Imagine a crowded barroom with a few unwashed prospectors seated in front of the make-shift stage. Others stand shoulder to shoulder behind them, smoking, drinking, talking. Although the smell is stifling, the audience is used to it. The possibility of seeing a woman of great beauty has brought the men from the gold fields miles away. Now they’re growing restless as they wait for the entertainment to begin.
As the candles in the footlights are lighted a hush falls over the audience. A spotlight, created by mounting a mirror behind a bright gas light, focuses on the stage. Then the music from a small orchestra begins. Hearing a clattering of castanets and stomping feet, the seated prospectors jump from their seats, clapping and cheering. “Lola, Lola,” they chant, as the dancer whirls onto the stage. The spangles on her skirts flash in the light. Her dark hair floats out and around her exotic face, creating shadows below her high cheek bones and highlighting the dark lashes around her blue eyes. This is the long-awaited appearance of Lola Montez, Countess of Landsfeld. And the patrons consider it a performance that’s well worth the wait.
As she begins her famous Spider Dance, she twirls to the center of the stage, then pauses. Gradually she acts out being tangled in the web of a spider. As she dances, she pretends to be bewildered by the fibers that wrap around her ankles. The music slows and she discovers a spider in her top petticoat. She attempts to shake it loose, then finds other spiders. As she examines her many underskirts, shaking them to reveal even more spiders, she lifts them higher and higher. The struggle against the spiders becomes more chaotic as she dances feverishly until finally she shakes them all out on the floor and stamps them to oblivion. The audience watches entranced and when the dance ends, they give her rapturous applause, calling her to the stage again and again. Not only do they shower her with bouquets at her feet, but with gold nuggets as well.
To the side of the barroom sits a six-year old Fairy Star, awaiting her turn to dance the highland fling. Her mother, Mary Ann Crabtree, sitting next to her is fidgeting. Will Lola Montez be too tough an act for her daughter Lotta to follow? Should she have waited to introduce her daughter to the rabble of the Sierra foothills until Lola was not the star attraction?
Some twenty-five years later, on the other side of the continent, theater-goers are dressed in their finest for the first New York performance of the famous actress Lillie Langtry from England. A fan two thousand miles away, Judge Roy Bean in Langtry, Texas (a town not named for the actress but coincidentally giving the judge an excuse for worshipping Lillie from afar), adds another poster of his heroine to the walls of his saloon. He calls himself “The only Law west of the Pecos,” and he has named his saloon the Jersey Lily.
It’s stretching a point to say that all three of these women were contemporaries. Though they did all entertain in the 1800s, their ages were different. In 1858, when Lola was around thirty-three years old and perhaps at her peak of beauty and talent, Lotta Crabtree was six and Lillie was just born. Nevertheless, they had many things in common: they were entertainers who covered a lot of the Old West. All three were notorious, scandalous, and beautiful women. Knowing their road to fame lay in their good looks, they clearly used that power to their advantage. Because they were all actresses to some extent, they could invent themselves to suit any role—even any life style. Perhaps they were so successful at fooling an audience that they became adept at fooling themselves. Each of them had come from humble backgrounds, but as soon as they received the admiration they craved, and the money that went with it, they put their pasts behind them.
Pictures of the women show them as sultry and teasing with even features. Lola was a brunette, with gray-blue eyes. Lotta was a red head with eyes so dark they were described as black. Lillie had reddish blond hair and created a hair style called “the Langtry knot,” which many women tried to copy. All had slim figures with tiny waists, much admired at the time and created artificially by heavily-boned corsets.
They loved horses and rode horseback regularly, which helped them stay trim. Lillie actively worked at keeping her weight down—jogging two miles early in the day when few people, and fewer women, jogged. She couldn’t even find a gentleman admirer who would run with her. We can speculate that she probably put on men’s trousers and some kind of sweatshirt and ran in whatever city she was. Apparently few people recognized her as she ran. This habit probably began when she was the only girl in a family of seven children on the British Isle of Jersey.
Most likely it was forceful personalities that carried them to success. Each woman was bold and flirtatious and conducted herself in a manner that drew people—especially men—to her like alcoholics to whiskey. They had different abilities within their performances, but whether they were good or bad on the stage, their cleverness carried the act. Because we can’t observe them in person we have to depend on the reviews of the critics of the day and they seldom agreed with one another.
All three of the women were in the entertainment industry to make money, and money they made. They might have begun their careers as a result of personal hardship or to achieve a better lifestyle, but chances are they continued it for the love of applause and the power that accompanied success. The phrase “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” popular even today, began in Europe close to the beginning of Lola’s career and followed even after her death.
While achieving their fame, even the stage could be no more than a corner of a saloon, or a few planks laid out on sawhorses in a tent; they performed and were showered with gold. Some of them occasionally managed to spend money faster than it came in. During those times they had to be creative with their resources.
Using their enormous incomes, they regularly spent a lot on themselves, on their costumes, travels, promotion, and advertising, but they also financed pet projects on the side. They gave away money, bought lavish gifts for others, especially family members, and laid the cornerstones of modern, liberated womanhood, namely self-autonomy and independence.
These women were fortunate to live during an age when it was possible to be an independent entrepreneur. Especially in the Old West, which had its own brand of anonymity, people could create new identities whenever they needed them. They could promote their talents or their wares by themselves, do their own advertising, arranged their own tours, hire and fire members of their entourage. If they needed a place to perform, they found a stage somewhere or bought a theater. If they needed a place to live, they rented or bought a house or a hotel. Fewer laws meant fewer restrictions, and people with enough foresight and money took advantage of the available opportunities and freedom. Scam artists proliferated, snake-oil salesmen were everywhere.
The upshot was that the gullible public was fleeced, albeit willingly—especially in the small hamlets where any event out of the ordinary was welcomed.