themselves. As evidenced by Volbeat’s song, written over 150 years after Lola first became a sensation as a performer on the international circuit, she remains immortalized as “utterly erotic,” a “shady and a tempered dame,” essentially a femme fatale inseparably linked to the frenetic cultural cauldron of Gold Rush California.

The first three verses of the 2013 song aptly describe many elements of Lola’s initial stardom and enduring legacy. The first verse simplistically proclaims her beauty, a quality upon which Gold Rush commentators unanimously agreed, and it introduces her infamous “Spider Dance” as “blinding,” or depriving viewers of reason. The second verse elaborates on the sex appeal of her performance, on her quintessentially “subversive” approach that disregarded “public morality,” particularly Victorian era gender conventions. This verse also specifies the typical audience member of her act as a Gold Rush miner, “howling loud like a wolf,” as these miners were notorious for their uninhibited carousing leisure activities. The third verse develops her persona as a temptress, seducing with her eyes, “captivating all the men,” and convincing them that they are her great love to wield influence over them. Playfully developing the implications of Lola’s celebrated “Spider Dance,” the final lines of “Lola Montez,” “she’ll catch you in her web” as well as promotional materials produced by Volbeat (featuring these lines or iconography literally depicting Lola in a web), all exploit the parallels between her use of seduction for power and the quality of spiders as clever, mischievous predators capable of ensnaring prey in their webs.

 

Both Volbeat “Spider Dance” designs underscore parallels between Lola’s devious character and that of a spider scheming to catch prey in its web.
Both Volbeat “Spider Dance” designs underscore parallels between Lola’s devious character and that of a spider scheming to catch prey in its web.

 

Throughout her career, Lola schemed to carefully construct an identity and establish a career for herself. As her biographers and scholars would be the first to bemoan, she often renamed herself and reinvented her life biography for the sake of legitimizing and marketing her acts. What is more, her publicity tactics tended to converge with her personal life; she was no stranger to deploying her “feminine wiles” to network among the elite in the cities she visited and further promote her act.

The news of this scandalous behavior, particularly her trysts, spread widely, and her reputation as a femme fatale preceded her arrival in San Francisco in 1853. By the time Eliza Gilbert (who later rebranded herself Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) arrived in San Francisco, she had been expelled from Bavaria and was no longer warmly welcomed in Europe.[2] Born to Irish parents in 1818 and raised in India, she went to school in Great Britain and returned to India at age 16 when she eloped with a young officer her mother had attempted to court.[3] When she tired of him, she spent a brief period in Spain, where she ostensibly trained in flamenco dance, and she then debuted her performance in London in 1843 under the stage name Lola Montez. [4] Her popularity immediately surged, and she travelled throughout European cities performing; as she ingratiated herself with the great artists and intellectuals of Europe, she famously had affairs with Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas, and multiple French journalists, before becoming the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.[5] While he was smitten he gave her two royal titles, but the trouble she stirred in Bavaria as a political activist with close ties to leadership eventually led to her expulsion when the revolution of 1848 broke out.[6] Escaping these circumstances, she ended up in San Francisco after brief stints in the East coast, visiting New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and New Orleans.[7]

Although she spent only a few mere years in California (and the rest of her lifetime in Europe, on the East Coast of the U.S., and in Australia), she is regarded as a “western women” for her distinctively American self-reliance and determination, qualities showcased by her successful, independent career. Her time in San Francisco was critical in fixing her identity to the ethos of the Gold Rush west. Comprised of gold seekers starved for female companionship and craving escapist diversions to distract from the deplorable conditions of the diggings, Lola’s San Francisco audience relished her performances.[8] Her internationalism undoubtedly contributed to the intrigue surrounding her persona and performances and likely also influenced how her sexuality was contextualized.

Although she spent only a few mere years in California (and the rest of her lifetime in Europe, on the East Coast of the U.S., and in Australia), she is regarded as a “western women” for her distinctively American self-reliance and determination, qualities showcased by her successful, independent career.

I argue that the most important factor responsible for her wild success in the U.S. and the establishment of her identity as a “western woman” was her negotiation of mounting tensions between Gold Rush reformers and those who clung to the lawless character of frontier society; the year 1853 brought many changes to Gold Rush urban society, and Lola and her act operated during this transitional time by embracing aspects of the old and the new lifestyles in San Francisco. During her time in the U.S., but particularly in California, Lola straddled highbrow and lowbrow strata in the performing arts scenes, rejecting the restrictive social codes associated with Victorian notions of “true womanhood.” I contend that Lola capitalized on this in-betweenness to take advantage of lingering associations of the Western U.S. with indulgence in illicit pleasures but also framed her act with an air of decency to avoid coming under attack by reformers seeking to eradicate San Francisco of social ills. Thus, she cleverly provided erotic entertainment that the miners desired under the guise of respectable theatre.

Beyond her performances, Lola also achieved a presence in visual culture through daguerreotypes, lithographs after daguerreotypes, and cartoons, several of these constructions of her identity reflecting her audacity in unabashedly defying Victorian era gender norms. Other daguerreotypes, though, illustrate her sensitivity to pressures to be more refined. Taken together, her representation through daguerreotypes illustrates her strategy of moving back and forth between the rowdy frontier past and the ostensibly respectable aspirations for the future of San Francisco.

 

Read more about Lola Montez: 

“The Showgirl ‘Full of Sin’ or ‘Respectable Theatre’?” focuses on her role in popular culture of the Gold Rush era, and “Lola Montez Denies Conventions in Her Image” centers on visual representations of the starlet.


[1] Jeff F., “Volbeat: Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies,” SputnikMusic.com, April 28, 2013.

[2] Janet R. Fireman, “Beautiful Deceiver: The Absolutely Divine Lola Montez,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 47, no. 4 (1997): 30–32.

[3] James Morton, Lola Montez : Her Life & Conquests (London: Portrait, 2007), 10–24. Scholars have disagreed over the year in which Lola was born, since she was one to compose background histories that involved changing birth years and birth locations. More recent scholarship believes that 1818 was her birth year, one researcher having found what he interpreted to be a legitimate record of her birth.

[4] Fireman, “Beautiful Deceiver,” 36.

[5] Morton, Lola Montez, 49–54.

[6] James F. Varley, Lola Montez : The California Adventures of Europe’s Notorious Courtesan (Spokane, Wash: AHClark Co, 1996), 30–51.

[7] Fireman, “Beautiful Deceiver,” 36–38.

[8] Gary F. Kurutz, “Popular Culture on the Golden Shore,” California History 79, no. 2 (2000): 281–291.