This week we return to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, California’s gold country, to meet more of the bold, sometimes brazen women who made their marks early on. Appropriately enough, the U.S. senator who introduced legislation that led to the Nineteenth Amendment (and women's right to vote) lived in Nevada City. World-class soprano Emma Nevada was another well-known native. Locally famous was gambler Eleanor "Madame Moustache" Dumont. Scandalous internationally was Lola Montez of adjacent Grass Valley.
Lola Montez was actually charming Irish wild child and actress Elizabeth (Eliza) Gilbert who reinvented herself as a Spanish dancer when she fled the continent. She had been mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who named her Countess of Landsfeld. The countess used her political influence to institute a variety of liberal reforms, but had to flee during the Revolutions of 1848 in the German States. Before she became a countess Eliza Gilbert befriended George Sand, and had affairs or dalliances with Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo.
So: What better venue for complete self-creation than anything-goes California? As Lola Montez, Eliza Gilbert kicked up almost as much excitement as the discovery of gold. During her notorious "spider dance" the arachnids may have been imaginary, but the kick-off-your-knickers dance routine was real. Let’s just say the all-male audience was surprised (and usually delighted) to discover, in modern parlance, that she had gone commando. The show was particularly popular in San Francisco. After about three days in any city venue, the fire department had to be called in to hose down the overheated crowd.
Finally run out of the city, Montez tried the gold camps, where her spider dance was jeered by miners. So she retired, living in Grass Valley with a new husband (she had quite a few), a bear, and a monkey. She bought a modest house—the only home she every owned—and stayed long enough to scandalize respectable women, send her hubby packing after he shot her bear (possibly a lover as well), and encourage the career of schoolgirl Lotta Crabtree before setting sail for Australia, where she continued her career in the gold camps there and lectured in theosophy.
It’s one of those oddities of fame and fate that, while still living in Grass Valley, Lola Montez would encourage the stage career of precocious Lotta Crabtree, whose parents ran a boardinghouse in town. Little Lotta Crabtree, who began performing at age six, sang, played banjo, and danced her way into the hearts of California's miners and later the world. When wildly successful Lotta Crabtree, “the Nation’s Darling,” died in 1924 at age 77, she left $4 million to charity.
The much wilder life of Lola Montez has inspired more than a century of art imitating life, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia” and the character Irene Adler, along with countless other incorrigible women in books, plays, and films.
Yet the last days of Lola Montez were not nearly as pleasant as Lotta Crabtree’s. She aged rapidly, and died at age 39 suffering from tumor-like growths associated with tertiary syphilis. But she bore her suffering with some grace. Somewhere along the line she had embraced religion. She delivered moral lectures written by a close friend of Edgar Allen Poe, and worked to rescue women who were ill or had otherwise fallen on hard times. No bears, at the end, and no monkeys.