February 17, 2021

Celebrating Love and Scandal on Lola Montez’s 200th Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

But we loved with a love that was more than love.

—Edgar Allan Poe, from “Annabel Lee”

This post-Valentine’s Day adventure was launched by a letter I found in Horace Wyndam’s The Magnificent Montez: From Courtesan to Convert (Hutchinson 1935). Written in the revolutionary year of 1848 — from King Ludwig I of Bavaria to the woman he made the Countess of Landsfeld, alias Lola Montez, who was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland, on February 17, 1821 — the letter begins:

“Oh, my Lolita! A ray of sunshine at the break of day! A stream of light in an obscured sky! Hope ever causes chords long forgotten to resound, and existence becomes once again pleasant as of yore. Such were the feelings which animated me during that night of happiness when, thanks to you alone, everything was sheer joy. Thy spirit lifted up mine out of sadness; never did an intoxication equal the one I then felt!”

After shooting the king’s translator, flash forward to mid-20th-century America and read the opening lines of The Confession of a White Widowed Male:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta …. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

I’ve been here before. Last fall I cushioned the loss of Prof. Nabokov’s former student, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with a visit to The Annotated Lolita, in which another of his former students, Alfred Appel Jr., devotes almost five pages of commentary to the novel’s opening paragraph. Appel gives special attention to Humbert’s fixation with Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” from whom neither angels nor demons can “dissever” the poet’s soul (“But we loved with a love that was more than love”). While the line “Lola in slacks” prompts a reference to Marlene Dietrich’s Lola in von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel, there’s no mention of the living, breathing Lola Montez who inspired Ludwig’s cri de coeur. The deposed monarch was writing from a villa on the Riviera while his lovely Lola was in England being denounced by the London papers as “Bavaria’s famous strumpet,” “the notorious courtesan” blamed for “the sanguinary and destructive conduct of the Munich mob.”

Love vs. Scandal

Too bad Lola’s story isn’t more compatible with the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day. Forget King Ludwig’s “ray of sunshine,” it’s not love but scandal that burnishes her legend. She once wrote to an acquaintance: “What makes men and women distinguished is their individuality; and it is for that I will conquer or die!” As her biographer notes, she chose her friends “for their disposition, not for their virtue,” one such friend being George Sand (“the possessor of the largest mind and the smallest foot in Paris”). When Vanity Fair was the rage in America, Lola was reportedly upset that Thackeray put her into it as Becky Sharp (“If he had only told the truth about me, I should not have cared, but he derived his inspiration from my enemies in England”).

A Love Supreme

Although scandal made Nabokov’s Lolita famously infamous, in the end love reigns supreme. On his way to the black comedy tour de force wherein he murders his nightmare nemesis Clare Quilty, Humbert Humbert finds his lost Lolita in the last house on Hunter Road. She’s three years older, several inches taller, married to a nice deaf fellow named Dick, and she’s “hugely pregnant.” With her “ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands,” she’s “hopelessly worn at seventeen.” Humbert, who had come with a gun in his pocket, ready to kill, writes, “I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” And so the deposed King Humbert shouts his “poor truth,” insisting that “the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita.” As he writes, Nabokov is also no doubt feeling full to the brim with love for his creation.

More About Love

What I felt reading Lolita for the first time wasn’t love so much as infatuation, a feeling not unlike Ludwig’s, with his ray of sunshine, stream of light, sheer joy, and intoxication. It happened early in the narrative when “a perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and tighten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my book for a fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee, and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb next to my chameleonic cheek.” Not put off in the least by the suggestion of self-parody, I was with Humbert all the way — when he dissolved in the sun, so did I; those slim bare arms dipped into me; it was fun and art, poetry and character, and, yes, love happening all at once, and it kept happening as the writing went gloriously, arrogantly on and on transcending itself and reaching into the reader to do with words what the girl on roller skates does to Humbert.

“No Sense of Sin”

As Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s silent film, Pandora’s Box (1928), Louise Brooks is sexy and girlish, dark and light, sinister and sweet, brilliant and naive. Her performance came to mind when I recalled my response to Nabokov’s little tartan-frocked roller-skater. What shocked audiences at the time and even when the film was revived decades later was that Louise, in her own words, played Lulu “with no sense of sin.” The blending of innocence and experience Brooks brings to Pandora’s Box is most captivating in the backstage sequence at the Revue Theatre when Lulu is capering around like a human glowworm with translucent wings, blissfully unselfconscious, clapping her hands in childish delight in one scene, turning fathers against sons and driving grown men to suicide in the next. She’s at once ephemeral and sensual, and there are moments when she seems to be the fluid essence of film come to life; you can see it in the slope of her shoulders, the spontaneity of her smile, the way stars seem to shine in her eyes.

Max’s Lola

Louise Brooks begins her essay about making Pandora’s Box (“Pabst and Lulu”) with a quote from the prologue of Frank Wedekind’s play: “Out of a circus tent steps the Animal Trainer, carrying in his left hand a whip and in his right hand a loaded revolver. ‘Walk in,’ he says to the audience, ‘walk into my menagerie.’” Brooks suggests that the finest job of casting Pabst ever did was to cast himself as the animal-trainer/director of his film adaptation of Wedekind’s “tragedy of monsters.” 

In the visually dazzling, multi-leveled, 33-ring circus of Max Ophuls’s Lola Montès (1955), Peter Ustinov is the ringmaster/animal trainer cracking the whip as he puts Martine Carol’s Lola through her paces. Ophuls’s Lulu is inspired by the real-life original, the same “Lolita” who lifted King Ludwig’s “spirit” out of sadness. But it was the living Lola, the Irish lass Eliza born 200 years ago today, who cracked the whip, smoked like a chimney, and, as described in The Magnificent Montez, raised her skirts so high while performing her signature Spider Dance that the audience at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne “could see she wore no underclothing at all.” After reading a bad review of her performance in another town, she reportedly attacked the editor of the newspaper with a whip. Given her issues with Thackeray’s travesty of her as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, the author was lucky to have been spared a horsewhipping.

Poetry in Motion

Like lots of other moviegoers, I was alerted to Lola Montès by critic Andrew Sarris’s claim that in his “unhumble opinion” it was “the greatest film of all time.” The saving grace of so grandiosely definitive a statement is that it leaves you little choice but to see for yourself, or, as Gary Giddins observes in “Loving Lola,” his essay for the Criterion edition, it “forced everyone” to see the film, “if only to lambaste Sarris, guaranteeing him a place among cinema’s true gallants.” As always, Giddins goes straight to the heart of the matter, that Lola Montès “is a film infatuated with motion” with a heroine who “is often a study in motion denied.” In fact, Ophuls’s Lola “is far removed from history’s spitfire dervish.” Where others saw Martine Carol’s relatively static Lola as a flaw, Giddins sees it as a “blessing” that allows Ophuls to objectify her “in a way that would not have been possible with a more expressive actor,” this being a film “that is often intent on keeping its emotional distance.”

After imagining several more commanding alternatives to Carol, from Gina Lollobrigida to Ingrid Bergman, Giddins backs up Ophuls: “With Carol, he presents Lola as a prisoner of sex, and draws a cinematic line — a tracking shot, of course — between the waxen object of our curiosity and her unknowable interior life.” 

Even so, I can’t help picturing Louise Brooks in her radiant prime lighting up the screen in the poetry-in-motion cinema of Max Ophuls. And I find I can’t stop looking at the portrait of Lola shown here, painted for King Ludwig by Joseph Karl Stieler in 1847, when Ludwig’s Lolita was 26. Look at her, look, and look again, and you may forgive Ludwig’s “ray of sunshine at break of day” rhapsodies and all the rest of the imagery he and Nabokov and Poe and Ophuls created for the sake of loving with a love that was more than love.