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Lola Montez: A Life

A book by Professor Bruce Seymour

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Does justice to its subject: a perfect biography

  • Dec 10, 2006
Rating:
+5
The editorial blurbs give the basic facts of Lola's life, but what they cannot convey is the verve with which Bruce Seymour tells her tales. A prefatory note acknowledges the game show Jeopardy as enabling him to write the book thanks to his winnings. His four years were well spent. Seymour, therefore, is no ordinary scholar on the tenure track. As a lawyer, he brings skill in analyzing documents and developing contexts within which Lola and her conquests could act within and beyond the force of the law.

He has certainly done his research, but this book wears it lightly and elegantly. Elegance for a girl from Cork who in less globalized times of instant celebrity and social networking could pose as a Spaniard, dance her way into the wallets and beds of countless besotted swains, and then, once dumped or dumping, move on to her next conquest seemingly for decades little the worse, at least on the surface, for wear. Lightly, or so she seemed, over years of unpredictable liaisons within the turmoil of 1848 and a Europe that threatened to topple the monarchies within which Lola worked her machinations and maximized her share of the winnings.

While not the dour, earnest, or sharpish stereotype of the early feminist, nonetheless she pioneered the right of a woman to be heard and her power--in and out of the boudoir being formidable--to be taken seriously by those in quite influential positions of celebrity and/or acclaim themselves. Lola early perfected her ability to live by her quick study of her suitors, her rivals, and their relative positions vis-a-vis her own advantage. The blackberried and suited type-A CEOs finding and then shattering a glass ceiling in later years also may find that her life anticipates the troubles and the triumphs of being the first woman to successfully make into fact what Becky Sharp in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" displayed in fiction. Lola certainly does remind you of a storybook tale, in all its complications, subplots, and, well, climaxes.

This is one of my favorite books. It shows how to chart a life and from it extrapolate directions that intersect, far off, with our own condition-- as a good biography should do. Lola was one of the first mass media phenomenons. She spurred the newspapers to promote her and they were only too eager to do so. Of course, this could backfire, but she does, in her later years, appear to have thrived from no publicity is bad publicity. Yet, nearer her death, repentance did occur, and she follows again the narrative arc of so many 18 and 19c fictional protagonists.

She managed to give as good as she got. The press pumped her up and cast her aside as both would sell papers. Her notoriety, carefully cultivated, managed to ensure that for much of the 19th century's middle decades, she would remain prominent, as much so at least as the nobles and royals with whom she connived and cavorted.

Many of those enjoying via MySpace or YouTube through their Warholian fifteen minutes of fame today have Lola to thank as their unwitting predecessor. Yet Seymour neither exaggerates or diminishes her impact. His thorough research into primary and secondary sources allows him to compare what she herself wrote about her life with what happened, or as much as can be known 150 years later. This book, taking on a woman so wrapped up in whipped-up scandal and calculated brazenness, clever self-defence and bold self-aggrandizing, is a notable feat. For those in her potential audience today less hungry for today's spotlights, Lola's story, naturally, is also a cautionary tale in the personal and financial costs of so much controversy and backstabbing and maneuvering, in a time when she, as a lone woman, dared to take on the establishment with wit, intelligence, and shrewdness.

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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #51
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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Lola Montez (1820-1861) boasted of being the subject of more biographies than any other living woman. Seymour, a lawyer who credits his winnings on the Jeopardy! TV show for giving him time to research this detailed study, claims to have written the only accurate account of the woman Richard Wagner called a "demonic being." King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who threw away his kingdom for her, was only one of many men who became obsessed with Lola. Born in Ireland as Eliza Gilbert, raised in India (both her father and her stepfather were soldiers), married as a teenager to a friend of her mother, she left her husband after several love affairs and ran off to Spain, emerging as an exotic dancer named Lola. She took London, Paris and Munich by storm, charmed Lizst and became the mistress of Ludwig. The latter was so lavish in his infatuation and she?now the countess of Landsfeld?so outrageous in her behavior that the public outcry resulted in his abdication. Later, after being charged with bigamy in England, Lola came to America, where she found new fame first as a dancer, then as an actress and finally as a lecturer. Seymour is a droning writer who treats both large and small matters with the same evenhanded tone, but the details are here (seemingly all of them, right down to Ludwig's foot fetish), and it is a jim-dandy of a story. In the end, Lola found religion, devoted herself to good works and, when she died, was buried in Brooklyn. Photos.
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Details

ISBN-10: 0300063474
ISBN-13: 978-0300063479
Author: Professor Bruce Seymour
Publisher: Yale University Press

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