Born Maria Dolores Eliza Gilbert in 1818 in Limerick, Ireland, Lola Montez adopted her Spanish persona after being instructed in Spanish language and dance in London where she made her stage debut in 1844.
By the time she reached Australian shores in 1855, she had appeared in dramas burlesques and light comedies in cities such as Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw, St Petersburg, Paris, Munich and San Francisco. It was not her theatrical triumphs, however, which heightened interest in her arrival in Australia, rather knowledge of her turbulent private life which linked her romantically to writer Alexandre Dumas, composer Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
Courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum
Victorian Arts Centre
So great was the anticipation surrounding her Sydney performances that promoters chose to auction selected tickets off to the highest bidder. Similarly, in Melbourne, the tradition of allowing ladies accompanied by a gentleman to be admitted at half price was temporarily revoked.
For her first appearance in Australia, she chose a vehicle she had commissioned herself namely Lola Montez in Bavaria, a burlesque on the subject of her much-publicised affair with King Ludwig. Although almost solely remembered for her Spider Dance which The Sydney Morning Herald described as "the most libertinish and indelicate performance that could be given on the public stage", she also appeared in comedy pieces such as Morning Call and the dramas such as Maidens Beware. While in Ballarat her repertoire was even known to run to excerpts from Antony & Cleopatra.
Although vilified in the Sydney and Melbourne press and forbidden to perform in Geelong, she found her most loyal audiences at the newly built Victoria Theatre in Ballarat. Having visited the goldfields of San Francisco prior to her arrival in Australia, Montez was able to impress miners with her knowledge of the trials and tribulations felt by the ordinary "digger". So popular were her performances that it is reputed her she was rewarded with a shower of gold nuggets from the audience.
This rapport, however, did not extend to the editor of the Ballarat Times, who was publicly whipped by Montez who felt that one of his editorials had impugned her character, or by Mrs Crosby, the wife of the theatre manager who pushed Montez to the ground in a scuffle breaking the actress' wrist!
Montez's departure from Australia proved to be equally eventful when her lover Noel Follin was lost overboard en route to San Francisco! She spent the remainder of her days lecturing about fashion and beauty while working with destitute women in New York's Magdalen Asylum. She died, age 42 in 1861.
The Spider Dance - Ballarat Star
"The characteristic and fascinating Spider Dance has been performed by Madame Lola Montez with the utmost success throughout the United States of America and before all the Crowned heads of Europe.
This dance, on which malic and envy have endeavoured to fix the stain of immorality, has been given in the other Colonies to houses crammed from floor to ceiling with rank and fashion and beauty."