Adah Menken and the Union for Reform Judaism



Michael Foster and Barbara Foster, co-authors of A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, have been invited to contact members of nearly 900 congregations of the Union for Reform Judaism in North America in order to present their powerpoint presentation/lecture on the exciting life of America’s first superstar, a Jewish woman of color, a poetess friend of Walt Whitman, Dickens, George Sand, and other notables, an early feminist, a celebrated actress and possibly a spy.

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. We are fortunate to have superb period photos of Adah, on-stage and off, by Napoleon Sarony, the Rembrandt of the Camera.

Born in antebellum New Orleans to a Creole woman of color, Adah’s father was Jewish, her stepfather Irish: She was multicultural and multilingual before the fashion. A staunch defender of the Jewish people in poetry and the press, Menken also stood up for her gay friends, including the much derided Walt Whitman. A shooting star, in her brief life Adah went through five husbands and was admired by the celebrities of her time–from Mark Twain to Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, Alexandre Dumas, and George Sand. Adah wrote the first woman’s confessional, no-holds-barred poetry, and her book of poems, Infelicia, is still in print. On-stage Adah’s sensational act as Prince Mazeppa, the freedom fighter against Tsarist tyranny, prefigured the marriage of sexuality, action, and special effects found in today’s movies and television. Moreover, much of the revolutionary activity in today’s world is prefigured by Adah Menken in her life and stage dramas.

Recently, America commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Adah Menken with her southern roots and Union sympathies is emblematic of a conflict that worries the nation to this day. The star of a drama about emancipation wildly popular from coast to coast, Adah was once arrested as a Confederate spy! Her meteoric life story has been played on-screen by actresses ranging from Ruth Roman (TV’s Bonanza) to Sophia Loren (Heller in Pink Tights) to Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes). Yet a really telling movie has yet to be made. In the meantime our biography A Dangerous Woman, our website, and especially our power point show graphically illustrate a life as fresh and compelling as today’s headlines.

Adah Menken, far ahead of her time, has led a busy afterlife. Her ghost fascinated 19th and 20th century seances. 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, Texas governor Ann Richards, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. The Fosters have published a raft of print and Net articles on Adah, ranging from a cover story in the Victorian Society’s Nineteenth Century to the popular Net site PopMatters to Harvard’s Drama Review–even The Rotarian.

To schedule a presentation, Barbara Foster can be reached by email: bellad@earthlink.net

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