Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

The Elusive Lola Montez

I recently came across an article in The Union newspaper, written by former Nevada City mayor Steve Cottrell, entitled “Conflicting history: Sometimes the stories don’t match the history books.” Cottrell states “These days, storytelling versus history can usually be sorted out with an internet search or visit to the Searls Historical Library. Despite such readily available resources, however, the new owners of the National Hotel claimed during their 2020-21 renovation that Lola Montez had been a guest there. Truth is, Lola left Nevada County in the spring of 1855 to be part of a gold rush then underway in Australia, and the hotel didn’t open until the following August… There’s no indication she ever returned here, so the promotional use of Lola’s name and image, suggesting she had once been a hotel guest, is an example of storytelling, not history. But we have written about that in the past, so there’s no need to rehash Lola myths today.” In doing my research on Sierra County history, I too have found out that many of the county’s stories don’t match what is written in historical documents – and in the following case, I will also focus on Lola Montez (1821-1861), the famous dancer and actress best known for her erotic “Spider Dance” and other controversial antics.

Lola Montez does appear to have visited Downieville in 1853. A Grass Valley correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union wrote on July 20, 1853 that Lola Montez was preparing to “go to Nevada [City] and to Downieville…” Historian Bruce Seymour places her in Downieville in 1853 as well. Many famous performers graced the stage in Downieville in the 1850s, including Lotta Crabtree and Edwin Booth. Author David Yeadon wrote that Edwin Booth and Lola Montez were showered “with gold dust after each tumultuous performance” in Downieville.

As Cottrell stated, Lola Montez left for Australia in 1855. She returned to San Francisco the following year, performing at places like that city’s Metropolitan Theatre and the Forrest Theatre in Sacramento – but did she ever return to visit Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Downieville?

The October 17, 1856 edition of the Nevada Journal of Nevada City states “Lola Montez is under a two months’ engagement to perform in the principal interior towns of the State. Hope to see her this way as soon as our new Theatre is completed.” However, neither Steve Cottrell nor I have been able to find any Nevada County newspapers from that year that definitively state Lola Montez made it back to Nevada County. Now things start to get more confusing.

The Times-Picayune newspaper, all the way in New Orleans, Louisiana, of October 17, 1856 states Lola “is at her old home in Grass Valley.” However, it is possible that this claim was speculative, the writer presuming that since Lola was “home” in California, she must’ve been in Grass Valley.

Years later, Fariss and Smith’s book “An Illustrated History of Plumas, Lassen, and Sierra Counties” published in 1882, states the following occurred in Downieville in 1856: “Lola Montez, countess of Landsfelt de Heald, the wonderful spider dancer, made her appearance on the boards of the National theater, creating a profound sensation in the susceptible breasts of the population. She was greeted with crowded houses, and so strong was the impression left behind by this Teutonic beauty that her name was immortalized in the christening of a lofty peak, Mount Lola.” Historian James J. Sinnott repeated this claim in his history book about Downieville as well. However, I have not found any Sierra County newspapers from 1856 that state Lola Montez was in Downieville in that year, and the Fariss and Smith book is full of inaccuracies in general.

Another piece of text which suggests Lola Montez visited Nevada County in 1856 comes from Bruce Seymour’s biography on the actress. He states “After her Australian tour Lola Montez returned to Grass Valley in September 1856 to sell her house in Grass Valley. She ‘was scheduled to reappear at the Forrest Theatre in Sacramento on 20 September but she sent word from Grass Valley that she was ill…’” However, a footnote on this quote is not provided, making it unreliable. Many years after the sale of the house, the Daily Alta newspaper of February 21, 1886 shared the life story of Lola Montez, stating “She first appeared in Grass Valley at the old Alta Theatre in 1853, and was well so pleased with the town and its liberal people that she took up her there until the Spring of 1855. She returned the following year for a few weeks’ visit, and then sold her cottage, at the corner of Mill and Walsh streets, to S. D. Bosworth, now Postmaster at that town, and the present occupant of the cottage.

The house of Lola Montez in Grass Valley did sell in 1856 – but it doesn’t necessarily mean she was present for its sale, since in that same year, she was not present for the auction of her gold and diamond jewelry collection. Lola Montez left California soon after for good, spending her time between Europe and the state of New York, where she passed away in 1861 from the tertiary effects of syphilis.

As one can see – being a historian can be difficult! Who knows if Lola Montez was actually in Nevada and Sierra Counties in 1856?

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