A Colored Girl from New Orleans
The search for the origins of the global figure who came to be known as Adah Isaacs Menken has gone on for some 150 years. It began even before her premature death in 1868. Today Jewish, African American, and Irish American sources authoritatively state that Adah was born one of them. Ironically, they are all correct. Since she was born in 1835 on the outskirts of New Orleans, let’s look there for evidence of her black heritage.
Early biographies of Adah tend to rely on her word: either publicity interviews she granted to reporters, or confidences she whispered to well-placed intimates. But Adah, who spent some of her formative years on the Texas frontier, told tall tales with the best of them. A good actress, she was ever attentive to her audience. Attempts at identifying Adah through more objective means, such as birth records, have led up a blind alley. Mark Twain quipped that figures don’t lie, but liars do figure. In America before the Civil War, census takers were unreliable political appointees who set down individuals as white, black, or mulatto according to how they perceived the shade of their skin. These officials could be bought. In New Orleans thousands of persons of color were legally free but lived under crushing social and economic disadvantages. As a result, many colored persons transfigured themselves into whites in the shadowy phenomenon known as “passing.”
In They Seek a City (1960), Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy point out that 10,000 free people of color disappeared from the New Orleans census in the decade prior to the Civil War. That was a decrease in this group’s numbers by half. Bontemps and Conroy cite Adah Menken as a famous example of one who was born colored but decided to pass for white. “Obviously,” they claimed, “she was at least a quadroon.” Although such terms are arbitrary and antiquated, this means one of Adah’s grandparents was of African descent. In the South all persons of color were treated legally as black. Among other restrictions, they could not marry whites.
The work of Bontemps and Conroy served as a basis for the statement by James Ivy, editor of the NAACP’s monthly The Crisis, that Adah was “a colored girl from New Orleans.” In a 1961 letter to Dr. Stanley Chyet, editor of American Jewish Archives, Ivy playfully recalled these lines from a Creole song about les gens de couleur libres:
All you mulatresses there
Are passing for white,
With your white men
You go to the French Opera
But they throw you out.
The Louisiana Creoles, who originated from interracial liaisons under French rule, have largely perpetuated their francophone culture up until the present. Their complexions range from pale white to tan. The women are famous for their beauty and appeal. In many of her photos, Adah looks Creole, with pale skin, dark, curly hair, violet eyes, a slightly wide nose, and a sensuous mouth. Free people of color had a standing in New Orleans and a proud history of accomplishments, but restrictions on them grew tighter leading up to the Civil War. They responded by passing.
An individual who embarked on this “invisible migration” would do her utmost to destroy her past identity. Scholar Renee Sentilles, who investigated the “high yellow” world, writes that people of color “deliberately misrepresented themselves to sustain a sense of autonomy and anonymity.” Put bluntly, at the cathedral on Jackson Square antebellum birth records had as many deliberately punched holes as player-piano rolls. Early on, Adah learned to lie about her origins and to internalize the lie.
The argument that Adah was of African American heritage was first made by John S. Kendall in a 1938 article, “The World’s Delight.” Kendall, a local historian, had written a history of the New Orleans theater. He understood the society into which a woman of color was born and Adah’s motives and conflict in concealing that birth. Kendall discovered the marriage contract dated April 3, 1856, in which a certain Ada Berthe Theodore agreed to marry Alexander Isaac Menken. After taking her husband’s name, our subject added an “s” to Isaac, which is often done by French speakers for a more graceful sound.
Kendall also verified that “the Theodore sisters” danced at the French Opera House. Kendall proceeded to search the records for a free man of color named Théodore, which he identified as Adah’s original name. By 1980 Wolf Mankowitz, a writer of Cockney origin, had found a Texas certificate from an earlier marriage in 1855, in which “Miss Adda Theodore” entered into matrimony with the minstrel player N. H. Kneass. The signature is unmistakably Adah’s. Ada Berthe Theodore is our subject’s name at birth, the name she used to begin her string of marriages, and her original stage name.
Allen Lesser believed that in his 1947 biography Enchanting Rebel he had proved that “Adah Isaacs Menken was born a true daughter of Israel.” He insisted that the family name Theodore, accented or not, was Jewish. Lesser gave much of his life to the study of Adah’s. He established the basic chronology of her appearances, publications, and husbands. Unfortunately, Lesser made the same mistake of obsessively searching for Adah’s father. But in the Hebrew tradition, and in the family reality of New Orleans Creoles, a child’s name and identity stemmed from her mother. This serves to emphasize James Ivy’s remark that assuming “Adah was a colored girl of New Orleans, many of the parts of her story which have hitherto been perplexing are inclined to fall into place.” Keeping in mind that her family unit was matriarchal, we can ask the question: What was it like to be Adah as a child?
Long ago there lived a Jewish clothing merchant who kept a shop in Newcastle Street, London, near the Strand. He employed an assistant named James McCord, a young Irishman who was handsome but poor and who hoped to better himself. In 1837 James sailed for New Orleans, which had a small but growing Irish population. He set up as keeper of a general store in Chartrain, which was in the parish (county) of New Orleans but less costly than the center of town. Later called Milneburg, the village was the terminus of the Chartrain railroad line and a resort on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Once James became established, he looked around for a wife.
The merchant cast his eye on Marie Théodore, a French-speaking widow who had been washed up on this lakeshore when her husband–if the man was her legal husband–had died of consumption (tuberculosis), leaving her with a two-year-old daughter. Adah later described her mother as “beautiful, refined and lovable.” Marie was a pious woman of “amiable character and cultivated spirit.” Because it is unclear if the name Théodore was her maiden name, or her late husband’s, we can’t be certain if Marie was born Jewish or converted because of Adah’s father.
New Orleans had a number of Théodores resident during the 1830s and ’40s. The “City That Care Forgot” may have been officially segregated but it was multicultural under the sheets. So some Théodores were listed by city directories as white, but others as “fmc”–free man (or woman) of color. Adah is definite about growing up in a family that was small and close: her mother, one sister, and one brother. In a poetic essay she wrote for The Israelite while living in Cincinnati, she described her New Orleans home as a “cottage . . . almost buried in trees and creeping vines.” Here she “first learnt the blessing of a dear mother’s love; first knew the sweet influence of an only sister’s confidence and affection; first felt the holy spell of a brother’s consolation and encouragement.” This idealized version of Adah’s family is verified by available information about her brother and sister. We also know about “Adah’s too-numerous stepfathers,” as the historian Kendall put it.
However, in Adah’s successive tales, her natural father is a dreamlike invention. He grows ever more heroic and high-toned, until in her posthumously published “Notes of My Life” he becomes Richard Irving Spenser, “a splendid specimen of manhood, strong, healthy, and handsome.” Spenser is the scion of a wealthy, slave-owning family that fought for Independence in South Carolina during the American Revolution. Adah has created the father she wished for.
This tall tale was presented by Adah in 1862 to her journalist friend Augustin Daly, in the hope he would develop it into a biography. Daly put the material aside. Afterward, when Adah’s death was in the news, he forwarded her “Notes” to The New York Times, which published them on September 6, 1868. Finally, Adah names her mother: Marie Josephine Rachel de Vere de Laliette, daughter to a French family of royal blood. Daly, already a successful playwright, included a disclaimer that he did not believe Adah’s “Notes” in a literal sense. Instead, he thought they were valuable as “an honest revelation of her own feelings.”
The “Notes,” which have a psychological validity, offer intriguing clues. The author depicts herself as “a wonderful and eccentric child,” determined to get her way but very affectionate. She describes a girl neglected by her parents but shown too much of the world by a dissolute uncle. “I wanted Love,” she proclaims. She may have experienced it too early in a physical sense.
Adah’s imagined family seems ill-fated. Her mother Marie is improbably depicted as a blue-eyed blonde twin, whose brunette sister “is drowned at seventeen in Lake Killarney [Ireland].” The family moves to New Orleans where Marie, at death’s door, is rescued by “Love, the never-failing messenger of Life,” in the person of her husband-to-be, the patrician Spenser. But, with a dose of reality, Adah’s father dies of consumption when she is two. Then she and her mother are again rescued, this time by kindly Dr. J. C. Campbell. Her stepfather sees to Adah’s education.
Throughout Adah’s life her natural father remained a figure of fantasy, and her relations with men were colored by this image. In contrast, her mother was an actual parent who taught her daughter manners, morals, and French, and without whom she could not have become a beautiful and desirable woman. Robert Roden, who had access to a collection of Adah’s private letters, wrote: “Her mother, who spent most of her life in the ‘Faubourg,’ New Orleans [the French Quarter], survived at least three husbands, one of whom was a man of low estate named McCord, and another a respectable army surgeon, named Campbell.” Adah’s love for Marie was deep, but she needed to keep her mother hidden.
Marie was a woman of color–the dark twin her daughter tried to obliterate. In Adah’s fantasies there lurks a shadowy side, which is really her other, repressed self. In antebellum New Orleans, with its widespread but concealed racial mixing, the possibility that a white mother would give birth to a black child, thus advertising her relations with a black man, or her own strain of African blood, was an unnerving fear. “In white American society, historically,” writes a black historian, “the discovery of black blood meant sudden reversal of fortune, social exclusion, or banishment.”
In Adah’s “Notes” her dissipated uncle, in whose charge she was left, married his housekeeper–euphemistically termed “a woman of low origin.” In time, “a miserable, black-looking baby became his heir.” Adah is confessing to a buried African strain in her family. Throughout her life, especially to intimates, she dropped hints of her mixed heritage. Adah told her fourth husband, Robert Newell, “I cannot, as the daughter of an octoroon, sympathize with the cause of the Confederacy.” Yet, as a woman, she did sympathize with the South, so openly that she would be arrested as a Confederate agent.
The idyllic view that Adah presented of her youth in New Orleans was laced with an inner conflict. As she matured, everyday life painfully reminded her of her position in society. In the French Quarter, she was intrigued by Choctaw squaws at the market peddling file for gumbo. Hefting a baby on their back, they casually took him down and gave him a breast to suck. She saw French-speaking bankers in cutaway coats stroll into Antoine’s for a three-hour lunch, and she watched Anglo, tobacco-chewing planters in their slouch hats bidding for human beings, sold like cattle, guarded by overseers with whip and pistol at the ready. She was fascinated by the fancy women of Gallatin Street, the light skinned Creole beauties. Supposedly free, their slavery was to be kept and traded by rich, uncaring white men. When the young dancer, on her way to the Opera House, walked along Royal Street, lined by absinthe houses, sharply dressed men called offers to her sotto voce.
But Adah was different. The most intriguing Theodore listed as living in New Orleans during Adah’s youth was a certain Mde. Theodore, who resided at the Orleans theater and gave her occupation as comedienne. The census counted her as white, and she may have been Adah’s aunt. If Adah came from a theatrical family, it would explain how at fourteen she and her younger sister appeared as dancers at the French Opera House. Here is a matriarchy of mixed blood at work–birthing, raising, and instructing the Theodore sisters. Adah never knew her natural father, and she may not have known his identity.
When the merchant James McCord set up house with the widow Marie Théodore he did not marry her. Miscegenation was illegal. No matter, they could act as if they were husband and wife and two-year-old Adah Berthe was their daughter. They had a son, who supposedly died young, and a second daughter. Unfortunately, James McCord was a poor businessman and by 1840 his general store had failed. 1842 is the date when biographers kill him off and award a new man to the still-attractive Marie. This would be Dr. Campbell, the surgeon, though Lesser nominated a lawyer named Josephs, because Adah’s younger sister performed as Annie Josephs.
Clearly, an important influence led Adah toward learning. She spoke English, French, and Spanish. She achieved the rudiments of a classical education by learning Hebrew, enough Latin to translate Horace and Catullus, and, so she claimed, sufficient Greek to translate Homer’s Iliad from its native tongue into French. Beginning in her teens in Texas, Adah showed a remarkable ability to hold her own with men of reputation and intellect. This was unusual for a female in the deep South, even from the best families. The schools available to young women were too rudimentary to account for Adah’s education. Dr. Campbell must have taken an interest and home-schooled her. Indeed, she called him “a true and loving father in all [things].”
James McCord was a defeated man, but to echo Mark Twain, reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He simply leaves no trace for a time. However, in 1849 Adah’s second stepfather, Dr. Campbell, passed away. Forced by poverty, the Theodore sisters took to the stage. Shortly thereafter the family moved to Texas, where James McCord was again reported to be the pater familias. Adah became a circus performer and earned a good living for the family. Her less than respectable youth was another secret she covered up with tales of an aristocratic pedigree.
From McCord, Adah first learned how to play cards, “the good and bad points about horses [and] the mystery of betting.” The well-meaning but debauched uncle into whose hands she falls in her “Notes” is a surrogate for her stepfather, and the exact nature of their relationship remains in the dark. In any case, Adah was an apt pupil. “Fickle, wild, and restless,” she wrote of herself in 1862, “she still clings to horses, dogs and her Southern home.” Scarlett O’Hara couldn’t have said it better.
However, Adah was not the daughter of a plantation owner but a woman of color in New Orleans, beautiful, obliging, the mistress of a succession of white men, cultured and otherwise. We will probably never learn the identity of her biological father. Fortunately, there was more to Adah than her pretentious tales, not least a destiny that would make her famous across half the world. Black, Jewish, and Irish, the budding star was all of these and more.
Book Excerpt by Michael and Barbara Foster