Born two-hundred years ago, Lola Montez (1821–1861) was one of the most mystifying figures of her age: a proto-feminist figure, one of the most ‘liberated’ women of her day, and a skilled performer and self-promoter with a taste for fraud, and with the remarkable ability to continually reinvent herself. An Irish woman who presented herself as a Spanish dancer, Montez was born Elizabeth Gilbert in 1821. Her early years were spent in India where her father was stationed as an officer. Gilbert was later sent to England to be educated at a boarding school in Bath. After the failure of her first marriage (at the age of 18), Montez went on to have a series of high-profile liaisons with artists and intellectuals across Europe, most famously with Franz Liszt, Alexander Dumas, and finally King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1846–1848, though the actual nature of these affairs remains subject to speculation. The King made her a citizen of Bavaria, giving her the title Countess of Landsfeld in 1847. Her personal and political influence on Ludwig I caused a growing scandal, igniting a revolution in March 1848 which eventually forced the King to abdicate and Montez to flee Bavaria. After a brief period in Switzerland and England, from 1852 she lived primarily in the United States, in her California residence, and later in New York City. Toward the end of her life, Montez was said to have dedicated herself to care work in an asylum for “fallen women.” In 1860 she suffered a stroke and died six months later at the age of 39.
Arguably the first reality star, Montez carefully curated her own image throughout her life, taking less care in presenting the truth than in arousing interest. Her persona almost immediately became the subject of numerous biographies and autobiographies, some forged, all imprecise. Seven of these were included in Hugo Hayn‘s infamous Bibliotheca Germanorum Erotica, a bibliography of German erotic literature first published in 1875. After the events in Munich, Montez toured across Europe and North America with “Lola in Bavaria,” a vaudeville show in which she played herself, reenacting her own life and famous affairs for audiences in 1851–1855. Max Ophul‘s 1955 film Lola Montez highlights the tragedy of Montez as she is both liberated by the fictional persona she created and prisoner to it. Montez also delivered lectures about her life, her political and religious views, expressing impatience with contemporary women’s rights movements (too slow) and the Catholic church (too old fashioned). Although Montez denied being a feminist, her outcast position allowed her to speak freely, which she did in her 1858 “Hints to a Gentleman on the Art of Fascinating,” part make-up manual and part feminist-inflected satire on the vanity and poor manners of men. Her persona has also sparked many artists’ imaginations and continues to live on in the world of art. Henrich Heine mentions Montez in his poetry. Marlene Dietrich played her on screen in the 1930 film The Blue Angel. Salvador Dali designed costumes and stage sets for Bacchanale, a 1939 Ballet about Montez. In 1937, Alban Berg created the unfinished opera Lulu, based on Frank Wedekind’s 1913 play by the same name. Last but not least, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1956 novel Lolita is also a reference to her name and erotic pull.
The collection comprises forty-two items and presents a variety of genres, including broadsides both informational and satirical, photographs and engravings, various pamphlets, memoirs, lectures, political tracts, and satirical works written by or about Lola Montez, as well as the dancer's autograph. The materials also reflect mainstream attitudes about women and the challenge Montez' persona posed to the conventions of the time. As she aptly put it in the introduction to her Lectures, “At any rate, such is the social and moral fabric of the world, that woman must be content with an exceedingly narrow sphere of action, or she must take the worst consequences of daring to be an innovator and a heretic.”
Most of the items are not, or barely, represented in North American institutions. The only known collection of Montez-related materials is the Bruce Seymour archive, now housed at Berkeley’s Bancroft library.
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Book ID: 51306