Jeff Ackerman: Celebrating the bawdy times of Lola Montez
Paris Hilton has nothing on Grass Valley’s own Lola Montez, who would have kept the supermarket tabloids and Internet sites well stocked had those mediums been around more than 150 years ago.
Whatever Lola wanted, Lola got and Lola got quite a lot in her 39 years of living.
My friend John Driscoll over at the Off Broadstreet theater has provided us with a little snapshot of Grass Valley’s wild days, when newspaper editors would duel to the death and you never knew who the next stagecoach down Main Street would deliver.
At the center of Driscoll’s musical – called “Waiting for Lola” – is Lola Montez, the internationally recognized entertainer who bucked all traditional expectations of women in an era when the general expectation was that they were better seen than heard. The Mill Street house Lola owned for roughly two years is now home to the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce, which is fitting since Lola was all about networking during parties she hosted to encourage commerce in a time when the economy was struggling. They say you never turned down an invitation to one of Lola’s parties.
According to most historians, Lola Montez was born in Ireland in 1821. Her real name, they say, was Eliza Rosanna Gilbert. Her mother was only 15 when she gave birth to Lola. Her father was in the military and he took his young family with him to India, where Lola got her first taste of the exotic behavior she would eventually adopt.
It seems Lola marched to her own drummer at an early age, much to the dismay of those who very much wanted her to act like a lady. “On one occasion, she stuck flowers into the wig of an elderly man during a church service, on another she ran through the streets naked,” according to historical reports.
No wonder she would go on to develop a fancy for newspapermen, one of whom would eventually get the wrong end of a duel. You have to appreciate how they settled reader disputes back then. Today they just exchange nasty e-mails in all bold and uppercase, or post pithy blogs across the blogosphere.
Lola would eventually head for America, leaving behind a trail of broken hearts and more than a few scandals. She billed herself as a Spanish dancer and it seems she inherited a Spanish temper, two things I assume drew men to her like flies to a spider’s web. “Proper” women couldn’t have been much fun, which is why I suppose women like Paris Hilton get so much attention. “It’s okay for a bee to go from flower to flower, but not for the flower to go from bee to bee?” reads one of the lines from Driscoll’s “Waiting For Lola.”
Tough to argue with that one. A guy sleeps around, he’s a stud. A woman sleeps around, and she’s a … Paris Hilton, or Lola Montez.
They say Lola was a “courtesan,” which I suppose was a nice term for high-priced hooker. Historians claim Lola had no problem getting wealthy men to give her a little traveling money and Lola traveled around the world.
In 1846 Lola had a fling with the count of Bavaria (Ludwig), who liked her so much he made her a countess. Legend has it that Count Ludwig actually asked Lola if her bosoms were real and that Lola answered by ripping off her garments to prove it.
If you’re not starting to get a deeper appreciation of Lola by now, you ought to move to Iowa.
One hot summer day in 1853, a stagecoach driven by “One-Eyed” Charlie Parkhurst (his real name was Charlotte and he was a she and could go down as the first woman to ever vote, according to some historians) dropped Lola Montez and her new husband and newspaperman Patrick Hull off in downtown Grass Valley, or Centerville, as that particular area was known as. Despite the heat there was a pretty good crowd on hand to greet Lola, who reportedly strolled down Mill Street, took one look at the house, and bought it on the spot.
There were no adjustable rates, or first-time homebuyer programs yet, and you didn’t need to sign, or initial 5,643 pages of documents that nobody reads in the first place.
It didn’t take Lola long to figure out that a newspaperman isn’t a whole lot of fun to be around, so she kicked Patrick Hull out of the house (some say Hull shot Lola’s pet bear over a backyard poker game) and started throwing these great parties, inviting the town’s “movers and shakers” to share in a little camaraderie and maybe a sneak peek of a Spanish dance or two. The women in town hated Lola, who reminds me a little of Jessie Winchester, a former brothel worker whose campaign slogan for her Assembly seat bid was, “Vote for me, or I’ll tell your wife.”
They just don’t make them like that anymore. Lola would die from pneumonia at 39 years old. They say she liked to run around in the snow naked, which may have contributed to her death.
What I like most about John Driscoll is his timing. “Waiting for Lola” is about fun and we can all use a little fun these days. Driscoll is a one-man Attitude Adjuster and his Off Broadstreet theater serves as his kitchen, where he continues to serve up healthy doses of good feelings.
The cast includes my favorites: Kris Stepanian, Chris Crockett, Richard Joplin and Sue LeGate (she is one of the funniest people I have ever met). Lola is playing through April 10, so give them a call at 265-8686 and treat yourself to some laughs, some song and a peek back to a period that would have been a hell of a lot of fun to be around.
Jeff Ackerman is the editor/publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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