Lola Montez and Half Moon Street

Lola Montez, the Spanish look
Portrait of Lola painted for Ludwig I of Bavaria

This day in London history: on 17 January 1861 Lola Montez, universally described as an adventuress, died. She was born in Ireland, died in New York, and was arrested for bigamy in London’s Half Moon Street.

The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner. Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.

Real residents of Half Moon Street (which was, at one time, less than respectable) included James Boswell, Fanny Burney, Henry James, William Hazlitt, and Somerset Maugham who said in 1930 that the street was “sedate and respectable”.

Branson and Aldrin with Half Moon Street sign
Buzz Aldrin and Richard Branson with a replica of the Half Moon Street sign

Richard Branson also has a connection with Half Moon Street; according to his website, “Speaking of fitting names, Virgin Galactic’s address in London was No.6 Half Moon Street…We named the road which leads up to Spaceport America Half Moon Street too.”

There were also various fictional residents of the street, including Bulldog Drummond, a gentleman adventurer; Algernon Moncreiff from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; and PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who had a flat there where he was looked after by the unflappable Jeeves. In the erotic thriller Half Moon Street, Sigourney Weaver’s character lives in Half Moon Street.

And, of course, the very real but incredible Lola Montez, of whom Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas said, “She is fatal to any man who dares to love her.”

Lola, said to be the inspiration for the song ‘What Lola Wants, Lola Gets’ (as featured in the musical Damn Yankees), was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland. She later claimed to be Spanish, adopted the name Lola Montez, and became famous for her love affairs and her dancing, which involved more enthusiasm than talent. Her most renowned dance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothes.

The black-haired, blue-eyed beauty was first married at the age of 19 when she eloped with Captain Thomas James in order to avoid the marriage, to a 60-year-old judge, which her mother had arranged. James abandoned her for another woman and later took out a judicial separation on the grounds of Lola’s adultery. She trained as a dancer in Spain, but an attempt to start a stage career in London as Lola Montez failed when she was recognized as James’s wife and hissed off the stage.

Over the course of her lifetime, Lola travelled extensively in Europe,, collecting famous and powerful lovers along the way. These lovers included Ludwig, King of Bavaria, who was dominated by the strong-willed Lola and became a strong political force. Her meddling in politics sparked off riots that eventually led to her banishment and the king’s abdication.

Another famous lover was the equally temperamental Franz Liszt; that affair is supposed to have ended when he sneaked out of the apartment as she slept and locked the door behind him. He had the foresight to pay for damages on his way out, which was just as well: when Lola awoke she was enraged and smashed everything she could. (If you prefer truth over drama, it seems that they parted amicably after a very short liaison.)

In 1849 Lola married George Heald, who was only just of age; his concerned relatives did a little research and discovered that her judicial separation prevented her (or James) from remarrying. It was in Half Moon Street that she was arrested for bigamy. The besotted Heald paid her bail and they fled the country.

Lola eventually abandoned Heald and their two sons, and began her travels in Australia and the Americas, ending her days in New York. She gave up the stage in favour of the lecture circuit, speaking on topics such as ‘Gallantry’, ‘Fashion’, and ‘Heroines and strong-minded women of history’, in which she scorned the feminist movement in favour of individual self-assertion.

Depending on who you believe, she died either unrepentant or remorseful, and either of a stroke, pneumonia, or syphilis. In any event, she was buried in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, as Mrs Eliza Gilbert, having packed a lot of living into 40 years of life (she was born on 17 February 1821 and her gravestone mistakenly put her age at 42).

There was once a Half Moon Court, demolished in 1879, and also named after a tavern, which was popular with the acting fraternity of the 16th century. Shakespeare is said to have lived there.

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