Adah’s Five Aces
In the straight-laced Victorian age, actress Adah Isaacs Menken dared to marry five husbands–occasionally two at a time. She had several famous lovers and many admirers. The Naked Lady as she was known on stage became world famous–some would say notorious–and the most desired woman of the mid-19th century. She was the most photographed woman in the world at the dawn of the art. She made a fortune in the theater and gambling at cards, then threw away the money on clothes, jewelry, charity, and her salons. She died broke in run-down lodgings in Paris in her 33rd year after a life packed with adventure, love, and disappointment. Her husbands, listed in order, are as follows:
A Minstrel Show Performer
On February 6, 1855 twenty-year-old Adah married N.H. Kneass in Galveston, Texas. Nelson Kneass was known for composing the minstrel song Ben Bolt. In 1846 he was a member of the Sable Harmonists and in 1853 of Sanford’s Minstrels in Philadelphia. Adah, formerly a daredevil with a circus, began her stage career under Kneass’ guidance. Although there is no known date of divorce, cohabitation did not outlast the year.
On April 3, 1856, in Livingston, Texas, Adah married Alexander Isaac Menken, a handsome theatrical musician and conductor from a wealthy Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio. He became her theatrical manager, booking her in melodramas throughout the South. In June 1858 the couple steamed up the Mississippi River to Cincinnati, where Adah met Alex’s family. She had already begun to write poems and essays on Jewish themes for The Israelite, the weekly presided over by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of Reform Judaism. For American Jewry, Rabbi Wise was the leader of his generation. Adah, though admired by Wise, did not take to the role of a faithful wife who had to support an alcoholic husband. In July, 1859 Adah obtained a rabbinical divorce from Alex, which she supposed was legally binding. She kept his name, but Alex never forgave Adah, who headed straight for the New York stage and the arms of a macho champion.
Heavyweight Boxing Champion John C. Heenan
On September 3, 1859, Adah Menken married the strapping Irishman John Carmel Heenan, a bareknuckle prizefighter, in a brief ceremony held at a roadhouse north of the city. Adah called John “the love of my life.” He was a class act in a very brutal profession. John quickly got Adah pregnant, then sailed for England to fight the British champ. Prizefighting was illegal, but the Heenan/Sayers match attracted many notables including Charles Dickens and members of Parliament. The fight echoed the going antagonism between the U.S. and the U.K. and received enormous publicity. Naturally, the attempt to keep Adah and John’s marriage secret failed, as the press pounced on the story of actress/poet marries bruiser. In the spring of 1860, John became the first World Heavy Weight Boxing Champion.
Suddenly, Alex Menken, bitter and vengeful, wrote an open latter to the press denying he had legally divorced Adah, who he claimed was a bigamist. A front-page scandal ensued, while Adah gave birth to a boy who soon died. John Heenan, on his return to New York in August, denied he had ever married Adah. Treated as a hero, he showed off his new English mistress. By December Adah was deeply depressed, and on the edge of the new year (1861), she attempted suicide. She failed, yet it led to a rebirth. Menken divorced Adah, and she divorced Heenan in April, 1862. The tabloids of her time, sold by newsboys on busy city corners, had fattened on her sorrow. They played up Heenan’s calling Adah “the most dangerous woman in the world,” a euphemism for prostitute. But then as now, as Adah would learn, scandal sells tickets. [See The Original Superstar: Adah Isaacs Menken]
A Literary Editor Robert Henry Newell
In September,1862 Adah married Robert Henry Newell, literary editor of the influential Sunday Mercury. The prissy Newell, at twenty-five, lived at home with his overbearing mother. However, smitten by Adah, and sympathetic to her plight, he published Adah’s anguished poetry throughout her ordeal with Heenan and otherwise supported her. Along with Mark Twain, Newell, writing under the pseudonym Orpheus C. Kerr, was one of the original American comedians. The name is a pun on the term “office seeker,” and his articles and a book published during the Civil War satirized the bloated bureaucracy in the nation’s capital. Newell made cutting fun of both Union tactics and the idea of the Southern gentleman. His work was immensely popular.
Adah, grateful and admiring, married Newell on the rebound from Heenan, his exact opposite. She was already famous for playing Mazeppa, the Cossack “prince” who is stripped down to a sheer bodystocking, tied to the back of a wild stallion, and sent charging up a four-story stage mountain. The press dubbed her The Naked Lady, and from Albany to St. Louis she broke box office records. Next, Adah was planning a tour of the California Gold Coast. In this rich but rough and ready land she would need an escort, and prim but popular Newell seemed to fit the bill. After a long voyage from New York via Panama, Adah and Robert landed at San Francisco in August 1863. It was between the Union victory at Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War, and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which took place in far-off Pennsylvania.
Adah received a tumultuous reception arranged by the impresario “Big” Tom Maguire, who was paying Adah an unheard of one-third of the gate. Cub reporter Mark Twain wrote of Adah’s effect on the Gold Coast: “The whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gasjets, and shed a glory abroad over the universe as it fell.” Adah reigned over San Francisco and Virginia City, Nevada, fabulously rich from the mines, until she sailed for New York and afterward London in April 1864. She was accompanied by a handsome gambler and Confederate spy, Paul Barkley. Adah had fallen in love again with a macho daring man. Newell, on the same ship, was sent into exile, and he and Adah were legally divorced the next year. Newell led a lonely, heartbroken life thereafter, and died in New York in 1905. [See The Naked Lady Dazzles the Gold Rush West]
In October 1864 The Menken opened in Mazeppa at London’s Astley Theater and caused a sensation over her “nakedness.” She wore a sheer bodystocking, but to the mid-Victorian audience she looked bare. (Mark Twain, who called her The Great Bare, claimed he had seen in her in nothing more than a diaper.) Adah soon became the toast of London and Paris and held salons for notables such as Jenny Lind, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, Algernon Swinburne, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, and numerous dukes, princes, and at least one king. Audiences were fascinated by the Naked Lady who risked injury, even death, at each performance. Adah made a fortune and threw it away. But the shooting star’s rise and fall in the capitals of Europe are another story.
In December Adah’s lover Paul returned to New York where he became a stock market speculator. John Heenan, now a bookie (always legal in the UK), courted Adah, begging her forgiveness. She forgave but not longer loved him. In March 1866 Adah returned to New York at Paul Barkley’s urging. They were reunited and Adah played before sold-out crowds on Broadway. Against her better judgment, Adah married Paul on August 19th, and, three days later, she tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum. Only half-conscious, friends put her aboard a ship bound for Paris. There she gave birth to a son, who again died in infancy, and again The Naked Lady played before packed audiences that included Emperor Napoleon III. She had a well-publicized affair with the lively old musketeer Alexandre Dumas, and an s/m relationship with poet Algernon Swinburne. She never again attempted to marry and kept love at a distance.
Adah Isaacs Menken died in Paris on August 10, 1868. She suffered from TB but also from severe injuries received during her theatrical career. You might say the cause of death was stardom.