Defender of the Jewish People
Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868) the original Jewish American superstar, the beautiful sensation of the Victorian era, revolutionized a woman’s role on stage and in private life. Adah’s heartfelt cause was the plight of the Jewish people under hostile regimes, and their eventual return to a homeland. Daring as performer and poet, her verse reveals, in the words of Allen Lesser, a pioneer biographer, “an untamableness of spirit, a messianic zeal, and a yearning for sublimity that is unmistakably Hebrew.” During the Civil War, Adah was the soldiers’ pin-up for North and South. Petite, dark-haired, and curvy even when dressed in men’s evening clothes, she blurred the distinction between fame and notoriety.
Adah sang, danced, mimed and gained global fame by her daredevil role in Mazeppa, a hugely popular melodrama adapted from Lord Byron’s poem. She played a heroic prince who leads Ukrainian troops against the Russian Czar, fighting for independence.
Adah was born in Milneburg, Louisiana (a suburb of New Orleans) in the summer of 1835 while Haley’s Comet shone in the night sky. Biographers have argued she was exclusively either of Jewish, Irish, or African-American descent. Although they have combed birth records as filled with holes as Swiss cheese, they have failed to identify her father. However, in the Jewish tradition, the child’s mother is the key to her lineage. She was born Adah Bertha to Marie Théodore, a French-speaking woman of color who professed the Jewish faith. Marie is described by her daughter as a woman of “amiable character and cultivated spirit.” As Adah admitted to her fourth husband, author Robert Newell, her mother came from antebellum New Orleans’ “third caste”–light-skinned and free, a so-called octoroon. That Marie was kept by a series of white “husbands” explains Adah’s tall tales about a mysterious, aristocratic father.
Adah kept secret her racial origins but celebrated her Jewish religion. In 1855 in Galveston, Texas, she met and married Alexander Isaac Menken, the tall, handsome conductor of a theater orchestra. Alex came from a prominent German-Jewish family settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a time the young couple lived in New Orleans, where Adah performed successfully in local theaters. The financial panic of 1857 caused the pair to steam up the Mississippi River to take shelter with the Menken clan. In Cincinnati Adah became a disciple of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of Reform Judaism.
Wise, born in Bohemia in 1819, the year of a massive pogrom, believed the Jewish future was to live in a secular country of equals and to adapt institutions and ritual to the modern world. He tirelessly fought discrimination and to unite American Jews into a national union. Wise introduced mixed and equal seating for men and women in his temple. He fraternized with his congregation, and Adah became the leading light of a group that frequented the office of the weekly Israelite. According to Leo, Rabbi Wise’s son, “Several of her poems were included in the ‘Minhag of America’ hymn book,” Wise’s reformed ritual. Adah’s style remained conventional, but her message cried out for justice for the Jewish people.
Adah’s strong, messianic poetry, published in the Israelite, so impressed Baron Lionel de Rothschild that he called her, “the inspired Deborah of her people”–after the Old Testament female warrior. In “Shylock,” an essay, Adah protested against the stereotypical portraits of Jews in drama. She attacked playwrights, even Shakespeare, for their willingness to pander to the crowd. She pointed out that in the Italian original of The Merchant of Venice, “Shylock is a Christian and the victim a Jew.” Adah looked forward to a brighter artistic future. She herself would instigate sensational changes in the theater, breaking the taboo on celebrating a woman’s body on stage.
Adah appeared in local theaters, while husband Alex, her manager, drank heavily and physically abused her. She attempted to reconcile with him, publishing “A Wife’s Prayer,” in which she promised to be “humble and obedient, useful and observant.” Adah had a talent for deluding herself, but a few months later–July, 1859, Adah left Alex and fled towards fame.
New York on the edge of the Civil War was a bustling, contentious place. Adah Menken found friends in Augustin Daly, the successful writer and producer of melodramas, and Frank Queen, publisher of the Clipper, the Variety of its day. Adah kept her ex-husband’s name “Menken” to identify her as Jewish. In response to a press interview, she denied a reporter’s assertion that she had “embraced the Jewish religion.” She insisted: “I was born in that faith. Through that pure and simple religion, I have found the greatest comfort and blessing.” Adah advertised her Jewishness by worshipping at synagogues and refusing to perform on high holidays even if it meant closing the theater. She slept with a Hebrew Bible close by, and she considered it her greatest treasure.
Supposing she was divorced, Adah quietly married John Carmel Heenan, the Irish American heavy weight boxing champion. He left Adah pregnant and broke while he fought in England for the world crown. Upon his return, he denied he was married. Meanwhile Alex Menken publicly claimed that he and Adah had never divorced. Scandal! The national press simultaneously denounced Adah as a bigamist and termed her “the most dangerous woman in the world,” a euphemism for prostitute. Adah’s public attempts to defend herself were attacked as immodest. For a time, the intimacies of the actress and her two husbands took front-page precedence over the election of Abe Lincoln to the Presidency and rumblings of war.
Adah could no longer get parts in the theater. Her mother passed on, and though she gave birth to a boy, the infant died. Heenan the champion was everywhere acclaimed while Adah shivered in a garret, alone and miserable. To live, she posed for semi-nude photos, sold under-the-counter by news dealers. Out of this emotional trial came Adah’s “wild soul poems.” These she wrote “in the stillness of midnight, and when waking to the world the next day, they were to me the deepest mystery.” She grasped that her verse stemmed from the unconscious: “The soul that prompted every word and line is somewhere within me . . . to wait the inspiration of God.”
Over a two-year period, Adah’s next husband-to-be, Robert Newell, editor of the influential Sunday Mercury, published her searing poetry. Confessional, heartfelt, her verse broke all conventional rules. Adah became the Apocryphal Judith, the beautiful Hebrew widow who acts daringly with no sense of shame. She enters the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, seduces him, and as he sleeps cuts off his head. Holding the head aloft, Judith chants:
Oh, what wild passionate kisses will I draw up from that bleeding mouth! I will strangle this pallid throat of mine on the sweet blood!
Adah was taking vicarious revenge on John Heenan. She was inspired by her friend Walt Whitman to venture into an unexplored psychic landscape, where she blended personal wrongs with the Jewish exile. Newell told his readers: “The lady is a Jewess, and almost insane in her eagerness to behold her people restored once more to their ancient power and glory. Her best poems have been founded on this vigorous sentiment.”
Playing Prince Mazeppa–lashed in a state of undress to a supposedly wild steed climbing a stage mountain–Adah became a wartime hero. Her audiences were packed with soldiers on leave from the front. When not performing, she endured grisly scenes as she toured hospitals to cheer the wounded. Other actresses attempted her daredevil role but they were killed. Adah toured the country, performed on Broadway and in gold rush California, and everywhere she was wildly successful. She counted among her many admirers Charles Dickens and the foppish poet Algernon Swinburne. In Paris, La Menken held an elite salon and became friends with novelist George Sand. She had an affair with young King Charles of Württemberg, then took an improbable lover: corpy Alexandre Dumas, the elder. The great novelist showed Adah the bohemian side of Paris. After intimate photos of Adah and Alexandre got into the hands of an unscrupulous photographer, they were reproduced and sold in Paris, then in all the major capitals. Once again Adah’s love life was the scandal du jour. Viewing the photos in New York, Mark Twain wrote, “Heaven help us, what desperate chances she takes on her reputation!
Injured from a fall while performing, suffering from tuberculosis, Adah played on until her strength was gone. By summer 1868 she was gravely ill and had given away the fortune she earned. She lingered in a small Parisian hotel. She had few visitors, but one was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote her a love poem. On August 10, according to a journalist friend, “Menken died in possession of the Jewish faith, and was attended by a minister of [her] religion. However stormy her life may have been the end was peaceful and serene.” She was able to follow the rabbi in Hebrew prayers. Adah’s remains lie under a monument in the Jewish section of the cemetery at Montparnasse. The inscription reads: “Thou Knowest.”