A Dangerous Woman: The Book Venue

A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaccs Menken (1835 – 1868) – America’s Original Superstar (Lyons Press, 2/2011).

“Adah Isaacs Menken was as American as ambition, as human as sex, as transcendent as love.” America’s first international superstar, actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-68) was a woman whose life crossed paths with the most famous men and women of the Victorian Age. The first in the line of Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe, she scandalized audiences in New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris with her provocative performances; entertained a country ripped apart by Civil War; and influenced the lives of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Sarah Bernhardt, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. – From the back cover of the book

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. She eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”

~ Arthur Conan Doyle on Irene Adler, his character based on Menken

Menken was the most prominent actress in Civil War America, an active participant in the struggle, and a pivotal figure in the history of entertainment. Onstage, her signature role was Prince Mazeppa, the freedom fighter based on a poem by Lord Byron. She combined sex, brains and daring. Using newly invented photography and the new daily newspapers, she promoted her performances boldly, and permitted her personal life to become the talk of the town.

This daredevil performer became known as the “Naked Lady,” although she wore a flesh-colored bodystocking and a brief that Mark Twain compared to a diaper. Adah became the most highly paid actor of the time–a hit in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris. Born in New Orleans to a woman of color, her father Jewish, her stepfather Irish, she was multicultural before the fashion. Menken became a protege of Rabbi Wise, founder of Reform Judaism, and she wrote powerful essays and poetry in defense of the Jewish people. A defender and disciple of Walt Whitman, Adah composed confessional, no-holds-barred poetry which prefigured Sylvia Plath’s. Adah’s collection, Infelicia, was published after her death and remains in print to this day.

Menken married and divorced five husbands, including the world heavyweight boxing champion, a leading humorist, and a Rhett Butler-style gambler. Adah was friend or lover to the outstanding men of her age: Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Dante Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne. She was close to George Sand, and equally adept at cross-dressing. At the height of her fame, at thirty-three, this superstar mysteriously died. At her bedside, the poet Longfellow composed a farewell love song.
Menken originated theatrical and film action married to sexuality, prefiguring much of the content of today’s movies and television. She foreshadowed the 20th century superstars Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana.

Her life is a classic tale of a meteoric rise and fall, as fresh and compelling as a tabloid shocker today. She has intrigued literary, theater, and film greats, such as Bret Harte, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jerome Kern, Billy Rose, Stella Adler, George Cukor, David O. Selznick, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and film star Michael York. She is totally NOW, a figure whose desires resonate with a modern audience.

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