Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #2 (Lola Montez)

What is a bad girl? How does she become one? Are there any personality traits that all bad girls share? Who were the most outrageous bad girls of all time?

Everyone I tell about the Bad Girls Project throws out names I should look into.

Marilyn Monroe (too much of a victim, I decide). Lucrezia Borgia (too violent). George Sand (too neurotic). Calamity Jane (too un-sexy).

And then one day in a bookstore, I come across a name and a story that intrigue me: Lola Montez, whip-cracking virago of the 19th century.

“She has the evil eye and will bring bad luck to whoever links his destiny with hers,” the French novelist Alexandre Dumas Sr. wrote of Lola, and that feels right to me.

Here was a wanton harlot with a penchant for self-invention, a frivolous bit of fluff who was deadly serious about her limited talents and over-reaching ambition. After mad affairs with virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria as well as several ugly marriages and a mediocre dancing career on four continents, she died of syphilis in a New York poorhouse at age forty-three and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.

Like me, Lola married the wrong man and ended up running away from him, a decision that proved to be the defining moment that put her on the path toward becoming a bad girl. “Runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a smash-up,” Lola wrote. “My advice to all young girls who contemplate taking such a step is that they had better hang or drown themselves just one hour before they start.”

Lola didn’t follow her own advice, of course. Far from killing herself, she eloped for the hell of it, and when that didn’t work out she reinvented herself as a Spanish dancer. She hired a dancing-master in London, who over the course of four months taught her some steps while she perfected a phony Spanish accent. Then she spent six months in Spain, where she acquired a haughty and unsmiling “atmosphere” and invented a new name for herself. Goodbye, Eliza Gilbert. Hello, Lola Montez. Finally ready for her debut, she returned to London and booked her first theater engagement, which eventually led to other theaters in other cities and many lovers and husbands along the way, punctuated by the occasional bull-whipping or stiletto-stabbing when Lola’s mood turned foul.

As a woman who made a glorious mess of her life, Lola appeals to me enormously. From time to time, everything would fall apart and she would have to start over again in a new place with new people. I know what that’s like, things falling apart. Images of life with Jack flash through my mind: the desperate phone calls pleading with him to come home, his panic attacks late at night, the flooded basement where our wedding china sat in unopened boxes, my final decision to walk out on him one night when he was drunk and ranting.

Out of sympathy with Lola I start to ask myself, “What would Lola do?” For example, she sold her jewels once when she desperately needed the money, so I do the same and sell a diamond bracelet that Jack gave me.

She died at an early age, though, and all I want to do now is live.

By the late 1850s, Lola Montez was exhausted, ill and dispirited, and she knew her life had gone terribly wrong. She had strength for just one more adventure, and it would be a spiritual one. After spending a lifetime mocking religion and the church, Lola’s last great love was Jesus Christ. “How many, many years of my life have been sacrificed to Satan, and my own love of sin!” she wrote in a spiritual diary she kept in 1859.

On the last day of Lola’s life, January 17, 1861, an Episcopal minister sat by her side and told her again and again of Christ’s love and forgiveness. When Lola could no longer speak, he asked her to let him know by a sign whether her soul was at peace, and whether she still felt that Jesus would save her. “She fixed her eyes on mine and nodded her head affirmatively,” he wrote in a pamphlet titled The Story of a Penitent.

So finally, I have to ask myself: Was Lola Montez a bad girl? I haven’t yet defined to my satisfaction what a bad girl is, but yes, I can see it in her. I stare at the photos and try my best to love Lola, but it isn't easy. If I put my arms around her to give her a hug, I’m pretty sure she would flinch and push me away, glaring in anger and itching for a fight.

I’ve spent all this time with her, but I still don’t understand her. I don’t think Lola understood herself, either, though I do think she was the perfect bad girl for her time, and she was a champion of all women, whether they knew it or not. She had thrown aside the bonds of oppression all across Europe, worn a public face, participated in history and loved fully if not well.

After a week of obsessing over Lola, I go to sleep one night on the guest bed in my sister’s cold, cold basement and wake up suddenly, filled with a sense of dread. It’s the same feeling I had as a kid when I would have a bad dream and wake up in the middle of the night convinced there was a monster under the bed. I open my eyes, and it’s very dark, but I think I can spy a shadowy figure seated in the corner at the other end of the room.

A dark angel. She wears a voluminous skirt, I think, the sort of tight-bodiced, full-skirted crinoline gown that women of the 19th century wore. I can’t close my eyes. I lie there, my mind racing with Lola’s life, the photos of her that scare me, her anger, her passion. I’m afraid she’s going to enter my mind. A phrase from the spiritual diary Lola kept before she died turns around in my head. How did it go? I want to look it up but I’m too afraid to move.

Maybe Lola has come for me because she has recognized me as her familiar. Willful, self-pitying, grandiose me. I have no right to blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness when it was I who chose each turning of the path that brought me to the negative emptiness of my life.

Terrible and fearful…terrible and fearful…Oh, how did that phrase go? My mind is jumbled up, I know I’m not thinking right, this dark and lonely hour is not a time for positive reflection.

…What would I not give to have my terrible and fearful experiences given as an awful warning to such natures as my own! I drift…blackness.

In the morning I wake up, laughing. I have my whole life ahead of me. Lola Montez was my first bad girl, but she won’t be my last.

I send an email to Kent.

“Of course I’ll come to London,” I say. “This is an opportunity I can’t pass up.”

“Great,” Kent answers. “Let’s go. Check into plane tickets. Probably open ended, but I think you’ll need a return portion to get through immigration. Tell them you’re here to travel the country and they’ll give you a six-month tourist visa. As for the research, I think you should be historical but with a focus on fun and excitement. Welcome on board. Got to go. Love K.”

1 comment:

Vanity Cheri said...

Lola areola!

Sorry love. But that post was lovely,