She was born in Grange, County Sligo, Ireland and like many other aspects of her life, discrepant reports of her birth have been published. The statement that she was born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818 (published by the Encyclopedia Britannica among others) is false.
In 1823 the Gilberts moved to India. Shortly after arrival her father died of cholera. Her mother remarried the following year and sent Eliza back to the British Isles to live with relatives of her stepfather.
In 1837 sixteen-year-old Eliza eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James. The couple separated five years later and Eliza became a dancer under a stage name. Her London debut as "Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer" in June 1843 was disrupted when she was recognized as Mrs. James. The resulting notoriety did not hurt her career and she quickly became famous both for her self-created "Tarantula Dance", and the expression "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."
In 1846, she traveled to Munich, where she was discovered by - and quickly became the mistress of - Ludwig I of Bavaria. Ludwig made her Countess of Landsfeld on his next birthday, August 25, 1847. The following year, the Bavarians revolted, Ludwig abdicated, and Lola fled Bavaria for the United States.
From 1851 to 1853 she performed as a dancer and actress in the eastern United States, then moved to San Francisco in May 1853. There she married Patrick Hull in July and moved to Grass Valley, California, in August.
After a tour of Australia, she moved to New York. On June 30, 1860, she suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed for some time. In mid-December she had recovered enough to walk with a slight limp and went out for a stroll in the cold weather. She contracted pneumonia, lingering for nearly a month before dying one month short of forteith birthday.