Lola Montez in Bavaria

Lola — middle row on right

At Nymphenburg Palace, whom should I run into but that famous adventuress on three continents, Lola Montez.

Lola is featured among 36 other beautiful women in the “Gallery of Beauties,” a collection of portraits commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. These were noble and middle-class women of Munich whose beauty King Ludwig admired. A few, like Lola, were his mistresses, but most were simply the beauties of his day, and some were his relatives.

And how did Lola, famous in California history, come to be in this exalted company? Ah, what a story Lola could tell!

She was born Eliza Gilbert to Anglo-Irish parents in Ireland in 1821. (She would give her birth year as 1818 but the discovery of her baptismal certificate has disproved that date.)

Her father was posted to India soon after her birth and died of cholera shortly after arriving there. Her mother remarried and Eliza lived in India until sent off to school in England at the age of ten. She was already developing a reputation for willfulness and a short temper.

In 1837 she eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James and returned with him to India. After five years the marriage failed and she returned to England, where she went on the stage as “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer.” Nothing like an exotic persona to attract notice.

Soon she was dancing across Europe, attracting the gaze of famous and wealthy men. She reached the pinnacle of her European career in Munich when she caught the eye of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. (Not to be confused with “Mad” King Ludwig II, his grandson, builder of Neuschwanstein.)

Portrait of Lola Montez by Joseph Karl Stieler

Lola captivated the sixty-year-old king, who showered her with gifts, including the title of Countess of Landfeld. She hoped to become a Bavarian citizen, become a landed noble, and take a permanent position as the king’s courtesan. For over a year she wielded considerable political influence over the king, but her arrogance and hot temper alienated both the king’s council and the people of Bavaria.

1848 was an unlucky year for Lola. Her personal story coincided with the Revolutions of 1848 that swept across Europe, as students and workers revolted against monarchies and authoritarianism, and in favor of democracy, nationalism, and demands for greater freedom. In Bavaria, King Ludwig was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Maximilian, and Lola fled to America.

But Lola knew the strengths of her talents and charms. She would have little trouble reinventing herself in America.

Next time: Lola Comes to California

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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