February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
A curious example of the way the metropolis could lose its head over a visiting celebrity before the day of modern press-agentry
Near the end of 1851, New York was waiting rather breathlessly to see Lola Montez, and although the town was very eager it was not at all sure just what it was going to see.
Technically, Lola Montez was a dancer who had been cutting a very wide swath in Europe. It may be that she was not a very good dancer—opinions seemed to differ—but in one way or another she was clearly quite a person. She was the particular girl friend of Ludwig I of Bavaria; she had also, according to report, been the girl friend of many others, including Liszt, Dumas, Hugo, Lamartine and lesser mortals. Politically she was a freethinker, and she was supposed to have some sort of responsibility for the wave of revolution that had swept Europe in 1848. In what may have passed for her private life she was the Countess of Landsfeld, a champion of popular rights, coming to America in search of the profits that might come from a stage appearance.
Sailing on the same ship was the famous Hungarian revolutionist, Louis Kossuth, for whom the city was preparing a gala welcome; and the revolutionist and the dancer eyed one another dubiously, each suspecting that the other would steal the headlines.
On the morning of December 6, 1851, Lola was not displeased when, on stepping down the gangplank, she was hemmed in by newspapermen besieging her to grant an interview.
New York ship reporters were not to be awed by visiting celebrities, particularly when they were actresses. The newsmen were a little apprehensive, however, as they approached Lola Montez, for they had often heard of her violent and flaring temper and of her reputation for horsewhipping.
But, to their surprise, the journalists found that the foreign visitor was slim and lithe, modishly dressed, vivacious and gracious, with a hushed, caressing voice. Above all, she was strikingly beautiful, her outstanding feature being her enormous deep-blue eyes—generally described by reporters, who thought she was Spanish, as black. And, after they had talked to her for a few minutes, they found her so lovely and lively, so much more French appearing than Spanish, that they dubbed her Lo-la-la.
Lola told the newspapermen that many unjust and profane comments had been made about her. She feared she might not be fairly received in New York, and she hoped the city’s discriminating public would judge her after seeing her dance, not before. She intended to make her name in America on her individual merits as a première danseuse .
Lola then announced to the scribbling newsmen that she was ready for questions.
Was it true the Countess always carried a revolver in her reticule? That she horsewhipped men on the slightest provocation? That she always carried with her a chest of gold and jewels?
The answer to each question, Lola replied with a soft laugh, was “No.”
Where and when would the Countess appear as a dancer, and did she know Phineas T. Barnum had vowed he would ruin her performance if, as he suspected, she had scorned him as manager?
Lola said that the name of the theatre and the time of her debut would be announced later, and the reporters knew this meant after the furor over Kossuth had subsided. It was true she had turned down Barnum as her manager because she refused to cater to his vulgar tastes: he was a circus man who made a mummery out of what should be the dignified presentation of an artist. Edward Willis was her agent, and Mr. E. A. Marshall was not behind him as manager, as was being rumored. And someone named Roux, whoever he was, was emphatically not her agent or manager, as the uninformed American press apparently believed him to be. She had never met the man.
The reporters were curious about the background of the Countess and the questions came in a flood. There were conflicting rumors about her birthplace: was it India, Turkey, Switzerland, Cuba, Munich, Spain or Scotland? Who were her parents?
Lola replied in rolling phrases:
“My fatherland is Spain—I am 27 years old, being born in Seville, the capital of Andalusia, the land of serenades and balconies, of troubadors and romances—the fatherland of Miguel de Cervantes, of Las Casas, of the Roman Emperors Trajan and Theodosius. I spent my early years in a convent in Madrid, and I am the direct descendant of the famed Spanish toreador, Francisco Montes.”
(Lola Montez had many admirable qualities but, unfortunately, her memory was not of the best. She was not born in Seville, but in Limerick County, Ireland, of Irish and English parents. She was not 27 but, parenthetically, in slicing only six years from her age Lola was showing the greatest restraint, for an actress. She did not spend her early years in a convent in Madrid. She was raised a Protestant and her early life was spent in England and in India. She was not the direct descendant of Montes.)
Was there anything to the rumor, a reporter asked cautiously, that she had been, ahh, well, intimate with King Ludwig of Bavaria?
Lola said she was not offended, for she had expected such a preposterous question. The rumor was just that—a rumor. She had merely been the political adviser of the King.
How old was the Countess when she first served as “political adviser” to Ludwig?
Lola admitted that, as political advisers went, she indeed had been precocious. She had been in her early twenties.
How old was Ludwig when she met him?
Lola said she met the Bavarian ruler in 1846, when she was performing as a prima ballerina in Munich. The King had been sixty years old at the time.
There were reports, a journalist said carefully, that the Countess had been married more than once, and indeed there was a vile rumor from England that she was a bigamist.
Lola replied that she would marry tomorrow, if only she met the perfect man. She then reminded her audience that she was tiring from the long session, and that she hoped she would be pardoned if she could go to her hotel suite to recover from the effects of the stormy ocean trip.
The reporters seemed to consider this gambit as being evasive. One of them asked her point-blank if she ever had been married.
Flanked by Willis, her maid and her secretary as she walked to a carriage, Lola smiled bewitchingly at the newspapermen and said: “The answer is no.”
(Alas, here again Lola’s memory failed her. In 1834, at the age of sixteen, she had married a British Army officer, Captain Thomas James. When he deserted her, she returned to London with a fellow officer of her husband, and the two lived together as man and wife. Later, after discarding the man, and after various adventures in Paris, Moscow, Warsaw and Munich, she had married again—without the irksome formality of securing a divorce. Lola’s second husband had been Lieutenant George Trafford Heald.)
“She certainly is an extraordinary woman,” the Herald remarked the day after Lola’s arrival, “and, as she is an ambitious one also, we may expect ‘something wonderful’ from her in the course of time. No doubt she will create a furore of her own as well as Kossuth, whose rival she is for popularity.”
The Tribune differed. “This woman,” Horace Greeley coldly wrote, “who has obtained an unenviable notoriety throughout the world on account of her romantic disposition and singular conduct, arrived yesterday…”
All papers, however, acknowledged Lola Montez’ overpowering beauty—but what about her morals? Scant attention was paid to the laws of libel a century ago, and so there began to appear in print the assertions that the actress was a lorette , meaning a gay woman, a “cast-off mistress” and an “Aspasian rake,” the latter being an involuntary encomium to her literacy, learning and looks.
That was not all. There was a printed accusation that prior to leaving Paris the Countess had participated in a mass orgy attended by some fifty debauchees, who first had deposited in her bank account the equivalent of ten thousand American dollars.
Lo-la-la was scandalized and issued an indignant manifesto. “If I was a woman of that description which I am represented, would I be compelled to go on the stage to earn a livelihood?” she asked, and it was generally agreed she had scored with the question. Lola admitted that an improper proposition had been forwarded to her by certain dissolutes in Paris who were prepared to raise a large sum to see her dance in the nude, but she declared she had not even considered such an abominable suggestion.
“Lola, it seems, resents highly any imputation upon her good name,” jeered Harper’s Monthly . “Her indignation is adroit…”
The troubles of the Countess multiplied further after the arrival of Monsieur Roux on the steamship America . The Frenchman formed an alliance with Phineas T. Barnum, the Yankee. Barnum, outraged once it was clear Lola had disdained him as manager, issued affidavits against her and announced he would ruin her debut, but Roux was a formidable enemy, too. He announced he would sue the Countess for breach of contract and have her funds impounded by court order pending a decision.
“Talk of French gallantry!” the Herald bellowed. “There is more gallantry in the United States than in all the nations of Europe put together, where a persecuted, innocent woman is concerned.” But, as Roux was virtually living in the lobby of the New York hotel in hopes of serving Lola with a summons, she was forced to change quarters at four o’clock in the morning. Mr. Monnet, proprietor of the hotel, told the sheriff that the lady had taken a private residence somewhere in White Street.
No sooner had Lo-la-la moved to White Street when, in a pique because the landlady objected to the steady stream of gentlemen visitors at late hours, she once again moved on. “The darling Countess of Landsfeld occupies a private palace, beautiful with blue and gold furniture, in Waverly Place,” noted a newspaper. The owner of the White Street house promptly sued to collect three months’ advance rent due because of a signed lease. At the same time, papers were served on Lola by Roux. His lawyers, Howe and Treadwell, published the contract the Countess had signed with Roux in Paris on August 26, 1851.
Nor was this the end of Lola’s threatened entanglements in court. In a flare-up against her agent, Edward Willis, the actress discharged the man, and he declared he would sue. “His accounts did not satisfy the noble Countess,” a newspaper explained, “and she, with the assistance of a generous fire-eater from the South, dismissed him with ‘one fell swoop.’ It is expected to come before the police—if so, it will disclose something rich, respecting the Home Journal , Willis and the great Barnum.”
The Home Journal , edited by Willis’ older and more famous brother Nat, now began to attack Lola Montez, insinuating her morals were considerably on the shady side. Meanwhile, young Willis revealed that for some inexplicable reason the Countess had held him responsible for booking passage on the same boat with Kossuth, and for the exile’s overshadowing popularity in the United States.
Lola retorted that not for a single day had Willis been hired as her agent. Quite to the contrary. The fellow had been broke in Paris, she had given him some money, and then he had presumptuously attempted to “advise” her! Lola announced she had appointed as her real agent the mentioned “fire-eater from the South,” who turned out to be the Reverend Joseph A. Scoville. Many New Yorkers were startled at the spectacle of Lola Montez, with her lurid reputation, employing a Man of God as her agent, but their apprehensions were allayed when it was revealed that Scoville, a former private secretary to the late John C. Calhoun and the one-time editor of the New York Picayune , had deserted the cloth for the bottle.
As was usually the case in the 1850’s, nothing came of all these lawsuits, and the publicity, while in a sense disagreeable, could not have been unwelcome to an actress about to make her debut in a foreign land. Publicity came to Lola from other sources, too. Newspapers recorded the exploit of two lads from New Haven, who scaled the walls of their college at midnight, took the railroad train to New York, sought out and talked to the titled lady and later told their Yale classmates they had been “fascinated.” And many gentlemen of New York clamored for an introduction to Lola, but, though they serenaded her at her Waverly Place apartment and though she appeared on the wrought-iron balcony to acknowledge their gallantry, she did not invite them in.
It must have been extremely pleasing to an actress to see the innumerable mezzotints of herself on sale in various New York stores and to know that the engravings sold well. The most popular reproduction was A Belle of the Boulevards , showing Lola in Paris garbed in a riding habit, her eyes flashing, crop in hand, wearing chamois gauntlets, her piquant face topped by a flaring black hat and a rakish white plume.
The Herald ran a series of long articles. “Three Evenings with Lola Montez.” This was the idyllic story of Lola acting as hostess in her Paris salon, of her many highly-placed visitors and friends, and of her brilliance as a conversationalist. Herald devotees found the series rather dull. The newspaper pointed out that “Lola Montez is somewhat smarter, wittier, fairer, taller and younger than Jenny Lind, though not near so pious or saintlike in temper or demeanor.” It was regarded as a sober compliment that Parisian connoisseurs of loveliness believed she possessed “the most beautiful mice teeth that were ever seen in a woman.” Mice teeth at the time were considered the nonpareil of molar excellence.
Then, suddenly, Lola not only shunned publicity but lived as retired and secluded as possible, virtually going into hiding and refusing to permit dignitaries or anyone else to be presented to her. This was done on the advice of Scoville and others interested financially in her career, and for two reasons: the attention being given Kossuth tended to obscure a rival celebrity, and a whispering campaign that was being carried on against the Countess.
The space devoted to Kossuth in the papers began to crowd out all other news, even pushing into the background stories of the tension between the North and South. Thousands upon thousands of people bought and wore “Kossuth hats,” cheered themselves hoarse for their hero as they tagged on his heels. A million frenzied New Yorkers saw his triumphal parade through the city, and the speeches at his innumerable banquets were reported in detail. It was impossible to compete with the man in print.
As to the whispers, they concerned the widespread belief that Lola was wallowing nightly in alcoholic orgies in the company of her admirers. It was believed her roomy bed in Waverly Place, canopied with purple and gold, with naked nymphs significantly adorning the four bedposts, held comfortably three people, with Lola always in the middle.
To combat such rumors, it was officially announced by Scoville that, contrary to base hearsay, the Countess never, never , met a gentleman alone—there was always a dueña present. It was also stated that Lo-la-la rarely indulged in the use of alcoholic beverages. Whatever the truth of the first assertion, the evidence tends to show that Lola seldom drank liquor; but perhaps what was worse for her reputation, she did smoke cigarettes, and sometimes in public. A reporter informed his awed readers that she consumed 500 of the weeds per day (which would mean a cigarette every two minutes during a sixteen-hour day), and another observer thought that, exquisite though the lady might be, smoking had made “inroads on her beauty.”
The Herald knew the reason for what it called Lola’s “laying low,” and it prophesied, three weeks after her arrival in the United States, that the lady soon would announce her forthcoming debut. The newspaper confided: “Lola Montez, lacking only the sanctification of the Church and a pair of wings to make her a complete angel—Lola Montez—the brighteyed, the piquant, witty, handsome, and sparkling Lola—will, with the departure of Kossuth, come out, like the moon emerging from a total eclipse in a clear sky, and the more brilliant from the late obscuration.”
The prediction was faultless. Thomas Barry, stage manager of the Broadway Theatre, proudly proclaimed that “the great female Republican” had reserved a box to see the playhouse’s drama, Ingomar, the Barbarian , and the unmistakable conclusion was that Lola had selected the Broadway to make her debut and E. A. Marshall as the manager of her American tour.
A few days later, the Christmas Day of New Yorkers was brightened by the tidings that the enchanting Lola-la would play a limited engagement at the Broadway Theatre starting December 29, and that, on the 27th, there would be a public auction of seats for the debut. Lola’s first appearance in the Americas would be as star in an original ballet written specially for her, Betley, the Tyrolean , with the well-known Signor Neri and the capable George Washington Smith in supporting roles.
The ticket sale was held at 10 A.M. Saturday in the parquet of the theatre, and after two hours and fifteen minutes the house was completely sold out.
Private boxes for the debut brought four times the ordinary price at $24, while other seats in the house averaged three times the regular admission. Most buyers were unwilling to announce their names, for, as a journalist recorded: “Numerous families of Smiths and Jones were present in full force.” Mr. Jollie, owner of a large music store, bought a large block of tickets for speculation, and he later said he had made a fifty per cent profit on the transaction.
Lola Montez’s debut was attended by 3,000 spectators, of whom only thirty were ladies. When the ballet ended, the playgoers seemed satisfied, for they had cheered themselves hoarse, and yet, paradoxically, they were disgruntled too, for Betley lasted but forty minutes with the actress offstage much of the time. Lola’s daring costumes titillated the patrons’ imaginations, but they were disappointed because she had not danced her sinful Tarantelle.
“As a danseuse , she is decidedly inferior to Cerrito, Madame Augusta, and others,” the Herald declared the next day, “but there is a nameless grace of nature about her person and movements, which, with her history, gives her an attraction that a better artist could not command, but which is not destined to be very lasting.” This pronouncement was often to be echoed by other American reviewers.
Balletomanes of a century ago, who had seen such supreme masters of the art as Taglioni, Dumilâtre, Ciocca and Elssler, were not to be fooled. They were enchanted with Lola Montez the personality, but after seeing her dance they knew she had not spent the required years in study and practice.
Years before in Munich, when Lola had captured the adoration of a king, not by her dancing ability but by more earthy qualities, Charles G. Rosenberg, the critic, was asked what he thought of her talent. “Good!” he replied. “But not good enough.” And now, here in America, that again was the consensus.