Menken in the Movies

Sophia as a blonde Adah Menken!

If Adah Isaacs Menken (aka The Naked Lady) is not a household name, the fault may be Marilyn Monroe’s. In 1953 Marilyn, then an unknown, was offered a break playing Adah, the original American sex goddess, in Darryl Zanuck’s The Girl in Pink Tights. At the last moment Marilyn backed out. She disliked the script, about an actress who was forced by poverty to become a stripper in a low saloon on the Bowery.

The story resembles Adah’s darkest period, which followed a front-page scandal in which she was denounced as a whore by her husband, bare-knuckle boxing champ John Heenan.

Although Marilyn never played Adah, their life stories run eerily parallel: from obscurity to global stardom, broken marriages to sports heroes and intellectuals, and personal demons that resulted in premature death. Menken and Monroe bore the stigmata of the doomed superstar.

The “pink tights” theme is one strain of the Menken legend, and Adah has been played by several beautiful and talented actresses. Betty Grable starred in the 1947 Mother Wore Tights, inspired by Adah’s signature outfit.

Another motif is summed up in a 1959 issue of Life magazine: “Adah was the premier sight of the West, the Rockies a very poor second,” Typical of later-day writing on Menken–and movies–Life‘s claim tries hard but is factually mixed-up. Adah (aka The Naked Lady) was a multicultural beauty, and her daredevil act dazzled the Gold Rush miners of the West. But in 1863 she landed by ship first in San Francisco, then by stage across the Sierras to Virginia City, Nevada, site of the fabulous Comstock Lode. She never approached the Rockies.

Adah and her third husband, the handsome Irishman John Heenan, were idolized by mid-19th century miners drawn to California/Nevada from around the world. From dukes to ditch diggers, they panned for gold along the wild, wooded streams or tunneled under the mountains to find a strike. Deprived of women and of manly entertainments such as prizefights, they tacked up photos of The Menken or The Benicia Boy (Heenan’s moniker) on the insides of their tents or log cabin walls. So began those American institutions: the pin-up, the idolization of celebrity, the quest for sudden fame and fortune. The first film to feature Adah Menken by name was an episode from the1959 season of the popular western serial, Bonanza.

The initial episode centers on the young, San Francisco actress Lotta Crabtree, Adah’s protégé. The depiction of Lotta as a sexual tease is nonsense. Lotta became a star on both East and West Coasts, but, dominated by her mother, she forever played the ingénue. The pilot episode effectively introduced Ben Cartwright and his three sons, Adam, “Hoss”, and Little Joe (Michael Landon). Ben (Lorne Green) was a widower who owned and loved the Ponderosa, the largest ranch in Nevada in 1859, located nearby booming Virginia City. The show dealt with issues relevant today, personal as well as ecological.

That same year episode 10, “The Magnificent Adah,” opened with The Menken and her touring company arriving at Virginia (nobody bothered with “City”) to perform her showpiece, the thrilling and dangerous Mazeppa. Intrigued by the poster of a supposedly naked woman strapped to a runaway horse, Joe (personable, clever) and Hoss (big, simple) sneak out to the theater. They fear they will be reprimanded by their older, serious brother Adam or the patriarch Ben. Both, however, are also in attendance. During the show, Hoss is confused, and Joe explains that the male hero, Mazeppa, a tribal leader fighting against Russian Czarist tyranny, is being played by the woman on the poster. After the show, at the saloon, where a circle of men has gathered around Adah, Hoss is dying to know if she really was naked, because he is sure she’s a woman. Adam explains that in the drama, Adah cross-dresses, or undresses, and she wears flesh-colored tights. Ben enters and heads straight for Adah.

She was played by the beautiful, busty Ruth Roman. Adah was a Jewish/Black/Creole blend from New Orleans, dark and fiery. Ruth was of Russian/Polish background, from Boston. For reasons best known to studio casting, she starred in numerous big-screen and TV Westerns. Back to the saloon: Adah, who knows Ben, suddenly asks him to accompany her to her hotel. She has seen her ex-husband, the famous bare-knuckle boxer “John Regan.” This is John Heenan, and by the time Adah actually toured the West, in the midst of the Civil War, Heenan was reduced to giving sparring exhibitions. In his prime, in 1860, John had fought the British champ Tom Sayers to a draw for the world heavyweight championship. The illegal fight held outside of London drew an immense crowd that included Charles Dickens and a special reporter for Queen Victoria. Prize fighting then was more like Extreme Fighting today–no holds barred.

The long, bloody battle was finally ended by a police raid and was declared a draw. On John’s return home, English mistress in tow, he rejected Adah and claimed they had never married. This ignited a front-page scandal. In the Bonanza episode, Ben says John beat Adah and is now trying to mooch money from her. Ben falls for Adah, he wants to marry and protect her, and the boys try to break up the romance but she tells them off. The scoundrel John beats up Little Joe and nearly blinds him. Ben goes to fight him but the boys intervene and Hoss fights the boxing champ. The big guy gets the worst of it until he turns to wrestling. Hoss then demolishes John and leaves him lying on the floor. Surprisingly, Adah rushes in and embraces her old love. The dejected Cartwrights leave, and bewildered Adam wonders how the glamorous star Adah Menken can love such a heel. There are as many kinds of love as there are women, explains Ben. In fact, for years afterward Adah remained broken-hearted by John Heenan’s infidelity.

Heller in Pink Tights (1960) combined the Western and the flesh-colored tights (nudity) themes. From a Louis L’Amour novel, directed by the great George Cukor (his only Western), and starring Sophia Loren as Angela (the Adah character), Anthony Quinn as Tom, and Steve Forrest (Dana Andrew’s brother) as Mabry, the handsome no-good rival for Angela’s love, not to mention her bod, this promised to be one helluva Western! Incidentally, the supporting cast included the estimable Margaret O’Brien (Della the adolescent), Eileen Heckart (her mother, Lorna), and Ramon Novarro (the rich villain, De Leon). The movie, a mixed bag, has become a favorite on TV.

IMDB informs us that “the novel and the film are inspired by the life of vaudeville [?] actress Adah Isaacs Menken.” Once again, correct in spirit but slightly off-base. The setting is again in the shadow of the Rockies, Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1880, long after Adah had passed away in Paris. Never mind! Far worse was sticking the gorgeous Sophia (Angela) with a bright blonde wig. Tony Quinn plays a mild-mannered head of a nearly broke Great Dramatic Company, which has to steal their costumes before fleeing in wagons to Cheyenne. Here they encounter Mabry, after he has gunned down two ranchers at the behest of De Leon, who wants their land. Mabry wants Angela.

In the theater, Tom addresses the cast, telling them it is vital they succeed this time. He privately suggests to Angela that they settle down as a married couple. She claims she is too young and needs to be free. Indeed, Sophia at twenty-six is stunning, except for that wig! In the evening, the troupe performs their standby, Mazeppa, and Angela’s scantily clad ride spread-eagled on the back of a galloping horse thrills the crowd, especially Mabry. There is no stage mountain, only a ramp into the audience. Backstage, a creditor appears with a warrant for Tom’s arrest. While Tom prepares to run again, Angela, hoping to win enough money to pay the debt, joins a poker game. By its end, she has to bet herself, and she loses to Mabry.

A gunfight interrupts Angela’s surrender, and she and the troupe run away, heading to the town of Bonanza [copycat!]. Mabry finds them on the trail, and Tom invites him to join them to stave off marauding Indians. The redskins attack, Mabry shoots a couple but the troupe must abandon their wagons and costumes and head for the hills. After watching the wagons burn, and trudging through a snowstorm across rugged terrain, the troupe encounters good weather, and they make camp. Mabry demands payment–Angela–for his bet, she confesses to Tom, who stalks off. Mabry finally gets his pound of very pretty flesh by a watering hole.

Thanks to screenwriter Dudley Nichols, more complications ensue until Angela is able to buy Tom a theater in Bonanza with Mabry’s $5,000 collected from De Leon, who owes him the money. So Tom and Angela are reconciled and they immediately put on Mazeppa. As usual, the Naked Lady’s ride strapped to a trained horse, packs the theater. Only this time Mabry shows up backstage, demanding his money. Then De Leon’s thugs arrive, gunning for Mabry. Tom saves his rival’s life by strapping him to Angela’s horse and sending him off down the ramp. At the end, the gentleman gets the girl, not to mention a theater.

Both the Bonanza episode and Heller are good entertainment, but the latter especially tells us little about Adah Menken. Odd, because Cukor was a Menken fan and collected her photos, which are used in the movie. For that matter, Jerome Kern and Billy Rose were also fans and collectors of Menkeniana. There have been Mazeppa-themed movies since “The Wild Horse of Tartary” of 1910. But in spite of Adah’s brief, sensational, sexy and tragic life story, none of the movies that borrow from it presents the Menken in the flesh and spirit. This is still true today, when Sherlock Holmes (2009) presents an Irene Adler, based by Arthur Conan Doyle on Adah, who is miles from the real thing.

(C.D. looks like Watson!) Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” was the author’s first Sherlock Holmes story that became popular and led to the many following adventures of the master detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson. There is much of the author himself in the Holmes tales, especially in Watson’s character. His Irene Adler, the focus of “A Scandal,” has aspects of Adah and is based on her romance in Paris with King Charles of Württemberg. Irene is involved with the young, handsome King of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The king comes to Holmes to prevent a scandal, because Irene has a compromising photo of them together. Adah was seen daily with King Charles–part of disunited Germany–as they rode horses through the fashionable Bois de Boulogne. Adah was the toast of Paris, the object of attention from counts and dukes and the Emperor Napoleon III. But the scandalous photos in her case were intimate ones with her older lover, novelist Alexandre Dumas, the King of Romance.

Arthur was an impressionable youth in Edinburgh when Adah, known as The Royal Menken, rivaled Queen Victoria. She reigned over Britain’s erotic imagination. Mazeppa and its several imitators packed the theaters, and Adah’s love life was the theme of newspaper and cafe chatter. But the mature Conan Doyle had more reason to be fascinated by her: He was deeply into Spiritualism, really his religion. He was especially impressed by Daniel Home, a Scottish-American medium whose amazing séances were done without any discernible trickery, and whose favorite spirit to call up and interact with was Adah Menken. There are numerous other similarities between the literary Irene and the real-life Adah, but the movies made from Conan Doyle’s stories do varying justice to the author and to Irene, his strongest female character.

There have been several TV series based, however loosely, on Conan Doyle’s tales of the late Victorian detective and his doctor pal, but by far the best was the British (Grenada) 1984-85 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett as the lead. The series kicked off with the Bohemian scandal, and Irene Adler was played by the American Gayle Hunnicutt. Appropriately, Gayle grew up in Texas, as did Adah. The entire series remained faithful to the literary material, at least in spirit, and it was a huge success, including when shown on PBS in America. You don’t have to do non-stop action to have a hit Sherlock Holmes!

The standard Holmes theatrical movies were, throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, the series featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. For all their entertaining virtues, the dozen or so movies showcase few women characters and none of great interest. More to our point is the 1976 Sherlock Holmes in New York. The movie has an all-star cast with Roger Moore as Sherlock, John Huston as his arch-enemy Prof. Moriarty, Gig Young and Jackie Coogan in supporting roles, and that fine, attractive actress Charlotte Rampling as Irene/Adah.

Real intimacy between Sherlock and Irene is evident: They have a child. Rampling is sexy and inviting in a way that Adah would have been. Roger Moore represents one sort of man that Adah married–she went through five husbands in her spectacular 33-year life–but not the man she really loved, Heenan the fighter. As one viewer summed up, “This is an interesting and watchable flick.”

Let’s skip to the present and immediate future Holmes and Irene. The big screen Sherlock Holmes of 2009, and his squeeze Irene Adler, is a Guy Ritchie production in which Canadian-born, blonde, athletic Rachel McAdams plays the dark, tempestuous, sexy Adah Menken rip-off. Were she only younger, Ritchie would have done better casting his ex, Madonna, as Irene. The IMDB viewer comments on Ritchie’s (and Robert Downey’s as Sherlock) moovin pitcher were decidedly mixed–half of them loved it, the other half hated it–there was no middle ground. Those who wanted Bang! Bang! Biff! Boff! got their wish in spades. Those who wanted Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective in his late Victorian milieu got shafted. But a glance at IMDB’s Writing Credits solves the issue: There were four writers credited with the story and screenplay, and ACD was credited with “the characters Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson.” And that attribution must have the author’s spirit ranting and raving at every séance on earth.

The hopped-up Holmes is Guy Ritchie’s entire. We are stuck with him until the sequel movies run their course. Ritchie, however, is stuck with Irene, the only sexy woman in the Holmes canon. Perhaps she and Sherlock will conceive a child, and again Irene will move to New York. Or maybe–just maybe–a smart film producer will wonder why the daredevil actress Adah Menken, the original superstar, fascinated Conan Doyle and Billy Rose and Darryl Zanuck, and continues to attract writers, readers, and movie goers. To find out more about her, see Adah’s definitive biography–A DANGEROUS WOMAN–will be published in early 2011 by Grove/Pequot Press.

For a screen treatment, contact Michael Foster:

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