Spider Dancer – The exotic life of Lola Montez
Glamour, excitement, amusement – necessary components of a happy life, sometimes required elements for survival in the wake of disappointment.
The California Gold Rush of the 1850s needed this ingredient of distraction for the many argonauts who were striving – and often failing – in their pursuit of golden glory. This diversion was provided by one of the entertainment queens of the Gold Country: Grass Valley’s exotic Lola Montez.
Lola Montez, the beautiful and spirited “Spanish” artist who danced her way to fame in 1840’s Europe, claimed she was born in Seville in 1823. Actually, she was born Eliza Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818.
In her early 20s, Lola frolicked her way to notoriety and scandal with her strange Spider Dance – an imitation of a young woman fighting off an attack of spiders under her petticoats.
Her performance was a sensation, as was her resultant personal life. Lola married twice, took innumerable lovers (including the composer Franz Liszt and novelist Alexandre Dumas) and eventually became the mistress of Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, for two years.
Ludwig I bestowed the title of Countess of Landsfeldt on Lola in recognition of her … uh … talents.
In 1852, her fame preceding her, Lola Montez embarked on a tour of America. In San Francisco, her Spider Dance was a phenomenon. Even the critics found it arresting … in the beginning. But it was not artistic merit the audiences sought; it was a glimpse of the scandalous beauty.
Soon the crowds realized that Lola’s act was mediocre. One rival began a comic caricature of her gyrations, and Lola became a target of ridicule. Audiences began to laugh at and heckle her performances.
Incensed, Montez and her newest husband, a journalist named Patrick Purdy Hull, boarded a steamship for California’s capital city. In Sacramento, Lola was met with more derision.
Finally Lola snapped. Her artistic temperament aroused, Lola insulted the audience. She quarreled with the theater manager, challenged him to a duel, and departed in a huff when the manager laughed at her.
Indignant, Lola swept northward to the mining community of Marysville, where the tour sputtered to a whimpering conclusion. Embarrassed and seething, Lola Montez decided to leave the stage, if only temporarily, and retire to a life of simple domesticity.
With Hull in tow, the Countess of Landsfeldt traveled to the Gold Country town of Grass Valley. There she purchased a refuge, a home on the town’s main thoroughfare, Mill Street. Today, a reconstruction of Lola’s Cottage is the headquarters of the Grass Valley/Nevada County Chamber of Commerce.
Lola Montez’s outrageous reputation arrived with her, however, and she was shunned by Grass Valley’s elite. Lola soldiered on bravely, providing elegant entertainments and European-style salons for those who would dare to accept her hospitality.
Within days after her arrival, reports and rumors abounded of Lola’s shocking behavior. It was accurately reported that she had horsewhipped the local newspaper editor for his disparaging remarks. Less-credible witnesses swore that Lola had performed her provocative dance for an objecting minister on his front doorstep.
Most rumors were false, but Lola’s actual private behavior was more than enough to keep the gossip mill functioning.
For instance, her backyard menagerie of a grizzly bear and monkeys kept the populace whispering and fascinated. Less well known were her secretive acts of charity. Montez helped the town’s needy, carried food and medicine to injured miners, sat up all night with sick children, and confidentially endeared herself to many in Grass Valley. These activities were not what the public craved, however, and were not widely recounted.
For the most part, Lola remained at her modest home. She occasionally quarreled with her husband. At one point, she banished Hull for shooting her pet bear. But generally, she puttered around the yard, tending to her garden. Schoolchildren often passed by, most likely drawn by the forbidden allure of the mysterious Lola.
Lola was increasingly lonely, and she relished the visits of the tiny tots. One day, a new child stopped by. She was 6-year-old Charlotte Crabtree, called Lotta by family and friends. The Crabtrees lived just down the block from Lola.
When the Crabtrees arrived in 1853, Lotta and her mother, Mary Ann, discovered that just two doors down lived Lola Montez, the infamous Countess of Landsfeldt. Mary Ann and Lotta introduced themselves to Lola. Montez had noticed the bubbly, high-spirited little girl previously and soon they became fast friends. The conjunction of these two high-wattage personalities would change the course of both their lives.
From all accounts, Lotta adored Lola. Lola returned the affection and soon she allowed the waif to play with her costumes and dance to her fancy German music box. Lola taught Lotta a handful of songs and dances and marveled at the little girl’s theatrical acumen.
Lotta was soon performing for Lola’s friends. Legend declares that the countess took the 7-year-old Lotta to nearby Rough and Ready and the youngster gave her first public performance on top of an anvil in W.H. Fippin’s smithy while the blacksmith tapped out an accompaniment with his hammer.
The watching miners applauded long and hard, the reports claimed. A career was born.
At the time, Lola prophetically remarked that history would remember Lola Montez as notorious, but would call Lotta Crabtree famous. Lola was right.
Lotta soon became one of the era’s most popular entertainers as she left Grass Valley and skyrocketed to fame.
Following Lotta’s departure, Lola grew bored of her domestic tranquility. In 1855, Lola left Grass Valley and embarked on a tour of Australia. The tour was a failure. Montez returned to her mountain home just long enough to sell the only home she had ever owned. She never returned.
Hoping to strike lightning in a bottle one more time, Lola Montez tried her hand at lecturing on her curious life. Another failure.
Desperate and lonely, her health began to fail. Her finances dwindling rapidly, the once famous Lola Montez faded into obscurity. Her life became an endless struggle with illness.
In 1861, at the age of 43, Lola died, miserable and penniless. A handful of newspaper obituaries described her experiences, but her passing was mostly ignored.
Gary Noy is director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus.
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