One-Hundred Forty Five years ago, on January 17, 1861, Marie Gilbert passed away. It is no surprise if you don’t know of her, for she gained her fame under another name, and hers is a most interesting story. Born in Limerick in 1818, her father was in the military, and Marie and her mother dutifully accompanied him to India where he was posted. When he died in 1825, Mrs. Gilbert remarried an officer from Scotland, but young Marie was not happy. A rebellious and independent child, she was sent to Scotland to continue her education, and hopefully improve her manners at a boarding school. She later studied in Paris. In 1837, at the age of 18, Marie eloped with a dashing young officer named Capt. James, and they were married in Ireland. Ironically, her new husband was also posted to serve in India, and Marie accompanied him there, but the marriage didn’t last. During her schooling, Marie had studied drama and ballet, and she decided to try a dancing career. She took a refresher course in ballet and after a brief visit to Spain, decided to make her dancing debut in London. And what a debut it was!
On June 3, 1843, at Her Majesty’s Theater, a new performer calling herself Lola Montez – the Spanish Sensation, made her debut. It was none other than Marie Gilbert. Her beauty and her skimpy, scanty but dazzling costumes caught the eyes of the men of London more than her dancing. She was showered with flowers and applause and became the Toast of the Theater. She claimed to have been born in Seville and, though there were some who knew otherwise, they never made an issue of it. She went to Berlin and to even greater success. On a trip to Russia, she was showered with gifts by Emperor Nicholas himself; in Warsaw she got involved with politics, and was asked to leave the country; and in France, two notable individuals fought a duel over her. She was now the Toast of Europe.
In 1847, Lola Montez danced before the King of Bavaria. The old King was captivated by her beauty, and she consented to become his mistress. He had a great mansion built for her, granted her a pension, and conferred on her two Titles: Baroness of Rosenthal and Countess of Lansfield. She entertained heads of State and actually ruled over Bavaria. She was only 28 years old. However, she was still the selfish person she had always been, and her ambition and brash attitude made her many enemies who incited riots against her edicts. She was finally banished from Bavaria in 1848 and returned to London.
Perhaps due to her tarnished reputation, she did not enjoy the success she had known before. She married again and a month later was charged with bigamy; it seems she had forgotten all about Capt. James, but he hadn’t forgotten her. She fled to Spain, and by 1851 was in New York, starring in a ballet on Broadway. American audiences gave the so-called Spanish Sensation’s career a fresh start, and she packed houses in New York, Philadelphia, and California. She even married again, but as usual, it didn’t last long; as with her other marriages a love triangle evolved since they both loved her. She toured Australia, where she had the audacity to horsewhip the editor of a newspaper that printed an article reflecting on her risque character. She returned to Broadway and after several successful plays, began a lecturing tour. She headed for a while to the gold fields of California where she earned more nuggets with her sensual Spider Dance, than many of the miners did with pick and shovel. She settled there for a while, and built a beautiful and extravagant mansion; she eventually brought a young girl into her employ, and taught her all about men and the way to their wallets. That young lady was the legendary Lola Crabtree, who eventually outdid her teacher in accumulating riches. She continued to lecture on a wide range of subjects from Heroines in History, to Religion, and even to Marriage. The Lectures of Lola Montez were published in America and Europe and brought her a considerable fortune, which she spent on her wild life style, leaving herself near broke.
In 1859, she ran into an old school friend from Scotland, who berated her for the sinful waste she had made of her life. Whatever her friend said should certainly have been written down, for this spoiled, selfish, and arrogant imposter made a dramatic about face in her life style. She began to assist her old friend in caring for the poor and destitute women of the streets at the Magdalen Asylum of New York. She performed charitable works among the prostitutes of the city, even lectured them on the word of God, and came back to the Church that she spurned so many years before. She was no longer Lola Montez, the Toast of three continents, she was Marie Gilbert, the girl from Limerick when she contracted a paralyzing sickness from the destitute among whom she worked. On Jan 17, 1861, she passed away in a sanitarium in Astoria, New York, at the age of 40. She had lived a more adventurous life than women twice her age, had earned and spent larger fortunes than most men see in a lifetime, and explored the dark and shameful side of life to its depths. But perhaps in her final day, she managed to balance the scales, for she had finally found the one thing that eluded her all her life – true love.