Who was Lola Montez?

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Lola Montez, painted by Joseph Stieler for Ludwig I of Bavaria, 1847. Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

Most afternoons at 2.30 pm in Sovereign Hill’s Main Street, an actor playing Lola Montez bursts onto the balcony of the Victoria Theatre, fuming loudly about a bad newspaper review of her ‘Spider Dance’. Let’s find out more about this extraordinary woman.

Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert (c.1818-1861), better known by her stage name Lola Montez (or Montes), was a well-known 19th century celebrity and beauty before she arrived here in Ballarat in 1856.  Although she was born in Ireland, she became a ‘Spanish dancer’ and was particularly famed for her Spider Dance, during which she flashed her underpants (called pantelletes), and maybe even the body parts beneath them … For men living on a goldfield where there were very few women, the naughty Lola was a subject of great interest.

Around the age of 22, Lola began her career as a dancer in Europe. This was also the time people began calling her a courtesan, a old-fashioned name given to a woman who was a close friend, confidante and sexual companion to rich and powerful men. Many of her famous male friends were artists, writers, journalists, and army lieutenants. She was even the ‘favourite’ of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (now part of Germany).

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Portrait of Ludwig I of Bavaria, by Joseph Stieler, 1825. Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

Such relationships gave her money and power, which meant independence (uncommon for a 19th century woman). After a revolution in 1848, during which King Ludwig I gave up his crown, she left for England and later moved to the United States of America, in 1851. There, she performed as a dancer and actor for the gold miners of San Francisco. Then, in 1855-6, she toured Australia and danced for the miners in Ballarat and Castlemaine, among other places.Beyond Lola’s career as a performer, she part-owned a French newspaper, published a book called ‘The Arts of Beauty; Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilette. With Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating’ (1858), and gave ‘moral lectures’ just before she died in 1861. In California there is a mountain named in her honour, along with two lakes, and numerous books and movies are about her or feature characters based on her life. Many historians think she was a woman ‘before her time’ as she ignored pressure to be a quiet and obedient woman at a time when that was expected. She broke the rules, and lived as she pleased.

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Lola c.1851. She was the first woman to be photographed smoking a cigarette. Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

As a famous beauty, and a woman who was probably keener than most to retain a youthful complexion (face), Lola published lots of recipes and ‘how to …’ guidelines in her book ‘The Arts of Beauty’. The wealthy could afford to buy luxury items like pimple cream and anti-baldness wash from the Apothecaries’ Hall; however, average people might have tried Lola’s suggestions to save money and look beautiful. Here are some of Lola’s stranger recommendations from ‘The Arts of Beauty’:

For a lady’s face

The following is a recipe for making another wash for the face, which is a favourite with the ladies of France.

Take equal parts of the seeds of the melon pumpkin, gourd and cucumber, pounded till they are reduced to a powder; add to it sufficient fresh cream to dilute the flour [powder], then add milk enough to reduce the whole to a thin paste. Add a grain of musk [taken from the body of animals like the musk deer], and a few drops of the oil of lemon. Anoint the face with this, leave it on twenty or thirty minutes, or overnight if convenient, and wash off with warm water. It gives a remarkable purity and brightness to the complexion. (p.45)

To cure baldness in men (apparently …)

6oz. boxwood shavings

12oz. proof spirit [pure alcohol]

2oz. spirits of rosemary

1/2oz spirits of nutmeg

The boxwood shaving should be left to steep [soak] in the spirits, at a temperature of 60 degrees, for fourteen days, and then the liquid should be strained off, and the other ingredients mixed. The scalp to be thoroughly washed, or rubbed with this every night and morning. (p.86)

To get rid of grey hairs

4drs. oxide of bismuth [a heavy metal …]

4drs. spermaceti [the oil surrounding the brains of sperm whales]

4oz. pure hog’s lard [pig fat]

The lard and spermaceti should be melted together, and when they begin to cool stir in the bismuth. It may be perfumed to your liking [then used on your head every day]. (p.88)

A face wash used to remove tan (only peasants had tans in the 19th century British Empire … a white complexion communicated to others that you spent your life indoors, which was the desired ‘look’ for European ladies)

1/2pint new milk

1/4oz. lemon juice

1/2oz. white brandy

Boil the whole, and skim it clear from all scum. Use it night and morning. (p.98)

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Posters to advertise events at Ballarat’s Victoria Theatre, featuring Lola ‘Montes’, 1856. Reproduced with permission from the Gold Museum, Ballarat.

Lola married at least three times during her life; however, her romances never seemed to last very long. Some of these relationships ended in divorce, others in death; even her manager met a grisly end – he fell off a ship and disappeared in the Pacific Ocean. In 1861, Lola died of syphilis (an STI – sexually transmitted infection), alone, at the age of about 39 in New York City.

The performance about Lola’s life, which you might be lucky enough to see at Sovereign Hill, details the story of her reaction to a bad review … A man named Henry Seekamp who was the editor of The Ballarat Times, the city’s first newspaper, famously criticised Lola for her spicy performances through a review in his newspaper. When Lola read this review about how ‘immoral’ her dancing was, she confronted Seekamp in the street and beat him with a horse whip. This event only made Lola more famous (or infamous) as it was reported in newspapers all over the world.

Links and References

The Australian Dictionary of Biography on Lola: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/montez-lola-4226

Wikipedia on Lola: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lola_Montez

Culture Victoria website about Lola: http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/a-diverse-state/goldfields-stories-lola-montez-star-attraction/lola-montez-19th-century-radical/

An old Sovereign Hill Education Blog on Lola: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2011/08/10/lola-montez-the-lady-gaga-of-her-day/

The British Library historian on the expectations on 19th century women: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkJJFX8Qn90 

Read ‘The Arts of Beauty’ online: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=1DQEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

SBS Gold on Lola: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=107

The Age on Lola: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/07/08/1025667114383.html

Lola’s Obituary in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/01/21/news/obituary-death-of-lola-montez.html?pagewanted=all

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Two of Sovereign Hill’s actors re-creating the famous incident between Lola Montez and Henry Seekamp, involving her horse whip.

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