THE IRISH IN ADAH ISAACS MENKEN
The Stepfather, the Husband
New Orleans has a neighborhood called the Irish Channel. Located between the French Quarter and the Garden District, it was originally settled in the 19th century by Irishmen looking for work in the New World. Their women followed, and the Channel became a solid working-class neighborhood. The authors lived there when the neighborhood still kept much of its original character. In 1837 a typical immigrant off the boat was a handsome young Irishman named James McCord. He had worked in a clothing store in London and came to America to better himself.
James soon moved to Chartrain, still in the parish (county) of New Orleans. Later called Milneburg, the village was the terminus of the Chartrain railroad line and a resort on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Here he opened a general store, which did well enough that he could look for a wife. The merchant fixed on Marie Théodore, a French-speaking widow who had been washed up on this lakeshore when her husband – though probably not her legal husband – had died of consumption (tuberculosis), leaving her with a two-year-old daughter. Adah later described her mother as “beautiful, refined and lovable.” Théodore was a Jewish name in New Orleans, and “Adah,” found in the Old Testament, is Hebrew for “beauty.” Because it is unclear if Théodore was Marie’s maiden name, or her late husband’s, we can’t be certain if Marie was born Jewish or converted because of Adah’s father.
It is certain that our subject was born Adah Bertha Theodore in New Orleans on June 15, 1835. There is no religious or other record of her birth, but Adah herself was clear on when and where she was born. It is clear she had one sister, named Annie Campbell Josephs, who was born in 1840. We have discovered she had one brother, Elias Lipsis, who also performed on stage, particularly during the California gold rush. While Josephs and Lipsis are Jewish names, Adah herself insisted she was Jewish by birth, and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of Reform Judaism in America, accepted her as such. Adah wrote striking essays in defense of the Jewish people, and she observed the high holy days. The information about her found on Wikipedia is misleading, brief, and based on a handful of unreliable sources. [For more information on Adah’s ethnicity, see “A Colored Girl From New Orleans” and “Defender of the Jewish People.” ]
In a sense, Wikipedia is half-right: Adah was born a colored girl from New Orleans, but probably because of her mother, not her father. Marie was a beautiful, light-skinned colored woman of the caste frequently taken as mistresses by well-to-do white men. They could not legally marry such a woman, nor did James McCord marry Marie. Nonetheless he became young Adah’s stepfather in New Orleans. We can surmise that the arrangement did not go smoothly, because Adah had at least one additional stepfather, a well-educated man, Dr. J.C. Campbell. However, in 1849 Dr. Campbell passed away. Forced by poverty, Adah and Annie took to the stage as the Theodore Sisters. Afterward the family moved to Texas, where Adah became a bareback rider in the Draconi circus and earned a living for the lot.
Novelist Fulton Oursler Sr. describes her at this period: “Her dark hair was luxuriant and gleaming with life, her black eyes flashed and glistened with an impetuous vitality, and she seemed as high-spirited, mettlesome, and tameless as the young horse she had ridden in the arena.” We would add that Adah’s eyes, which fascinated Victorian gentlemen, were described by the poet Swinburne as “Grayest of things gray/And bluest of things blue.” Once, in a poetic ad for a beau, Adah described herself as having “hazel eyes and nut brown curls.” The girl, on the edge becoming a woman, was a mystery even to herself!
Adah Menken, the star, felt that her background and youth were less than respectable, and she covered up her secret with fanciful tales of an aristocratic pedigree. Her earlier biographers, equally addicted to myth, simply kill off James McCord, but that is not the case. James’ retail business failed, but to echo Mark Twain, reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. He leaves no trace for a time. But in Texas he is once again reported to be Adah’s pater familias. From James, Adah first learned how to play cards, and, as she writes in her memoir, Notes Of My Life, “the good and bad points about horses and the mystery of betting.” What exactly James meant to Adah remains in the dark. In her Notes, Adah tells of a well-meaning but debauched uncle who may be a surrogate for her stepfather. In any case, she made an apt pupil of bad habits. “Fickle, wild, and restless” is how she describes herself.
In 1862 Adah sent her Notes to drama critic Augustin Daly, soon to become a writer of melodramas such as Under the Gaslight and the first great Irish-American theatrical impresario. Two areas of entertainment were especially Irish in the Civil War era: the theatre and bareknuckle boxing. Daly, Adah’s great friend, knew the Notes were not literally true but nonetheless told a great deal about Adah’s character, hopes, and dreams. He kept the Notes until she died in 1868 and then published them verbatim in The New York Times. Adah would have been pleased.
Let’s back up to 1855 in Galveston, Texas, where Adah met and married Alexander Isaac Menken, the handsome conductor of a theater orchestra. He came from a prominent German-Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a time the young couple lived in New Orleans, where she performed successfully in local theaters. The financial panic of 1857 caused them to steam up the Mississippi River to take shelter with the Menken clan. Once arrived, Adah became a disciple of Rabbi Wise and wrote partisan poetry and essays for his influential weekly, The Israelite. She performed successfully in regional theaters, doing comedy and sentimental drama, and Alex acted as her manager. However, Alex became jealous of his wife’s acting career, drank heavily, and abused her. Yet the couple reconciled. In December The Israelite published Adah’s poem “A Wife’s Prayer,” in which she promised to subjugate her will to her husband’s. She prayed to be kept from “all ungentleness and ill-humour,” and swore to be “humble and obedient, useful and observant.” Adah had a talent for self-delusion that would serve her well on stage but badly in life.
Then along came Heenan. On Christmas night 1858 John Carmel Heenan, who claimed to be heavyweight boxing champion of America, gave a one-round exhibition of the manly art of self-defense with a sparring partner at Cincinnati’s New National Theater, where Adah was appearing. The actual fights of bareknuckle boxers were so brutal they often fought exhibitions in which they wore gloves. These matches earned easy money and, unlike prize fights, were legal. Because women liked to watch the well-built boxers, legitimate theaters would add an exhibition to the bill.
Heenan, born of Irish parents in Troy, New York in 1833, was over six feet tall, superbly built, and handsome as a matinee idol. He had thick black hair and eyebrows, rippling muscles, and a potent punch. With an engaging personality, he attracted a higher class of fans than his crude, brawling competitors. In the ring Heenan was quick, strong, and brave. As a man he was a pliant tool of New York’s political machine, the Irish-dominated Tammany Hall. When, after the show, the theater manager brought John to Adah’s dressing room, she felt she was being introduced to an Adonis.
The brief meeting left Adah excited and uneasy. She couldn’t help thinking about this magnificent specimen and his gentlemanly bearing and affable manners. Did he remind her, in some degree, of her stepfather? Through the winter of 1859 Adah toured to Indianapolis, Columbus, and Pittsburgh. She played leading roles on the light side, including quick-change pieces. Alex went along, and husband and wife wore on each other. A call boy at the Pittsburgh Theater described Alex as “a sort of general utility man to her.” The theater-going public expected a new play each night, and stars had to bring their accoutrements with them. Adah needed her husband, but John Heenan was on her mind.
Hoping to see John, Adah asked Alex to book her into a New York theater. It was tough to get into a major house, but Alex booked her for a week at Purdy’s National Theater, beginning March 1. Then Alex’s stepmother died and he returned to Cincinnati. As Adah chugged along on the Pennsylvania Railroad, bound for America’s entertainment capital, she was making plans for her New York debut–when she could keep from calling up images of the muscular champion.
Purdy’s National Theater was located on Chatham Square in lower Manhattan, where the Bowery begins. Today, it would be in the heart of Chinatown. The neighborhood bustled with people on the sidewalks or going in and out of shops and restaurants while horse-drawn trolleys thundered over the cobbled streets. It was brawny working class. The Irish, heavily emigrating to America, were a major element, seconded by the Germans who frequented beer gardens along the Bowery. The avenue was the working man’s version of Broadway, only a few blocks across town but a monied world away.
New York’s theater culture echoed the split in society between the working class (the “roughs” Walt Whitman called them) and the middle classes. The Bowery, famed for its Bowery B’hoys, a loose-knit bunch of ruffians, was home to one sort of theater district. Here could be seen comedies, musical acts, mime, and “sensation” dramas. Somewhat later, burlesque would arrive with its “leg shows.” To the west, Broadway (in the area of present-day Soho) was home to a district that stressed fashionable shopping, classical and moral plays, and ladies’ matinees. By the late 1850s both districts were thriving.
Adah could take confidence from the National’s record in introducing stars, including the tragedian Edwin Booth, brother to another exciting actor, John Wilkes Booth. She would be supported by Purdy’s fine stock company in her role of the madcap Widow Cheerly in the comedy The Soldier’s Daughter. On her opening evening, as Adah peered from behind the curtains, her heart sank at the sparse audience who had braved March winds to see an unknown. The next evening’s performance became crucial. Adah chose a pseudo-classical drama that played to an equally small house. But to leaven the evening, she did a quick-change farce, A Day In Paris. Purdy had inveigled William Winter, theater critic of the Tribune, to attend. In the next day’s paper he wrote a scathing attack on Adah’s daring to show her legs in one of the skits, in which she sang and danced. Bare legs, more than ample cleavage, offended Victorian prudery, and the influential Tribune was edited by Horace Greeley, reformer and puritan. Purdy fired Adah on the spot.
Adah could not know that Winter had triggered her career as the infamous Naked Lady. Hurt, she complained of her treatment to another Irishman, Frank Queen, publisher of the New York Clipper. The weekly, founded by Queen in 1853, may be thought of as Backstage, Variety and Sports Illustrated rolled into one. Members of the theatrical world and the sporting fraternity would not miss an issue. For actors, musicians, managers, and circus performers the Clipper ran the news, articles, employment ads and personals, and forwarded mail; for admirers of the manly art of self-defense, it reported on and advocated what was then an illegal sport; and for followers of the turf, it listed and reported on horse races.
Queen, fat, florid, and sympathetic, couldn’t help Adah with Purdy. But from this day on the influential journalist became her friend and champion for as long as she lived and afterward. He helped Adah to find a booking at a Newark theater for two weeks. Less fortunately, he facilitated her liaison with John Heenan, a regular visitor to the offices of the weekly. Adah and John began their love affair during her March stay in the New York area. There may have been an element of caution, since Adah rarely discarded one man until she became involved with another. She was the marrying kind. In a poem written to John, in which she compares herself to a flower, she admits to “a burning unspeakable thirst/to grow all beauty, all grace, all melody to one/and to him alone!” At this time, Adah demanded that her lover and husband be the same man. From March 1859 on, the big, strong Benicia Boy was in line for that position, and sensitive, neurotic Alex Menken was on his way out.
Adah’s engagement at Newark went passably well, but she soon returned to Cincinnati. She and Alex had nothing left but recriminations. He had become a businessman rather than the aspiring composer she married. Insecure in this role, he continued to drink, which made matters worse. By July, with the aid of Rabbi Wise, Adah obtained a rabbinical divorce, which she supposed was legally binding. With her marriage ended–at three years it would be the longest of five–she packed her wardrobe and boarded the train for New York. Adah carried with her Alexander Isaac Menken’s name and left behind a bitter enemy.
Irish New York
Walt Whitman completed the third and defining edition of Leaves of Grass in 1859, the year Adah Menken came to live in New York. Peter Minuit had bought Manhattan from its Indian inhabitants with trinkets and cloth worth sixty guilders, or a legendary twenty-four dollars. The island was sparsely inhabited, rocky in places and swampy in others. By 1859 Whitman was able to write of “million-footed Manhattan,” and indeed the city, the most dynamic in the world, was approaching a population of one million, half foreign-born, the largest single element being 200,000 Irish.
Adah had come to marry one of the community’s most popular sons: John Carmel Heenan. In July, after a long, sooty train ride from Cincinnati, Adah debarked from the ferry at Cortlandt Street, just below Washington Market. Perhaps, through the din, her champion called to her. Who was this handsome, genial hunk who claimed first the American, then the world heavyweight title without winning a single big-time fight? How is it that Nat Fleischer, longtime editor of The Ring magazine, could favorably compare Heenan with John L. Sullivan, adding, “As a gladiator, he had earned a reputation for strength, skill, courage and iron endurance second to none in the arena.”
Even if John was a natural nobleman, as Adah supposed, he was also a functionary in a dirty racket. Fleischer puts it succinctly:
Boxing in the gaslight era of New York flourished in a decidedly malodorous atmosphere of crime and political corruption. Pugilists commonly participated in the gang wars then rampant around Manhattan, wars in which knife, pistol and club worked overtime, and human lives were snuffed out with callous indifference. . . . Political factions fought viciously to get and retain control of the pugilistic brigade, from whose ranks were recruited bodyguards for the municipal big shots.
Fighters paraded the faithful to the polls on Election Day, kept rival gangs from interfering with voting, and intimidated voters for the other side. Heenan, for his services to Tammany Hall, was awarded a sinecure in the Customs Department, which paid the rent between matches.
John, twenty-five at the time he met Adah, was born at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, where his father, from Tipperary, was head foreman. After some schooling, John was taught by his father the trade of machinist. At the age of seventeen he sailed for San Francisco, where he took a job in the workshops at Benicia belonging to the steamship company. In the next two years, dark-haired John developed into a tall, well-formed, muscular specimen of humanity who barely knew the great strength he possessed. John’s rugged good looks aside, a particular incident shows the qualities that would win Adah’s heart. A bully was used to throwing his weight around Benicia, picking on those smaller and weaker. He boasted he could lick any man in California. That was too much for John, who fought him “American style” on the dock. That meant no holds barred, including biting and eye-gouging. Our hero trounced the bully, and from then on he was admiringly called “Benicia Boy.”
John attracted the attention of political operators who had fought out elections in New York. Ed James, lead columnist for the Clipper and a character straight out of Dickens, remarked that John was “good on the muscle.” The young man fell under the influence of Jim Cusick, a former prize fighter who had sparred with Tom Sayers, the British champ. Cusick arranged sparring matches for the Boy, who with coaching became a proficient boxer and hard hitter, famous all over the Pacific Slope.
By the autumn of 1857 San Francisco had enough of the operators who brought to California voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, and other niceties of New York politics. A vigilance committee rounded up the worst offenders and hanged a few. Luckily, Cusick and Heenan boarded a ship for New York before they were caught. Cusick was thinking about issuing a challenge from Heenan to another Irishman from Troy, John Morrissey, the current champion, to fight for the heavyweight title.
The match finally took place on October 20, 1858, at Long Point, Canada, across Lake Erie from Buffalo. By mid-October sporting men from as far off as New Orleans were pouring into Buffalo, centered on a saloon run by Izzy Lazarus, an ex-pug. The newspapers, those like the Police Gazette that favored boxing, and those whose editorial pages disapproved of it, sent special correspondents to cover the Mardi Gras-like affair. There were days of drinking, poker, and a few scuffles, after which the spectators were ferried across the lake under cover of darkness. They debarked in the morning to watch the fight on a barren peninsula where a ring had been hastily assembled.
At some time during the summer of 1859 John must have told Adah about the humiliating defeat he suffered at the hands of his rival, Morrissey. While training he was hounded by the authorities so that he had to frequently break camp. Morrissey, who ran a gambling den, was not troubled by the police. Further, a serious abscess on John’s leg left him weakened on the day of the fight. He staked everything on a knockout in the early rounds.
Heenan’s opponent was just under six feet tall, brawny enough. Heavily bearded, given to dressing well and spending freely, “Old Smoke” had an extensive Irish following. The personable Heenan was embraced by the Native American faction, meaning those born in the United States who were anti-immigrant. The two fighters were dressed in tights and boots, bare from the waist up. Their hands were hardened by soaking in brine or walnut juice. They fought under the rules of the London prize ring, which meant that a round ended when a man went down, and the fight was to the finish.
In the first few rounds Heenan took charge, pressing Morrissey toward the ropes as he repeatedly hit him with his left. One blow went wild and struck a ring post, which had no padding. This was bare knuckle boxing, and Heenan badly damaged two knuckles. His quick left was of little use from then on.
Yet Heenan landed sledgehammer blows on Morrissey’s nose and eye. Old Smoke countered with body blows. To end a round, each fighter would try to grasp and throw the other and fall on top of him. Choke holds were legal and so was bending an opponent over the ropes and breaking his back. Bare knuckle fighters were called “gladiators” for good reason.
By the seventh round Heenan was visibly weakening. Morrissey continued to pound his torso, and by the eleventh round the fight was reduced to a question of endurance. Heenan, weakened by body blows, swung wildly in the air. Morrissey, like a bulldog, bore in relentlessly till he had downed Heenan, who, reported the Police Gazette, was “carried insensible to his corner, beaten and terribly battered.”
A certain gallantry prevailed among these warriors of the ring. Heenan, revived, was seated next to Morrissey in a carriage, and the two heroes, side by side, were paraded around the grounds. The party steamed back to Buffalo, firing rockets as a large crowd cheered at the dock. In New York and other cities the taverns and newspaper and telegraph offices were packed by fans waiting for the news. The police were called out to keep the peace. From this moment on Heenan hoped for a rematch, and when Morrissey retired to became a United States Congressman, he claimed the heavyweight championship.
Leo Tolstoy remarked how difficult it was for a novelist to write about happiness. It is just as difficult for a biographer. Happiness leaves few traces while misery tends to be outspoken. During the summer of 1859 Adah was happy. Within a year’s time, John Heenan had made her miserable, and therefore we know when they first made love. She wrote the touching poem “One Year Ago” in July 1860, on the anniversary of the date:
You took my hand–one year ago,
Beneath the azure dome above,
And gazing on the stars you told
The trembling story of your love.
I gave to you–one year ago
the only jewel that was mine;
My heart took off her lonely crown;
And all her riches gave to thine.
Adah might feel seduced and abandoned one year later, but when she believed in John’s love she entered wholeheartedly into his sporting world. With this “awkward and vulgar crowd of fighters, promoters, gamblers and their women friends,” writes Fulton Oursler, Adah shared “a sense of camaraderie.” Free of the bourgeois fetters of the Menken clan, she let drop the serious side of her nature and gave vent to the playful. She remembered those things her ne’er-do-well stepfather had taught her.
That summer Adah became familiar with the hangouts of the pugilistic fraternity, taverns such as the Old Crib or the Sporting Museum, which had a ring in the back room. She listened attentively to the opinions of old-timers and young sprouts on horse racing, cock, dog, and rat fights, and boxing. She became friends with a number of the fighters, took boxing lessons and sparred in the ring. In fine weather she and John picnicked at Jones’ Wood on the East River, or rowed a boat on the Hudson, rented at Hoboken. Adah adored John’s strength and his kindness and attention to her. Despite her two previous marriages, both failures, she was eager to try again.
According to Ed James, Adah “induced” the Benecia Boy to marry her, “the ceremony taking place at a New York roadhouse known as Rock Cottage, kept by a well-known sporting character named Jim Hughes, by the Rev. J.S. Baldwin, on April 3, 1859.” Rock Cottage, on the Bloomingdale road (now Broadway) in upper Manhattan, made a convenient locale for a quiet marriage and brief honeymoon.
The affair was kept quiet, partly because of Adah’s recent divorce. More important, Jim Cusick was in negotiations with the handlers of the British champ, Tom Sayers, for a world title fight, and he believed that a wife might be troublesome. She would soften Heenan’s image, and the Boy had little else to make him a contender. In any case, the secrecy surrounding her marriage was going to cost Adah dearly, almost her life.
TO BE CONTINUED
by Michael Foster