Did Lola Montez ever stay at the National Hotel or enjoy a champagne cocktail at the hotel bar? No. By the time the National Exchange Hotel opened for business in 1856, Lola was on tour in Australia and never returned to Nevada County.
Did Ms. Montez ever perform at the Nevada Theatre? Yes and No. (Kind of a trick question.) Although Lola died in 1861, four years before the present-day Nevada Theatre opened, she did perform at an earlier version of a Nevada Theatre at an entirely different location in town.
Lola Montez is one of the most famous figures of the Gold Rush –– man or woman–– although her time here in Nevada County was less than two years – August 1853 to May 1855.
Born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland, on February 17, 1821, she had hoped to succeed as a singer. Unfortunately, she failed to arouse much interest from audiences, so she moved to Spain and spent two years learning the language and the country’s popular dances.
Emerging from her lessons, she traveled to London in 1843, billing herself as “Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer” –– claiming her father had been a Spanish nobleman and her mother a mix of Irish and Portuguese blood. Truth be told, her father, Edward Gilbert, had been an officer in the British Army and her mother, Elizabeth Oliver, was the daughter of a former County Cork politician.
For the next two years, Lola performed to mainly poor reviews, although her signature piece –– the Spider Dance –– drew attention. As she danced, she would seductively lift her dress to knee height and pull a cloth-and-cork spider from her petticoat. Then she would ruffle through more petticoats, plucking off additional artificial spiders in a tantalizing frenzy.
Most men enjoyed the provocative routine; many women thought it was scandalous.
She called herself Dona Marie Delores de y Montez –– shorted to Lola Montez. And after a tour of Germany in 1845 and getting personally involved with Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, she was proclaimed Countess of Landsfeld. By 1852 and her relationship with King Ludwig having ended, she sailed for New York City then toured much of the East. A year later, she set sail for San Francisco, meeting her new love –– newspaper publisher Patrick Purdy Hull –– on the voyage from Nicaragua to California.
Hull and Montez arrived in San Francisco in May 1853, married at Mission Dolores in July, and moved to Grass Valley in August after Hull sold his San Francisco Whig newspaper.
As reported in the Daily Alta that summer, “Mr. Hull was a fellow-passenger with the fascinating Countess on her trip to California; and the acquaintance then formed fast ripened into an attachment which terminated fatally to his bachelorhood.”
For Lola, it was her third marriage.
Unfortunately, wedded bliss lasted only four months, at which point Lola booted Hull out of the Mill Street house and he returned to newspapering in San Francisco. Then, in November 1857, the 33-year-old publisher was struck down by a sudden, unexplained paralysis and died the following spring.
In early 1854 with Hull out of the picture, Lola began a flirtatious friendship with Empire Mine co-owner John Southwick. She constantly dodged his pleas for sexual intimacy, but Southwick never quit trying to win her favor. In July 1854, he escorted Lola and others on a camping trip to Donner Summit that led to two lakes being named in her honor, as well as Mt. Lola –– at 9,147 feet, the highest point in Nevada County.
In 1855, however, when Lola left Grass Valley and sailed for Australia, Southwick became extremely distraught and was eventually committed to the California Insane Asylum at Stockton. Little is known of Southwick’s life following his release from the Stockton facility, but he apparently left California and never returned.
Nor did Lola Montez, the Countess of Landsfeld, who died in New York City on January 17, 1861 –– a month shy of her 40th birthday.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Photo:
Lola Montez, (1821-1861), lived in Grass Valley from 1853-1855 and was known for her seductive personality and provocative dancing.