The Original Superstar: Adah Isaacs Menken
Broadway-the Great White Way–began in Albany, New York on June 3, 1861. That night the audience at the Green Street theater gasped as Adah Isaacs Menken catapulted to the theatrical heavens on the back of a wild steed. Mazeppa, a popular equestrian drama based on Lord Byron’s epic poem, brought her instant stardom. On this opening night, John Smith, a savvy theatrical impresario, placed his money and reputation on the violet-eyed beauty whose scandalous personal life kept the Victorian-era two-penny newspapers in copy. Adah had already gone through three husbands, not necessarily one at a time.
A sheer, pink body stocking made Adah appear nude. Her audacity had caused the puritanical Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, to fume. His paper refused to carry advertisements for French contraceptives and virility aids, Now Greeley blasted Menken for daring to expose her body in public. He was equally outraged that she was usurping an heroic, previously male role. In the drama’s most dangerous scene, which called for Adah to gallop up a stage mountain, she rode the horse herself instead of using a dummy.
Albany offered Adah a venue for her theatrical athletics, which became a media event worthy of the famous P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum on Broadway in Manhattan also housed a theater. Her presence turned the smaller city into a provincial version of New York’s entertainment nexus. In Albany, Adah’s manager Edwin James called the first theatrical press conference that we know of. He lured his fellow journalists, who seldom ventured far, way up the Hudson River to gape at the beauty whose star quality struck them like a bolt of lightning.
James, a former lawyer, was currently theater-sports reporter on the New York Clipper, the 19th century’s version of Variety. Reporters from most of New York’s six daily newspapers, three weeklies and two monthlies accompanied him on the river steamboat. Mazeppa opened less than three months after President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Secession and the ensuing Civil War were heating up, but The Naked Lady-Adah’s new sobriquet–captured front page attention. James could boast of notoriety in his own right. An Englishman, he provided the model for Charles Dickens’ Stryver, the crooked barrister in A Tale of Two Cities. James had a shady past, and he fled England to dodge a charge of adultery, but he would remain Menken’s truest friend.
To publicize Mazeppa, Smith plastered posters all over town: They showed Adah lashed to the back of a fiery black stallion, its teeth bared, rearing high, front legs pawing the air. She wore a rather negligible garment. In an era that wrapped women in layers of elaborate clothing, Smith knew that his audience would plunk down seventy-five cents for a reserved seat in the balcony, or a dollar for an orchestra seat, to ogle the supposedly naked Adah. A show of thirteen trained horses paraded Albany’s streets bearing the placard: “The Menken Stud.”
James knew how to play on his fellow journalists’ erotic fantasies. For starters, he provided free drinks all around. The guys were already fascinated by the iconoclastic Menken, who bobbed her hair, smoked cigars, and wore pants in public. She had begun to publish confessional poetry rife with clues to her love life. So the scribes followed James and a liveried servant into Adah’s Albany suite, the most expensive in town. They found her reclining on a tiger skin, showing her much vaunted legs. She sipped champagne in between feeding bonbons to a French poodle. The petite bombshell (about five-foot-two) fancied herself the successor to Lola Montez, whom she would surpass in popularity. In homage to Lola, Adah choreographed a “spider dance,” which she based on the scandalous shimmy that Lola had performed from Paris to San Francisco.
Adah fielded the reporters’ questions like a seasoned politician. Truth be damned, as long as her glamorous image wowed them. One secret she could not make public during the racially-charged conflict of the Civil War: her lineage. New Orleans born in 1835, Adah Bertha Theodore was part black. Her Jewish religion and an Irish ancestor tossed into the gumbo gave her a multicultural pedigree well before it became fashionable.
At times, Adah would invent fictional parents to suit the moment. In one scenario, she grew up the daughter of a noble Frenchman, in another that of a millionaire Englishman. Still another yarn cast her in Texas captured by Indians and being made love to by their chief. Adah started the vogue of the sex goddess, a gilded (largely imaginary) creature such as Josephine Baker or Marilyn Monroe. It is fitting that a genuinely sexy lady-Sophia Loren-played one version of Adah in George Cukor’s movie Heller In Pink Tights.
The New York reporters were less concerned about where Menken came from than who she carried on with romantically. She told them just enough to titillate or even confuse. Once, in San Francisco, Brett Harte asked Adah whether it was true that she lived with Sam Houston in Texas as his “adopted daughter.” She batted the lashes over her violet eyes and answered, “It was General Jackson and Methuselah and other big men.” If provoked, she fired rockets like, “Good women are rarely clever and clever women are rarely good.”
Adah turned the Albany interview from gossip to her acting. She declared her spiritual affinity with Lord Byron, another rebellious soul, whom she emulated by wearing short, curly hair and a white, high collared blouse. At the end of the interview, Adah announced, “I must regretfully leave you. The wild steed must be tamed daily.” She had driven the reporters wild.
However, while James ushered his colleagues out, Adah felt the pain of a recent accident that had almost finished her career. At rehearsal, her trained mare Belle Beauty climbed part way up the ramp to the four-story stage mountain, then crashed down on planks below. Adah was knocked unconscious, blood flowing from her shoulder. Revived by a doctor, though pale as death, she drew the straps around her and rode the mare to the mountain’s top, to the amazement of the theater folk.
Menken’s Mazeppa, a Tartar prince, first appeared onstage as a regal figure in black velvet cloak and tights, ready for swashbuckling. At Mazeppa‘s climax, a gang of enemy soldiers apparently strip our hero nude. (He) looks very much like a curvy woman. Tied to the back of a snorting steed, storm raging, Adah clattered up a cardboard mountain over a narrow plywood ramp ending on the “flies” four stories up. This pioneering act, combining nudity and imminent danger, helped to keep The Naked Lady in the world spotlight throughout her brief, tempestuous career.
After bringing down the house for several weeks at Albany, Menken swept San Francisco and the Gold Coast, London, and then Paris. Mazeppa‘s popularity rivaled and continued longer than the equally melodramatic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On March 23, 1866, the superstar returned from her European triumphs to New York. George Wood, manager of the Broadway Theater, capitulated to her astronomical salary demands. He had little choice: the toast of world capitals trailed rave reviews from the likes of America’s Mark Twain, Britain’s Charles Dickens, and Frances’ Alexandre Dumas. She was at once celebrated and notorious, a celebrity before her time.
However, Menken’s plaudits could not erase the pain she had suffered as a struggling ingenue in New York. Three of her five unfortunate marriages were performed in New York. Her first, to a New Orleans minstrel performer, soon ended. Her second, in 1856 in Texas, was to Alexander Isaac Menken, the black sheep of a prosperous German Jewish family settled in Ohio. He was a musician in a family of merchants. Alex took her to Cincinnati, where she began her career as an essayist in defense of the Jewish people and women’s rights. Three years later, though she kept Alex’s name, Adah ran off to New York to marry bare knuckle boxer John Heenan, the love of her life.
This ceremony in September 1859 at Jim Hughes’s roadhouse on the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) was kept secret. Heenan, a contender for the American heavyweight crown, had already attained enormous popularity. Although boxing was illegal in New York, heavy betting went on anyway. The Irish “Benicia Boy” followed the advice of his managers, who were convinced marriage to an actress would diminish his fighting image. And Adah’s recent divorce and quick remarriage could brand her as a scarlet woman.
Heenan steamed off to fight the British champion for the world title. He left Adah in New York, pregnant and penniless. By January news of this marriage of beauty and brawn, of the sex goddess to the sports champion, had leaked out. It foreshadowed that of Marilyn Monroe to Joe Dimaggio. Newspaper columnists–called “Itemizers”–pounced on this scandal about to happen. Rumors sprang up that the couple were not legally married. Pro and con reporters split into factions to fight it out in the tabloid papers.
The pot came to a full boil when, from Cincinnati, Alex Menken chimed in that Adah had committed bigamy, denying she obtained a valid divorce from him. Adah’s theatrical career, in musical shows with song and dance, had been thriving, but now it was in danger. Heenan, once he returned to New York, delivered the knockout punch to Adah, denying they had ever been married. While New Yorkers acclaimed the new world champion, they denounced Adah as an immoral, depraved woman. No theater would book her. In June her son was born only to die in a few weeks. Adah wound up in court for non-payment of rent. During the hearing, Heenan’s lawyer called her a “dangerous woman,” a euphemism for a prostitute. In the newspapers. Heenan announced, “The woman calling herself my wife is an impostor.”
Adah retreated to Jersey City where she attempted suicide. An unknown friend, possibly Walt Whitman, saved her. In 1860 Adah assuaged her heartache by writing vivid, confessional poetry, the first of its kind. Erica Jong has claimed that “Sylvia Plath’s poetry was the first poetry by a woman to fully express the female rage.” Interestingly, Menken raged on more than a century before Plath. Her moods of despair alternated with defiant ones. In “Judith” a poem published on September 2, 1860 in The Sunday Mercury, Adah triumphed over Heenan in a Biblical context.
Adah assumed the role of the Israelite heroine Judith, who seduces the enemy’s general, Holofernes, then, when he sleeps, beheads him with his own sword. She imagined Heenan’s “long black hair clinging to the glazed eyes . . . the strong throat all hot and reeking with blood.” The same year the Mercury also published Menken’s bold essay in defense of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. She lashed out at detractors who condemned his “barbaric yawp.” In her “Swimming Against the Current,” she trumpeted the obscure poet, who was “centuries ahead of his contemporaries.” He “wields his pen, exerts his energies for the cause of liberty and humanity.”
An admirer of Adah’s form, both literary and physical, Robert Henry Newell, the influential editor of The Sunday Mercury, became her fourth husband on September 24, 1862. Newell attained nationwide prominence during the Civil War under the pseudonym of Orpheus C. Kerr. President Lincoln chuckled over his punning satires on corrupt office seekers in Washington. Newell urged Adah to quit the theater and concentrate on her writing. He feared playing stage door Johnny while his wife’s career took off. The intellectual editor functioned in Menken’s love life much the way Arthur Miller would in Marilyn Monore’s. One side of Adah craved a man with brute, physical appeal, the other searched for mentors whose minds she respected. Newell introduced Menken to literary circles, including the bohemian group of artists, journalists, theatrical folk who were regulars at New York’s Pfaff’s tavern.
At Charley Pfaff’s smoky, rowdy beer cellar on Broadway (just above Bleecker Street), the literati could count on a special long table reserved for them. The motley crew had one thing in common: their worship of Edgar Allen Poe, a martyr to his art. In this first American bohemia, Whitman could expound his philosophy of brotherly love or listen to dissidents debate issues such as the rights of women. In 1860 Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Whitman at Pfaff’s, but he found it a bit raucous for his taste.
Adah shone among these kindred spirits whose laissez faire morality matched her own. For example, Ada Clare, whom the Pfaffites dubbed “Queen of Bohemia,” smoked in public, bobbed her hair, and boasted of her emancipation from social restraints. She paraded her child out of wedlock by the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. An actress and writer, Ada Clare found much in common with her soul sister whom the press had treated shamefully. Both women thumbed their noses at the Victorian fetish for decorum that put a woman “in her place.”
The New York that Adah returned to in 1866, after the Civil War, was bustling and lively. Commerce had revived to create a leisure class avid to see and be seen at theaters. The elite showed off their fashionable wear at the Academy of Music, at Fourteenth Street and Irving Place. Horace Greeley objected to the pretensions of both the building and its audience, who watched each other through opera glasses rather than the performance. The rising middle class went to Broadway, where it was respectable for unaccompanied women to attend the matinees. The laboring class settled for cheap Bowery playhouses, immigrants for shows in their native language.
In 1862 Menken had played briefly at the New Bowery Theater. Here she did vaudeville-style acts and impersonated prominent stars of the day, including Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Booth. She was successful until scandal had brought her down. Now, four years and several countries later, she was starring at the Broadway Theater. To build her box office Adah rode a white steed around Central Park accompanied by ten grooms and her horse trainer. The Sunday Mercury quipped: “The Menken would, we presume, wear some clothes on this occasion.” At a time when advance sales were rare, Adah sold out the Broadway a week before opening night in April. Extra chairs were placed in the aisles to accommodate the overflow, and latecomers fought for standing room or window sill space. The cholera scare that menaced New York could not dim the luster of Menken’s premiere.
Adah’s martial acrobatics gave audiences a hero to cheer, who epitomized America’s newly confident attitude. A few critics were displeased, notably the prissy William Winter, who called the audience “the coarsest and most brutal assembly that we have ever seen at a theater on Broadway.” Nonetheless Adah drew standing-room-only crowds because she gave them an electric charge unique in her day. Actors such as the Booth brothers (including the assassin John Wilkes) made flowery speeches or struck dramatic poses on the stage’s apron. Menken hurled herself into space to command the heights and depths of the proscenium arch. Mazeppa’s special effects have evolved into Broadway classics such as Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon. Today’s stage action occurs against a panoramic background on aerial, lavish sets which appear three dimensional or to float like a mirage. This feeling of spatial adventure is one of Menken’s gifts to the modern theater, not to mention Hollywood.
Success failed to bring Adah personal happiness. James Barclay, a handsome Confederate officer (and possibly undercover agent) had become Menken’s lover in California, but for a time she refused to marry him. In Manhattan, he installed Adah in an “uptown” town house on thirty-ninth street in which she entertained elite New Yorkers drawn by the magic of her name. Yet Adah dubbed her residence “Bleak House,” after the novel by her friend Charles Dickens. Ada Clare found time to attend Menken’s dinner parties in between putting the finishing touches to her early feminist novel, Only a Woman’s Heart.
Adah’s fifth and final marriage was also her briefest: four days. It took place in New York on August 19, 1866. All along Barclay had fruitlessly urged the star to marry him. Now, pregnant with his child, she agreed to a legal ceremony although she no longer believed in the institution so revered by Victorian society. After a heated quarrel, she sailed for Paris on the Cunard steamship Java. Ed James, who saw her off, revealed that “She was so ill from an overdose of poison, we had to carry her from the tender to her stateroom.”
Adah Menken went on to even greater triumphs in London and Paris. But her boy child, whom she loved dearly, died in infancy. In both capitals she carried on notorious affairs: in the former with the masochistic poet Algernon Swinburne, in the latter with the elderly musketeer Alexander Dumas. At thirty-three, in 1868, the toast of Victorian London and Imperial Paris breathed her last in a cheap hotel on the Right Bank. Adah had spent or given away her fabulous earnings. At the end, she uttered her adieu to the world in lines worthy of a Greek stoic. “I am lost to art and life. Yet have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who lived to one hundred? It is fair then that I go where old people go.” Adah most regretted that she did not live to see her poetry collection published. Infelicia came out shortly after her death, went through a dozen editions, and is still in print today.
Fortunately, Menken’s image lives on through the incandescent theatrical portraits of New York photographer Napoleon Sarony. His contemporaries dubbed him “the father of artistic photography in America.” At a time when cameras lacked lighting or even an aperture, Sarony introduced painted backgrounds, interesting accessories into his pictures, and added a sense of movement. In his studio at 630 Broadway, he captured an elaborately costumed Adah at her most dramatic– or in her sexy body stocking. The Naked Lady anticipated the provocative poses and roles assumed by models and celebrities on calendars and magazine covers over the next two centuries.
Aspects of Menken’s persona were reincarnated in later day stars. Lilly Langtree, Oscar Wilde’s favorite and mistress of the Prince of Wales, emerged as a public persona able to hold her own with intellectuals. She gained respect as more than a pretty face and figure. Theda Bara, the silent film vamp, relied on poses (known as attitudes) similar to Adah’s to project a dark, sexy image. Gloria Swanson contrasted her pale skin against black velvet, an effect Adah had previously employed.
Jean Harlow, witty and curvy like Adah, is a classic case of the doomed superstar syndrome: a wildly successful, high-profile life ended by death at an early age-and punctuated by unhappy marriages. Adah’s parallels with Marilyn Monore are still more uncanny, especially the orphaned quality, a hidden past, self-education and serious dramatic ambition succumbing to typecasting and the making of money for others. Nearly a century after Adah passed on, Marilyn was supposed to play her for Fox in one of the “pink tights” movies begun by Betty Grable, but it never came off (pun intentional).
However, Adah did inspire other actresses to portray her. Stella Adler, best known as an acting teacher, played “the divine Jewess,” a Menken based character in Gold Eagle Guy, a Group Theater production on Broadway. Sophia Loren gave Adah an Italian twist in the film Heller in Pink Tights, opposite Anthony Quinn. The great George Cukor, a Menken fan, directed. Busty Ruth Roman played Adah in episodes of the TV series Bonanza, and Charlotte Rampling played her in the 1976 Sherlock Holmes in New York, opposite Roger Moore. Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping A Scandal in Bohemia also filmed for TV, features the lead character Irene Adler, who is obviously based on Menken. Scandal was the first Conan Doyle story to gain popularity, and Adler-Menken is his strongest female character. In Scandal Watson reveals: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”
Billy Rose, producer, promoter and columnist, called Adah “a lollapalooza who rates with Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and other standouts in the cuddle-up sweepstakes.” Rose collected Menkeniana, and so did Jerome Kern. Adah inspired the role of Julie, the part-black entertainer in Kern’s immortal Showboat. Menken’s influence is with us any time we go to the musical theater, admire a screen siren, or empathize with a female poet baring her soul’s plight. Adah’s person sang, as had Whitman’s verse, of the body electric, firm and active before being wasted from disease or, in the Civil War, riddled by bullets. She may have done battle onstage, but in private she made love.
Adah still speaks to us through books and films, but best through Napoleon Sarony’s portraits. There is about the best of them a haunting quality of recognition. Perhaps we have seen Adah’s star-struck look reborn in a later goddess, another beauty carried off by the untamed steed of success. The poet in pink tights lives and loves.
A version first appeared in Culturefront, summer 2000 by Michael and Barbara Foster