In Search of a Mystery



At midnight on May 15, 1867 Mark Twain was lounging at the entrance of the New York Hotel shooting the breeze with the desk clerk. The Civil War was over and news sparse. Mark, a newcomer to the city, was employed as a free-lancer by the West Coast newspapers that knew him mainly for his reporting in the gold fields. A tall, gaunt man of military bearing, accompanied by a couple of aides, arrived and checked in. Mark recognized him as Jefferson Davis. No one in the lobby cared that he was the fallen chief of the Confederacy. As Mark reported to the Alta California, “The man whose arrival in New York a year or two ago would have set the city wild with excitement had ceased to rank as a sensation, and went to his hotel [room] unheralded and unobserved.”

The incident set Mark to wondering what had become of Davis’s “limitless celebrity.” Next day the local papers barely mentioned Davis, described by Mark as the “head, and heart, and soul of the mightiest rebellion of modern times.” Mark Twain had already discarded his birth name of Samuel Clemens, which belonged to a reckless fellow who sought a bonanza in the golden West. Now he was after respectability as a writer, indeed fame. But what good was renown, even infamy, if Jeff Davis, who had been so widely loved and loathed, could be so quickly forgotten?

Mark’s story dispatched to California contained an item of equal length on Adah Isaacs Menken, the thirty-two-year old, glamorous American actress who was the scandale of Paris. Mark called her “the poor woman who has got so much money, but not any clothes.” He was joshing about Adah’s outsized income and her being dubbed by the press, The Naked Lady. A mutual friend of theirs, the humorist Charles Henry Webb, had showed Mark a pair of photos sent to him by Adah. These private images of her cozying up to the King of Romance, corpy Alexandre Dumas père, had been duplicated and sold by the Parisian photographer. They caused a sensation among tout le monde. A tidal wave of gossip swept London and was on its way to New York. Once again the boudoir antics of La Menken were front page news.

Mark described the images for his readers:

In one of them Dumas is sitting down, with head thrown back, and great, gross face rippled with smiles, and Adah is leaning on his shoulder . . . beaming on him with the expression of a moon that is no better than it ought to be. In another picture, the eminent mulatto is in his shirt-sleeves, and Adah has her head on his breast, and arms clasping his neck, and this time she is beaming up at him in a way which is destructive of all moral principle. On the backs of these photographs is written, in French: ‘To my dearest love, A. DUMAS.’  And Menken’s note [to Webb] accompanying the pictures betrays that she is extravagantly well pleased with the photographer for publishing and selling thousands and thousands of these pictures to the Parisian public. She knows the value of keeping herself before the world in new and startling situations.

Mark claimed to be unnerved by Adah’s disdain for her reputation. Years earlier, he had overlooked that failing when, a cub reporter who fancied himself a ladies man, he courted the star in booming Virginia City, Nevada, where the audience threw bags of gold dust on stage. When he covered Adah’s 1863 opening at the Opera House in San Francisco, the theater packed, crowds outside, Mark wrote: “I went to see her play Mazeppa. She appeared to me to have but one garment on–a thin tight white linen one, of unimportant dimensions. I forget the name of the article, but it is indispensable to infants of tender age.” Punning, Mark dubbed Adah “The Great Bare.”

While Mark may have been crude in his description of the elder Dumas, who boasted of his African heritage, he keenly noted Adah’s ability to scandalize both press and public. From her triumphal parade through the capitals of the world, he learned the importance of publicity and of the photographic image to attract a legion of fans. The Mark Twain that resulted, a fashion plate who we can still appreciate in artfully posed stills, was as thorough an invention as The Naked Lady, The Royal Bengal Tiger, or other tags hung on Adah Menken.

“Before Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor commanded first-name intimacy with the public details of their private lives, Menken carefully and cleverly cultivated her reputation,” noted U.S. News & World Report. Adah’s daring photos “foreshadow the Vanity Fair cover that propelled a naked, pregnant Demi Moore to new levels of celebrity.” But this biracial waif from the wild side of New Orleans became more than a celebrity. Adah’s brief life was a shooting star, which went dark slightly more than a year after Mark Twain fretted about her morals.

Adah Menken was the original superstar, both notorious and serious. In the mid-nineteenth century, she revolutionized show business with a modern flair for action, scandal, and unpopular causes, especially that of the Jewish people. It was a time like ours, when revolutionary new technologies such as the telegraph, railroad, and steamboat knit America and the Western world into a cohesive whole. The two-penny dailies captured a mass market, and the photographic album had a place in every middle-class parlor. Adah seized on these developments to become a world-class star.

She could sing, dance, and was a wonderful comic. These talents were brushed aside by the attention given to a sexy, daredevil act that threatened her life. So Adah became the Civil War pin-up of fighting men North and South. For a time, she was the ticket on Broadway, the darling of San Francisco, the talk of London, and the toast of Paris. A compact woman, curvy, hair dark and curly, she was fond of gambling the night away dressed in men’s evening clothes. She rode horses astride, took and discarded lovers, and wore revealing sheath dresses in an age of hoop skirts. Ultimately, Adah confused fame with notoriety and paid dearly for success.

“Nekkid, Nekkid, Nekkid!” screams a chapter on Menken in Texas Bad Girls, a bawdy history of Lone Star women. Clad in a sheer bodystocking, Adah was never “nekkid” on stage. But in the melodrama Mazeppa, lashed to a runaway steed climbing a mountain, she looked naked to rapt audiences. Today, collectors seek her “nekkid” photos, historians write articles on Adah’s transgressive behavior, and her confessional poetry is gaining well-deserved respect. Her torrid love life is yet to be fully revealed: “She married repeatedly and made time for a few women as well,” claims the gay and lesbian website Gay Gate. That’s putting it mildly!

Reference sources continue to disagree on the origins of this mystery woman. For example, The American Jewish Historical Society holds that “America’s first glamour girl” was born in the Jewish faith. Yet the New York Public Library has reproduced Menken’s book of poems, Infelicia, under the heading “African American Women Writers.” Another reconstruction of Adah’s childhood describes her as an unalloyed Irish-American beauty! Francophone, conversant with Latin and Hebrew, an actress who in one sketch could play nine different roles, Adah seemed to toy with identity. Beneath her disguises, did there beat the heart of one real woman?

We first met Adah Menken in the window of a rare books dealer near the British Museum. She graced in mezzotint an oversized postcard from London’s Theater Museum: young, beautiful, bound to a stallion rearing up at the edge of an abyss. She wore only “a little end of a dimity nothing fastened at the waist,” as advertised. That showed off her finely formed thighs and legs that would become famous.

On this evening of a gloomy, drizzly day, Londoners wrapped in mackintoshes hurried home, moving in and out of the light cast by street lamps. Occasionally a face would appear and vanish into the mist like an apparition from a Sherlock Holmes tale. In contrast, the bookstore was inviting, and we could just make out the caption on the postcard: “Adah Isaacs Menken in Her Extraordinary Equestrian Act.”

We entered and examined the card. The reverse side informed us that it portrayed a scene from the 1831 melodrama by Henry Milner, Mazeppa, or the Wild Horse of Tartary. The historical hero Prince Mazeppa was an eighteenth century Ukrainian freedom fighter who battled against Russian rule. In the picture, the prince has been stripped bare by his enemies, tied to the back of a fiery, untamed steed and driven into the wilds to perish. In the text, he is pursued by a pack of hungry wolves. The horse, on the rim of a precipice, has nowhere to turn. But in the illustration, its rider–definitely she–looks at the audience in a come hither way.

Mazeppa’s legend made its way into the arts. The French Romantics painted it and Tchaikovsky wrote an opera. However, Milner’s play, relying on a poem by Lord Byron, turned the warrior into a heroic lover. The bookseller, lowering his voice, explained that Byron’s version was based on the poet’s adulterous affair with an Italian noblewoman and her husband’s revenge. “If you’re interested in The Naked Lady,” he hissed, “I have special pictures in which she poses not only naked, but in action.”

We had a look. But these Victorian versions of French postcards were faked: Adah’s head was pasted onto another woman’s flabby body. We bought the original card, thanked the man and left.  Experienced biographers, we briefly resisted the familiar sensation of being drawn into another life. But we were already hooked. We were driven to investigate the life of an American actress who reminded us of Lady Godiva with an attitude.

Milner’s Mazeppa ran well into the twentieth century. This show had legs! Before Adah took over the prince’s role, it was played by a man. To avoid harming him, a dummy was attached to a trained horse. In the climactic scene, horse and dummy trotted up the ramps of a stage mountain built of timbers and painted canvas. The orchestra played bravely but audience response was tepid.

In contrast, Adah made Mazeppa into the Victorian sensation. After she was stripped down to sheer, pink tights and tied onto a horse, she galloped up the mountain in the flesh. Mazeppa played to sold-out houses and introduced the practice of advance sales. Meanwhile the mountain grew in height until it reached four stories. Accompanying thunder and lightning rattled the theater as Adah appeared to leap chasms and climb peaks. At the top, horse and rider exited through the flies–the gallery behind the proscenium arch.

Adah, playing a prince tied to a horse, presented a charged image: male and female, captive and free. Her posture, strapped on the bare back of the steed, legs spread apart, was more suggestive than any actress had dared. That she was Jewish made her exotic, that she was rumored to be a woman of color more alluring.

Part of the electricity generated by the star’s performance was the possibility of seeing her destroyed. Several times Adah fell from her horse and was severely injured. We wondered: What was she trying to prove? Courtesy of the British Library, we consulted the standard reference books. We found stale absurdities and so-called facts that contradicted each other. As we graduated to memoirs by Adah’s contemporaries and to full-length biographies, we became still less certain. No other significant figure is as poorly served by encyclopedias, histories, and biographies. “Nothing is known about her but lies!” bemoaned her friend Joaquin Miller, cowboy poet and teller of tall tales.

Soon we turned up a second illustrated card, “Scandal of the ’60’s,” which showed a mounted, warlike Adah brandishing a sword. After claiming that she rode the horse completely naked, the text concluded, “Menken went to London, where she conquered the public and became the spoiled darling of genius and royalty.” On the side, she burned through five husbands in a dozen years. In reverse order, they were a Rhett Butler-style gambler, a literary editor, the heavyweight boxing champion, a musician, and a minstrel show performer. In Victorian London she went gunning for bigger game.

At the Westminster Palace Hotel, Adah held a literary salon. Artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti came, and so did “bad boy” Algernon Swinburne and his buddy Sir Richard Burton, the explorer of exotic sexual customs. The poet laureate-to-be Alfred Tennyson made an appearance. Charles Dickens was a sometime guest as he and Adah planned to go on stage together. The upper crust ate Menken’s caviar and drank her champagne, as did down-at-the-heels former Confederates and the notorious spy Belle Boyd.

We were most intrigued by Adah’s personal, untold story. Since she next performed in Paris, there we continued our investigations. In the City of Light her social triumphs equaled those on stage. Friends included top journalists and writers such as George Sand, whose crossdressing and free love life outraged the reactionary morals of the Second Empire. Adah was escorted by a handsome German king and played to enthusiastic audiences and, at a gala, before the Emperor Napoleon and Empress Eugenie. Yet her correspondence reveals she was depressed and humiliated by French anti-Semitism, which ridiculed her accomplishments.

In reaction, Adah plunged into an affair with the broken-down musketeer, the elder Alexandre Dumas. The pair was seen together everywhere in Paris, and after they were photographed, all over the world. For Adah, this meant asserting her heritage as a woman of color. But the resulting scandal, while it revivified Dumas’s career, damaged Adah’s. Returning to London, she sought out a liaison with Swinburne, the darling of rebellious youth. Once again the affair boosted her lover but not Menken. It inspired Swinburne’s poem “Dolores,” an anthem to sadomasochistic love. Perhaps, that midnight in New York, a rising Mark Twain sensed Adah’s downward spiral.

We returned to New York, as Adah did briefly to triumph on Broadway. The athletic nature of her performance attracted increasing numbers of women, especially at matinees. However, New York was the scene of Adah’s past, disastrous marriage to John Heenan, the bareknuckle champion. The prize fighter had left her pregnant and penniless, leading her to attempt suicide in 1860. This time, despite her stage success, Adah failed at reunion with her last husband, now a Wall Street speculator. Once again she grew melodramatic and had to be placed unconscious on a steamer to Le Havre.

Adah dreamed she would die in Paris. Gravely ill, she held on, waiting for her collected verse to be published. Henry Longfellow, by her sick bed, improvised a poem that concluded: “‘Tis Love, fond Love that awakens the strain!” But Adah had gone to sleep. Mazeppa would ride no more. Her book, Infelicia–the Unlucky One–arrived one week too late.

Adah Menken’s remains lie under a monument in the Jewish section of the cemetery at Montparnasse. The stone reads: “Thou Knowest.” In order to know more about this intriguing character, we continued our search into the places and persons that shaped her. In New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Dallas, we were delighted to discover a treasure trove of portraits of Adah by Napoleon Sarony, the Rembrandt of the Camera. This Broadway photographer, who hunted down celebrities to record them on glass plates, caught Adah’s varied moods and guises. Whether playing a fine lady in a gown, a femme fatale on a tiger skin, or a poker player in men’s drag, Adah speaks to us through the portraits taken by the original paparazzo.

For thirty-three years Adah lived full out. For an encore, she became a popular ghost at seances then and now. Novelists have always loved her, but the best fiction is a miniature portrait by Arthur Conan Doyle in his story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Here she becomes the mysterious Irene Adler, and Sherlock Holmes falls for her. “To Holmes,” declares Dr. Watson, “she is always the woman. In his eyes, she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” Irene–or Adah–is the most intriguing woman in the Holmes canon, and she even outwits the master sleuth.

In mid-twentieth century Stella Adler played Adah, “the divine Jewess,” for the Group Theater. Jerome Kern collected Menkeniana, and Billy Rose wrote a column about this “lollapalooza who rates with Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and other standouts in the cuddle-up sweepstakes.” Among recent pieces, a prize-winning essay in The Drama Review praises “Menken’s voluptuous physique and dramatic, charismatic sexuality.”

If Adah Menken is not a household name the fault may be Marilyn Monroe’s. In 1953 Marilyn, then unknown, was offered a break playing Adah in Darryl Zanuck’s The Girl in Pink Tights. At the last moment she backed out. The story about an actress forced by poverty to become a stripper in a low saloon on the Bowery resembles Adah’s darkest period. Although Marilyn never played Adah, she followed in her footsteps. Both their eerily parallel lives epitomize the curse of superstardom: over-the-top success cut short by premature death.

In 1960 the director George Cukor turned a Louis L’Amour novel, based on Adah’s triumphant 1863-64 tour of California and Nevada, into Heller in Pink Tights, a riproaring western. The curvaceous beauty Sophia Loren played Menken. Cukor was well-acquainted with his subject’s life and times. To suit Loren’s accent, he called her Angela Rossini. But says Cukor’s biographer, “The flirtatious Rossini was inspired by the real-life actress Adah Menken.” The movie has become a cult classic.

Although the great Menken biopic has yet to be made, one can occasionally see her on television. Ruth Roman played The Naked Lady in one of the best Bonanza episodes. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is one of the episodes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which runs frequently. In a logical sequel to the Conan Doyle story, the movie Sherlock Holmes in New York stars Sir Roger Moore as the master detective and Charlotte Rampling as Irene/Adah. Here Sherlock and she marry and have a child. In real life Adah had a boy, who though she cherished him, died in infancy.

Adah Menken, naughtiest of Victorians, has come to represent sexual liberation for men and women. In her time, she fought racial, religious, and gender oppression. In our time, women have found freedom in everything from athletics to the current revival in burlesque. Those young, very slightly dressed women vying for the Golden Pasties awards at New York’s annual Burlesque Festival are The Naked Lady’s godchildren, equally with the French model in a designer tux playing roulette at Monte Carlo, and again with the crimson-haired punk in torn jeans reading her poetry in a San Francisco coffeehouse. Adah’s bright star still glows like a beacon.

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