San Francisco was a young city in 1853 and rough around the edges, but its fame had already attracted a kindred spirit. Lola Montez was a dancer and actress who kept Europeans chattering about her daring dances and flamboyant life. Born in Ireland, she used a Latin stage name that suggested her intense personality. Even kings could not hold her attention for long: Bavaria’s King Ludwig I was just one of a series of famous men who had married or courted the impetuous lady. San Francisco intrigued this dancer with a yen for fast living.
After a long sea voyage, Ms. Montez arrived in San Francisco at 6:00 a.m. on a May morning to discover that five thousand miners were at the harbor to cheer her arrival. Her expectations were realized: San Francisco’s crowds of bachelors were eager to absorb as much culture as her performances would provide.
First she took a role in Richard Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal. The show ridiculed an idle aristocracy that relished misbehavior and the rumors surrounding it. Perhaps Ms. Montez saw humor in the quirks of people with a taste for “strong tea and scandal,” whose gossip she had exploited in creating her own notoriety. The play quoted traders of pungent tales:
Thus at our friends we laugh, who feel the dart;
To reach our feelings, we ourselves must smart.
Lola Montez’s next show was guaranteed to please: her version of the Spanish dance La Tarantula. Ms. Montez danced in a frenzy as she flung fake spiders to the floor and ground them under her feet. Before she left for San Diego she put on several more shows to benefit charities. At a going-away party she married her latest husband, whom she met on the voyage west.
The famous dancer liked California well enough to stay two years, but was tempted away at last by another recently-settled land, Australia.

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