The Naked Lady Dazzles the Gold Rush West



Burlesque is back. Striptease, which once played to men only in seedy theaters, has reappeared in trendy clubs before mixed audiences. Post-feminist books and film documentaries, such as Liz Goldwin’s Pretty Things, have explored the lineage of this American art form. Burlesque began in the midst of the carnage of the Civil War between North and South, but flowered in the easier environment of the West’s golden era. The Naked Lady took nouveau riche California and young Mark Twain by storm. 

In September 1863, between the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address, a cub reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens described for his Nevada newspaper a stellar event that jolted San Francisco:

About this time a magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision-the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gasjets, and shed a glory abroad over the universe as it fell. I have used the term “Great Menken” because I regard it as a more modest expression than the Great Bare.

The notorious actress Adah Isaacs Menken, at the beginning of a wildly successful year-long tour of the gold country, affected Sam viscerally. His employer, Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise, printed his piece, “The Menken, Especially for Gentlemen.” He signed it Mark Twain, one of the earliest uses of his alter ego. Sam boasted to his distant Ma that he had “the widest reputation, as a local editor, of any man on the coast.” Actually, the young dandy, with curly hair and flowing mustache, was a hard-drinking smart-aleck and an aspiring ladies man. Fortunately, Mark Twain would mature, shedding his bad habits such as punning “bare” for “bear.”

On August 7th, Sam had missed Adah’s steaming into bustling ‘Frisco Bay from New York via Panama. The dock was lined by an admiring crowd, gathered from the world wide, which was headed by “big” Tom Maguire. He was a compact, white-haired impresario with a diamond in his cravat, a former hack driver in Manhattan who began his West Coast career by running a minstrel show over a gambling den. After each of Maguire’s theaters burned down, he used the insurance money to build a grander one. He imported leading actors and European companies to play at his Opera House. Off the auditorium stood a stock exchange in which patrons speculated in gold and silver stocks during intermissions. In offering Adah Menken a 60-day run at an unheard of one-third of the gate, Maguire was risking both his wallet and reputation. To date, Adah was a one-horse actress, riding bareback-in every sense-in Mazeppa, a melodrama based on an epic poem by Lord Byron.

All over town-from its new brick and stone mansions, lavishly furnished by parvenu mine owners, to shacks scrambling up hillsides like goats-Maguire had plastered posters of Adah. As the freedom-fighting Cossack Prince Mazeppa, she lay, apparently naked, strapped to the back of an untamed stallion. The brute reared over a precipice while its female rider appealed for help-an irresistible mix of danger and nudity. On that August day, while a brass band of firemen played and cowboys fired their pistols in the air, a self-possessed Menken descended the gangway on the arm of her fourth husband, Robert Newell, a respected literary figure.

Among the crowd was Charles Warren Stoddard, America’s first openly gay writer. Later, after he’d traveled the globe and pened sensual tales of the South Pacific, he still recalled Adah’s “head of Byronic mold, a fair, proud throat, open to admiration.” Stoddard was struck by Adah’s “intoxicated” violet eyes. He thought her short, curly, black hair gave her an air of “half-feminine masculinity suggestive of the Apollo Belvedere.”

Adah, athletic and five-foot-two, had a curvy, hour-glass figure that pleased masculine tastes in the age of Queen Victoria. When Sam Clemens called her “a Venus,” he recognized that Adah Menken was the original American love goddess. Before burlesque theaters, Hollywood, and adult DVDs, Adah drove her largely male audiences to distraction, while women scoured the newspapers for gossip about her latest amour. Fans collected her “cheesecake” photos for albums, and at her theatrical shows “big men” tossed bags of gold dust on stage. But who was this mystery woman? Where had she come from?

She was born Adah Bertha Theodore in Milneburg, Louisiana in 1835, six months before Sam Clemens, during the year of Halley’s comet. Adah’s mother Marie Théodore was a widow, a woman of color, and a member of New Orleans’ third caste: light-skinned, French speaking, she was likely to become the mistress of a white gentleman of means. Although Marie may have converted to the Jewish faith to please Adah’s father, Adah herself flatly told the press: “I was born in that faith and have adhered to it through all my erratic career.” She describes her mother as a pious, amiable, cultivated woman, who reared her daughter with the aid of a series of stepfathers. The identity of Adah’s natural father remains a mystery.

Adah spent much of her adolescence in Texas. She was strikingly pretty and a flirt. Her first marriage, at twenty, took place in Galveston, to a well-known performer in minstrel shows. They hastily divorced. A year later in Livingston, Texas, Adah married Alexander Isaacs Menken, a musician on the outs with his wealthy Jewish family. With husband Alex as agent, she toured the old southwest in both heavily dramatic and light comic roles. While playing Lady Macbeth in Nashville, she forgot her lines but continued to emote, dagger drawn, and brought down the house. Quick with a song or improv, or at deflating a heckler, Adah was not a classic tragedienne. Her acting was bold, physical, personal-far ahead of her time.

After the financial crash of 1857 the Menkens steamed upriver to Alex’s family in Cincinnati. Here Adah wrote poems and articles for The Israelite, a weekly founded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise to promote Reform Jewry in America and defend Jews against discrimination abroad. She won the admiration of Baron Lionel de Rothschild by her stirring defense of his right to sit in the British Parliament. In return he dubbed Adah, “the inspired Deborah of her people.” However, Adah’s attempt to play the good wife failed when Alex drank and abused her. On the eve of the Civil War, she obtained a rabbinical divorce and fled to New York. She fell in love with John Carmel Heenan, a handsome, Irish-American, bareknuckle boxer who claimed the national heavyweight championship. The couple’s marriage was kept under wraps to preserve Heenan’s tough-guy image.

When Heenan steamed away to London to fight the British champ, he left Adah pregnant and destitute. While anxiously awaiting word from her husband, she lost the child. Meanwhile the first-ever match for the world title, held in April 1860, stirred immense interest as a proxy battle between the two nations, older John Bull and his offspring, Young America. The bare-knuckle bashing attracted a fashionable throng that included lords and ladies and an emissary from Queen Victoria. It went 37 bloody rounds to a draw. From then on, Heenan was idolized and chose to ignore Adah. In the midst of the poor woman’s troubles, Alex Menken told the papers he had never divorced her-she was a bigamist! Heenan, on his return, claimed he had never married her! Reviled, Adah attempted suicide.

Her savior was Robert Newell, who disembarked with her at San Francisco. Editor on an influential weekly, he had published Adah’s nakedly confessional poetry, composed in a free style she borrowed from her drinking buddy Walt Whitman. Bookish Newell had an alter ego: Orpheus C. Kerr (”office seeker’), a biting satirist of bureaucratic wartime Washington. His bestsellers relied on Irish jokes partly directed at Heenan. Newell had won Adah at a moment when she craved respectability. Planning her sweep of the Gold Coast, she needed a husband to keep the miners at bay. Once the newlyweds disembarked at San Francisco, the crowd mobbed Adah, leaving Newell with a mountain of baggage. The city that embraced The Naked Lady was supposedly the most wicked on earth, a metropolis of sinful pleasures where extravagance followed from the sudden riches of a rootless populace.

The red-light district, the Barbary Coast, centered on Pacific (aka “Terrific”) Street, has become legendary. But from the mid-nineteenth century onward, the city’s entertainment ranged from burlesque through legitimate theater. In 1856 Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, played King Lear. He introduced a modern, nervous style and became the leading actor of his time. His elder brother Junius played the villain to Adah Menken’s scantily dressed Mazeppa. The gossipy press linked Adah and Edwin, but she was more akin to John Wilkes, with whom she shared a devotion to the South that became one of her articles of faith.

San Franciscans could attend the French ballet, the Italian Opera, or see Lotta Crabtree, soon to become America’s sweetheart, at the Melodeon on Portsmouth Square. Managed by her mother, the girl earned the family’s living by touring the mining camps, playing the banjo. Lotta became Adah’s adoring protégé during her year of western triumph. Aside from stripping, Menken was accomplished at a snappy song and dance style already termed “vaudeville.” Or she could sing with the heartfelt emotion that led lo the musical theater of Jerome Kern, a posthumous admirer.

Adah liked to hobnob with the literati from the Golden Era, a weekly edited at gorgeously furnished Montgomery Street offices. Mark Twain and Bret Harte are its best-known alumni, but a coterie of talents contributed material from baked-bean recipes to Menken’s “Resurgam,” a dirge for her vanished love. Adah’s close friend was Cincinnatus Miller, who had recently changed his first name to Joaquin. This former lndian fighter, horse thief, and pony express rider studied the writer’s craft from backstage. Adah conquered him at once. “Her fascination lay in her beauty of mind,” Miller wrote, “her soul and sweet sympathy, her sensibility to all that was beautiful in form, color, life, heart, humanity.” Miller, who became famous as the “Poet of the Sierra,” would also achieve notoriety in London society for biting ladies’ ankles under Mayfair tables.

Miller taught Adah trick riding, which she needed to play Prince Mazeppa. At the climax of the drama’s Act One, Mazeppa, treated as a servant, is caught by a Polish nobleman making love to his daughter Olinska. The count’s men appear to strip Mazeppa bare, but Adah wore sheer, flesh-tinted tights that showed a great deal. The soldiers tie their prisoner to a supposed wild steed, actually well-trained by Adah. They are sent galloping up a four-story stage mountain complete with waterfalls and chasms. Horse and rider follow a narrow run until finally they disappear behind the proscenium arch. Adah’s daredevil feat broke the theatrical rule that the female form if shown undressed must not move. She never knew when her horse might slip and, crashing through the timbers, injure her. Several actresses who imitated Adah’s act were maimed and one killed.

In Act Two, Mazeppa is returned a bit battered to his native land and nursed back to health by his long-lost father, the Cossack chief. In Act Three, the Prince leads his cavalry against the Polish castle, vanquishes the wicked count, and wins the hand of Olinska. Adah’s part was strenuous, and she often shattered the real swords she used. On opening night Maguire’s Opera House and the surrounding streets were packed with gaping humanity-”miners, traders, gamblers, society, Bohemians and critics,” wrote Allen Lesser in Enchanting Rebel. The going wager was whether she would or wouldn’t take it all off. Sam Clemens answered the question for his Nevada readers:

When I arrived in San Francisco, I found there was nobody in town but “the Menken”-or rather, that no one was being talked about except that manly young female. 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.

Sam was already morphing into Mark Twain. The Enterprise reporter lived it up in San Francisco, though on a more polite level than had Sam in the bawdy houses of Virginia City. With discretion, he intimates that Adah had discarded her tights and was nude except for a diaper-like cloth. He also informs Nevadans that impresario Tom Maguire guessed correctly: “Mazeppa proved a great card for Maguire here; he put it on the boards in first-class style, and crowded houses went crazy over it every night it was played.” Initially, there were sixteen performances for which Maguire estimated he sold 30,000 tickets, a figure equal to half the population of the city.

Playing Mazeppa was exhausting, so the company switched to The French Spy, a musical farce in which Adah played six roles by quick-change of costume. Strutting in a tuxedo, cravat, and wearing a top hat at a rakish angle, Adah anticipated Marlene Dietrich’s bisexual nightclub style. Driven to break taboos, she smoked cigarettes in public, a habit she had picked up in Havana, where ladies puffed away in the theater between acts.

Adah never performed on Jewish high holy days, and on Yom Kippur in San Francisco she attended services at the synagogue. Robert Newell wrote in a fine, sad poem about his wife, “Aspasia,” that she reigned over “a court in the Kingdom of night.” After each grueling performance, she relaxed by gambling into the wee hours. Accompanied by her pals from the Golden Era, Adah usually won. One night, to win a bet, she dressed in a sporting gent’s attire, and chomping a cigar, she toured the brothels of the Barbary Coast. Afterward, Adah boasted that she could make out better than the girls she had seen.

In December, Adah was joined by a comrade in dissipation, Artemus Ward, the first-hardly the last-unfunny stand-up comic. Ward was a lanky, beak-nosed Yankee from Maine. His humor depended on an invented dialect, which he delivered with a straight, mournful face. He was Abe Lincoln’s favorite humorist, and the President read his cabinet a piece by Ward before presenting them with The Emancipation Proclamation.
Ward was an alcoholic, and after a rosy success in London, he would die young. But for the moment, it was all fun as Adah gave a party for Ward at the Era, doing a hilarious imitation of his nonsense monologues. Maguire sent Ward to Nevada, where Adah suggested he look up that rascal Sam Clemens, while Adah took the steam ferry to Sacramento to perform Mazeppa in another of Maguire’s theaters.

“Prudery is obsolete!” declared The Sacramento Union. Indeed, prudery had never worried the miners who flocked to gawk at the athletic Venus. While ovations rang down the curtain, men tossed Adah bags of gold dust and nuggets. Women attended, allegedly to decide if the performance was proper to behold. Newell had his own doubts. A cartoon of the day shows him arriving in Virginia City in February 1864 on the coach, accompanying his wife to her next triumph. Dusty and disgruntled, Newell rides in the boot along with the baggage. Adah’s pet poodles have taken up the coach seats.

Virginia City, on the eastern slope of Sun Mountain, contained the fabulous Comstock Lode of precious metals. Round the clock, miners worked shafts twelve stories deep, fetid and dangerous, and afterward they rose to the surface to drink and gamble. The arrival of The Naked Lady was the best news since bonanza!

On the Comstock, Mazeppa rode again at Maguire’s new Opera House during the first week of March. Miners, merchants, and murderers of the boomtown that “had a man for breakfast each morning” filled the thousand-seat house and jammed the aisles. They cheered Adah, hissed the villains, and roared their approval. Bags of gold dust rained down on stage, while Adah’s favorite saloon keeper, Tom Peasley, presented her with a heavy, engraved bar of silver worth $2,000. A mining district was dubbed “The Menken,” and Adah was formally presented with shares of stock, which she sold a year later for $50,000. For today’s values, multiply the amounts by at least twenty.

Adah remained on the Comstock through the month, performing in musicals, gambling at Peasley’s, and cultivating Sam Clemens. The critic on The Enterprise responded by frequently praising Adah, which caused a rival paper to claim Sam had been “Menkenized” and was acting “awful spooney” toward her. But the star harbored a secret desire to tell her story as a novel, and in the show-off journalist she spotted the great storyteller Mark Twain. The culmination of this “spooney” relationship came one Sunday when Adah invited Sam to an intimate dinner at her suite in the International Hotel. Nervous, he found Adah lounging on a tiger’s skin by the fire. As the pair sat sipping champagne, their eyes met while Adah’s dogs bounded playfully about. A melodramatic Robert Newell had staked out the corridor outside the door, and he paced furiously in jealous exile. Events were growing heated when one of the dogs attached himself to Sam’s leg. Trying to shake it off, he kicked Adah, who threw herself howling in pain on the couch. The gallant beat a retreat, glared at by Newell.

At the end of March, Adah suddenly departed Virginia City by coach in the dead of night, minus Newell. In San Francisco she became involved with John Paul Barkley even before her next divorce. Barkley, from Tennessee, was a captain in the Confederate Army, but he was acting as a gambler and speculator in mining stocks. Not much is known about the man who became Adah’s fifth husband. After the war in London, Barkley consorted with Southerners Belle Boyd, the notorious spy, and Judah Benjamin, former Confederate Secretary of State who had hoped to end slavery in return for British recognition.

Adah gave her final San Francisco appearance as Mazeppa on April 17, 1864. An accident caused by her horse slipping off the run made her more popular than ever. Having won the heart of the West, Adah and her new love sailed away on a clipper ship, headed around the Horn to England. They carried with them bills of exchange and mining stocks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (equal to much more today), looking to cut a swath through the social circles of London and Paris. Adah wowed the men and women of a still largely aristocratic Europe, and she broke theatrical records in both capitals. Alas, her most promising marriage lasted no longer than the others. Afterward, dukes, kings, even Emperor Louis Napoleon paid court to her. She preferred the friendship of the literary greats Charles Dickens, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne. She wrote a slim volume of impassioned poetry, Infelicia, published after her untimely death in 1868.

Adah’s departure closed an era in Gold Coast theatricality. It triggered an exodus of talent that included Lotta Crabtree, Junius Booth, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller. Back in Nevada, that blazing comet The Menken had made Sam Clemens discontent. “I did not know what I wanted,” he wrote. “I had the spring fever.” Sam left for San Francisco, then prospected for gold in the Mother Lode country. In February 1865, he found a letter from Artemus Ward asking for a sketch on the West. Sam recalled a tale heard at Angel’s Camp from a garrulous miner about a frog jumping contest and how the favorite frog, filled full of buckshot, lost the wager. Sam wrote it up, and the story was eventually published by Henry Clapp, a friend of Adah’s, in his Saturday Press. Clapp promptly went bankrupt and drank himself into a sanitarium. But that frog leaped clear across the land! “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” transformed Sam Clemens once and for all into Mark Twain.

For Adah the heights she had stormed led to the precipice: at thirty-three, neglected, her money spent, she lay mortally ill with tuberculosis in Paris. By her bedside, Henry Longfellow improvised a poem that concluded, “Tis Love, fond Love that awakens the strain!” On August 10, 1868 Adah went to sleep, but Mazeppa rode again as actresses imitated her act, even her name, into the twentieth century. They showed as much skin as local laws would allow. Burlesque, which began in a heroic mode, descended the mountain to the runway, to the striptease and fan dancing. Now, once again, at clubs from New York to Las Vegas the pretty young things dance, strut, and strip to the delight of a new generation of admirers. Though unaware, the girls are all godchildren of Adah Isaacs Menken.

A version of this article first appeared in California Territorial Quarterly, June 2007.

Archival sources for the letters, photos, and posters of Adah Isaacs Menken include the Harvard Theatre Collection; Harvard U.; The Billy Rose collection, New York Public Library; the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio; the California State Library, Sacramento, California.
Biographies of Menken include Performing Menken by Renee M. Sentilles (Ph.D. Thesis 1997); Mazeppa by Wolf Mankowitz (1982); and Enchanting Rebel by Allen Lesser (1947).
Reminiscences include Adah Isaacs Menken by Joaquin Miller (republished 1934); La Belle Menken by Charles Warren Stoddard (1904). Tom Maguire is treated in “Napoleon of the Stage” by Lois F. Rodecape, California Historical Society Quarterly, V.21 (1942).
Biographies of Samuel Langhorne Clemens that particularly apply to Menken include Mark Twain: A Biography by Albert Bigelow Paine (1912); Inventing Mark Twain by Andrew Hoffman (1997). Also Mark Twain of the Enterprise, ed. Henry Nash Smith (1957)