I first encountered Lola Montez, “the Spanish Dancer,” at a show of 19th century daguerreotypes (early photos) at the I.C.P. two years ago. There were dozens of pictures of her. I Googled her the next day; she was an Irish girl, reared in colonial India, who ran away to Paris, reinvented herself as the exotic Lola, and became the toast of Europe for her trademark “Tarantula Dance.”
I ran into Lola Montez unexpectedly when I was in Germany. It turns out that she was the mistress of Ludwig I, the “Mad King” of Bavaria. Ludwig built the fabulous Glyptothek and Pinakothek museums in Munich, and some amazing castles in the Bavarian mountains. The most famous is Neuschwanstein, on which Walt Disney modeled Cinderella’s castle.
After an affair with the composer Franz Liszt ended violently (she shot a pistol at him; he left her by locking her in their hotel room and leaving money with the front desk for the furniture he was sure she’d destroy), she ended up at a party at the King’s palace in Munich. The King asked her if her body was a work of nature or of art. She ripped open her dress to show him.
The madness he was accused of came not only from his obsession with Lola (he made her a countess), but from his castle-building and the money he lavished on opera productions. He stepped down, under pressure, in 1848; Lola fled to America, where she found grand success lecturing on tragic literary heroines for gold miners.