Adah’s Gay Friends
On the historic date of December 18, 2010 the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed by an act of Congress. Finally, gays may serve openly in the U.S. military. In 1860, 150 years earlier, when young, aspiring actress Adah Isaacs Menken met the notorious poet Walt Whitman in New York, being gay was kept hidden from the public. Because Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was considered obscene in the typical male/female way, he was denounced by press and pulpit as “reckless and indecent.” Only one reverend suggested that Walt was guilty of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians.” In contrast, Adah had recently married the handsome, popular John Heenan, bareknuckle boxing champ, to form America’s first celebrity power couple. Heenan soon sailed for England to fight for the world heavyweight title. Little did either Walt or Adah expect that she was on the edge of a spectacular theatrical career—but not before she suffered the degradation of a front-page sex scandal.
Adah Bertha Theodore was born 1835 in New Orleans, her mother Creole– a kept woman of color. Adah’s father was Jewish, a man of means. Her half-brother and sister also bore the last names of their different Jewish fathers. Marriage between a white man and a colored woman was against the law. Adah, as she became accustomed to different stepfathers, grew to maturity in Texas: petite, pretty, dark hair, stunning violet eyes. On the frontier she learned to ride and shoot and do other “masculine” things. In 1856 in Galveston Adah met and married the musician Alex Menken, errant son of a wealthy Jewish family, and they moved to his hometown, Cincinnati. Here Adah wrote stirring poems and essays for Rabbi Wise’s Reform weekly, The Israelite. By summer, 1859, Adah had obtained a religious divorce and fled from her abusive, alcoholic husband. She kept only Alex’s name.
In New York, Adah’s marriage to John Heenan was held quietly at a roadhouse on upper Broadway. Down the avenue at Bleecker Street, Charlie Pfaff ran a raucous beer cellar frequented by Bohemians: artists, women, gays, and moochers. Adah, missing her pugilist husband, went to Pfaff’s accompanied by Robert Newell, straight-laced editor of the influential Sunday Mercury. Hopelessly in love, he published her daring poetry. There Adah met Walt, 40, sporting already graying hair and beard, eyes sparkling, casually dressed with collar and cravat loose at the neck. Walt had an eye for the “young roughs,” bus conductors like punky Peter Doyle with whom he had a long, intimate relationship. He and Adah became friends at once.
She admired “the American philosopher” as she termed Walt in a front-page piece in the Mercury. Adah’s provocative “Swimming Against the Current” extolled Whitman as being “far ahead of his contemporaries,” who failed to understand him. Heeding the divine voice he wrote for their benefit. Adah, in her appreciation of the poet, had little company. Ralph Waldo Emerson understood his work but dared not speak out. Walt was thrilled by praise from “Mrs. Heenan,” whose own verse would become nakedly confessional. Newell managed to swallow his loathing for “that coarse and uncouth creature, Walt Whitman.”
In August 1860 John Heenan, after winning the boxing match, returned to New York as a great sports hero. He also flaunted his British mistress. Despite Adah’s giving birth to their child, Heenan denounced Adah as a liar and strumpet, claiming they had never married. According to the champ, Adah was “the most dangerous woman in the world”–inspiring the title of the Fosters’ biography. To make things worse, Alex Menken, out of spite, publicly claimed he had never divorced Adah, and she was a bigamist! The two-penny newspapers, hawked by boys along city streets, pounced on the Menken/Heenan scandal, elbowing out Abe Lincoln’s election as President. Barred from work in the theater, Adah was driven to pose for semi-nude photos. Humiliated, she understood how her gay friends felt when they had to endure slights. When her infant son died, Adah, on New Year’s Eve, attempted suicide. Fortunately, she failed.
Backed by The New York Clipper, the Variety of its day, Adah Menken rose to a stardom hitherto unknown. In June 1861 Adah first appeared in the signature drama of America’s Civil War, Mazeppa, adopted from a poem by Lord Byron. She played the heroic role of Prince Mazeppa, who fought the Russian Tsar for the freedom of his people. Adah toured the nation, triumphed on Broadway, and reigned over gold rush California. Referring to her dangerous, seemingly nude act atop a supposedly wild stallion, which galloped up a four-story stage mountain, cub reporter Sam Clemens dubbed Adah “The Great Bare.” The gent who soon signed his name Mark Twain inspired the Fosters’ website of that name.
Adah, known as The Naked Lady, became the talk of Victorian London and the toast of Paris. In addition to her five successive husbands (including Newell briefly) and famous lovers such as Alexandre Dumas and possibly George Sand, Adah was courted by handsome King Charles of Württemberg (Germany). Seen everywhere together, their romance became the chatter of tout Paris. In fact, the youthful king, who had recently assumed the throne, was gay, and he was already the subject of rumors. His nervous counselors used the ballyhooed liaison between Charles and the era’s sex symbol as cover. Adah helped her friend keep his throne, and he helped her discourage the advances of lecherous Emperor Napoleon III.
In 1867, toward the end of Adah’s brief, brilliant life, she corresponded from Paris with her California friend Charles Warren Stoddard, the first openly gay American writer. Adah, sad because of “the ghosts of wasted hours and of lost loves always tugging at my heart,” reached out to the young man, who felt isolated in the wild and wooly West. “I saw her as a boy,” recalled Charles, in a later essay, “and she inspired in me an enthusiasm that found expression in some youthful verses championing her cause.” He remembered the posters in every shop window of San Francisco, showing off Adah on her “fiery steed,” and he recalled the love between woman and horse who nightly risked their lives to “thrill her breathless audience.” Stoddard, destined to write beautifully of the South Seas, was able to identify with Father Damien and The Lepers of Molokai, his best-known work.
In Paris, Adah, who had loved and lost both husbands and children, was melancholy. “I already know your soul,” she wrote to Charles. “It has met mine somewhere on the starry highway.” She knew she was a scandal to the so-called “just,” the Puritanical hypocrites who infected her world—and who abound in ours today.
Adah felt she had lived “always in bad odor with people who do not know me,” and that she had startled the world. “Alas!” she communed with Charles. Adah, who had made and thrown away a fortune, passed on in Paris in 1868, lying ill in a cheap hotel room while not far away a crowd demanded to be allowed into the theatre to see her latest show. At her side sat Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writing a farewell love poem.
Stoddard managed to live a longer, more satisfactory life, whether among the San Francisco literati, corresponding with Whitman and Herman Melville, or visiting in his beloved South Seas. We’re certain he would agree: Adah, hurrah!
by Michael and Barbara Foster
Authors of A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken–America’s Original Superstar (Globe/Pequot 2011)