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Adah Isaacs Menken

Adah Isaacs Menken
Adah Isaacs Menken, age 19
Born (1835-06-15)June 15, 1835
Died August 10, 1868(1868-08-10) (aged 33)
Paris, France
Occupation Actress, painter, poet

Adah Isaacs Menken (June 15, 1835 – August 10, 1868), was an American actress, painter and poet, the highest earning actress of her time.[1] She was best known for her performance in the melodrama Mazeppa, with a climax that featured her apparently nude and riding a horse on stage. After great success for a few years with the play in New York and San Francisco, she appeared in a production in London and Paris, from 1864-66. After a brief trip back to the United States, she returned to Europe. She became ill within two years and died in Paris at age 33.

As Menken told so many versions of her origins, including name, place of birth, ancestry, and religion, historians have differed in their accounts. Most have said she was born a Louisiana Creole Catholic of mixed race, with European and African ancestry. A celebrity who created sensational performances in the United States and Europe, she married several times and was also known for her affairs. She had two sons, both of whom died in infancy.

Better known as an actress, Menken wanted to be known as a writer. She published about 20 essays, 100 poems, and a book of her collected poems, from 1855–1868 (the book was published posthumously). Early work was devoted to family; after her marriage her poetry and essays featured Jewish themes but, beginning with work published after moving to New York, with which she changed her style, Menken expressed a wide range of emotions and ideas about women's place in the world. Her collection Infelicia went through several editions and was in print until 1902.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Career 2
  • Marriages and family 3
  • European years 4
  • Literary career 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Early life and education

Accounts of Menken's early life and origins vary considerably. In her autobiographical "Some Notes of Her Life in Her Own Hand," published in the New York Times in 1868, Menken said she was born Marie Rachel Adelaide de Vere Spenser in Bordeaux, France and lived in Cuba as a child before her family settled in New Orleans.[2] Elsewhere, in 1865 she wrote that her birth name was Dolores Adios Los Fiertes, and that she was the daughter of a French woman from New Orleans and a Jewish man from Spain.[3] About 1940, the consensus of scholars was that her parents were Auguste Théodore, a free black, and Marie, a mixed-race Creole, and Adah was raised as a Catholic. Ed James, a journalist friend, wrote after her death: “Her real name was Adelaide McCord, and she was born at Milneburg, near New Orleans, on June 15, 1835.”[4] She may have recounted this version as well. She had a sister and a brother.[3]

In 1990, John Cofran, using census records, said that she was born as Ada C. McCord, in Memphis, Tennessee in late 1830, the daughter of an Irish merchant Richard McCord and his wife Catherine.[5][6] According to Cofran, her father died when she was young and her mother remarried; the family moved from Memphis to New Orleans.

Based on Menken's assertions of being a native of New Orleans, Wolf Mankowitz and others have studied Board of Health records for the city. They have concluded that Ada was born in the city as the legitimate daughter of Auguste Théodore, a free man of color (mixed race) and his wife Magdaleine Jean Louis Janneaux,[4][7] likely also a Louisiana Creole. Ada would have been raised as Catholic.

Ada was said to have been a bright student; she became fluent in French (which Creoles used and was still a prominent language in New Orleans) and Spanish.[8] She was described as having a gift for languages.[3] As a child, Adah performed as a dancer in the ballet of the French Opera House in New Orleans. In her later childhood, she performed as a dancer in Havana, Cuba, where she was crowned "Queen of the Plaza".[8]


Menken as The French Spy, 1863

After Cuba, Menken left dance for the stage, and began working as an actress, first in Texas. According to Gregory Eiselein, she gave Shakespeare readings, wrote poems and sketches for The Liberty Gazette, and first married there, in Galveston County, in February, 1855 to G. W. Kneass, a musician. The marriage ended by some time in 1856.[3]

There she met and in 1856 married the man more generally considered her first husband, Alexander Isaac Menken, a musician who was from a prominent Reform Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio.[9] He began to act as her manager, and Ada Menken performed as an actress in the Midwest and Upper South, also giving literary readings. She received decent reviews, which noted her "reckless energy," and performed with men who became notable actors: Edwin Booth in Louisville, Kentucky and James E. Murdoch in Nashville, Tennessee.[10]

In 1857 the couple moved to Cincinnati, where Menken created her Jewish roots, telling a reporter that she was born Jewish. She did study Judaism and stayed with the faith, although she never formally converted.[3] In this period, she published poetry and articles on Judaism in The Israelite in Cincinnati.[10] The newspaper was founded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was crucial to the Reform Judaism movement in the United States.[11] She also began to be published in the Jewish Messenger of New York.[3]

Ada added an "h" to her first name, and an "s" to Isaac; by 1858 she billed herself as Adah Isaacs Menken. She eventually worked as an actress in New York and San Francisco, as well as in touring productions across the country. She also became known for her poetry and painting. While none of her arts were well received by major critics, she gained a celebrity by her acting and her life that surpassed that of most poets, artists and legitimate actresses.[9]

At this time, Menken wore her wavy hair short, a highly unusual style for women of the time. She cultivated a bohemian and at times androgynous appearance. She was deliberately creating her image at a time when an expanding media existed to publicize it.[9]

In 1859 Menken appeared on Broadway in New York City in the play The French Spy. Her work was not highly regarded by the critics. The New York Times described her as "the worst actress on Broadway". The Observer said, "she is delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent". Adah Isaacs Menken continued to perform small parts in New York, as well as reading Shakespeare in performance, and giving lectures around town.[4]

Her second husband John C. Heenan, a boxer, was a popular, rallying national figure in the United States as sectional tensions increased before the American Civil War. While he was in London for a prominent match in March 1860, she billed herself as Mrs. John Heenan for a one-night run at the Old Bowery Theatre in New York, to great success. She gained other bookings as Mrs. Heenan in Boston, Providence, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, using his name despite their divorce within a year of marriage.[9]

While in New York, Menken met the poet Walt Whitman and some others of his bohemian circle. She was influenced by his work and began to write in a more confessional style. In 1860-61, she published 25 poems in the Sunday Mercury, an entertainment newspaper in New York. (These were later collected with six more in her only book, Infelicia, published a few months after her death.)[10] By publishing in a newspaper, she reached a larger audience than through women's magazines, including both men and women readers who might go to see her perform as an actress. At the same time, she used common conventions of sentimental poetry in her work.[9]

In 1860 Menken wrote a review entitled "Swimming Against the Current", which praised Walt Whitman's new edition of Leaves of Grass, saying he was "centuries ahead of his contemporaries".[9][10][12] She identified with him, and at the time, for a woman to support the controversial poet was a way of declaring her bohemian identity.[9] That year, Menken also wrote an article on the 1860 election. As it was very unusual for a woman to write about politics, and even the Mercury expressed reservations, this was another piece that added to her image.[9]

Menken in Mazeppa, 1866

Having met Charles Blondin in New York, who was a famed tightrope walker, Menken did a vaudeville tour with him. After it ended, she appealed to her business manager Jimmie Murdock to help her become recognized as a great actress. Murdock dissuaded Menken from that goal, as he knew she had little acting talent.[8] He offered her the "breeches role" (that of a man) of the noble Tartar in the melodrama Mazeppa, based on a poem by Lord Byron.[1] At the climax of this hit, the Tartar was stripped of his clothing, tied to his horse, and sent off to his death.[13] The audiences were thrilled with the scene, although the production used a dummy strapped to a horse, which was led away by a handler giving sugar cubes.

Menken wanted to perform the stunt herself.[6] Dressed in nude tights and riding a horse on stage, she appeared to be naked and caused a sensation.[6] Not only was she a woman playing the part of a man, and playing with conventions of gender, she heightened the sensationalism by appearing to be nude.[9] New York audiences were shocked but still attended and made the play popular. Some of society thought it beneath them.

Looking for more acclaim, Menken took the production of Mazeppa to San Francisco. Audiences less concerned about convention flocked to the show and made it wildly popular.[8] She became known across the country for this role, and San Francisco adopted her as its performer.

In 1862 Menken wrote about her public and private personae:

"I have always believed myself to be possessed of two souls, one that lives on the surface of life, pleasing and pleased; the other as deep and as unfathomable as the ocean; a mystery to me and all who know me."[2]

Marriages and family

By most accounts, the actress converted to Judaism after marrying her first husband, Alexander Isaac Menken, in 1856 in Livingston, Texas. He was a theatrical musician, whose father was a businessman in Cincinnati, Ohio.[8] He managed her bookings as an actress for a few years. When they moved to Cincinnati and Ada met his family, she seriously studied and converted to Judaism. Alex Menken separated from and later divorced Adah; she remained committed to Judaism the rest of her life.[1]

Adah Menken was married several times. She met some of her husbands while touring as an actress.[14] Her second husband was John C. Heenan, a popular Irish-American prizefighter whom she married in 1859. Some time after their marriage, the press discovered she did not yet have a legal divorce from Menken and accused her of bigamy. (She had thought he would have taken care of it, and he soon did.) As John Heenan was one of the most famous and popular figures in America, the press also accused Menken of marrying for his celebrity. They had a son, who died soon after birth.[8]

When Menken met Charles Blondin, notable for crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, the two were quickly attracted to each other. She suggested she would marry him if they could perform a couple's act above the falls. Blondin refused, saying that he would be “distracted by her beauty.”[8] The two had an affair, during which they conducted a vaudeville tour across the United States.

Menken continued to marry. In 1862 she married

  •  "Menken, Adah Isaacs".  
  • "Adah Isaacs Menken (Bertha Theodore) (1835-1868)", The Vault at Pfaff's, hosted at Lehigh University, includes several photos
  • Charles Warren Stoddard, "La Belle Menken", National Magazine, 1905, at Open Archive, includes several photos
  • "Adah Isaacs Menken", Jewish Virtual Library, 2012
  • "Adah Isaacs Menken", Portrait gallery - 21 photos, including one with Alexandre Dumas, Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library

External links

  • Diamond, Michael (2003). Victorian Sensation, Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Anthem Press. pp. 268–271.  
  • Dickson, Samuel (1955). Tales of Old San Francisco. Stanford University Press.  
  • Lloyd, Alan (1977). The Great Prize Fight. London: Cassell.  
  • Wright, Alan (1994). Tom Sayers : The Last Great Bare-knuckle Champion. Sussex, England: Book Guild.  
  • Elizabeth Brooks, Prominent Women of Texas (Akron, Ohio: Werner, 1896).
  • John Cofran, "The Identity of Adah Isaacs Menken: A Theatrical Mystery Solved," Theatre Survey 31 (May 1990).
  • Wolf Mankowitz, Mazeppa: The Lives, Loves, and Legends of Adah Isaacs Menken (New York: Stein and Day, 1982).
  • Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (4 vols., Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971–80).
  • Pamela Lynn Palmer, "Adah Isaacs Menken: From Texas to Paris," ed. Francis Edward Abernethy, Legendary Ladies of Texas, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 43 (Dallas: E-Heart, 1981).

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Pamela Lynn Palmer, "Adah Isaacs Menken", Handbook of Texas Online, published by the Texas State Historical Association, accessed 10 August 2012
  2. ^ a b Menken (6 September 1868). "Some Notes of Her Life in Her Own Hand". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Menken, Adah Isaacs (2002). Gregory Eiselein, ed. Infelicia and Other Writings. Peterborough: Broadview Press. pp. 15–16. 
  4. ^ a b c d Barca, Dane. “Adah Isaacs Menken: Race and Transgendered Performance in the Nineteenth Century.” MELUS, Volume 29. Number 3-4. (2004): pp. 293-306. ISBN 978-0-554-93218-7
  5. ^ John Cofran, "The Identity of Adah Isaacs Menken: A Theatrical Mystery Solved", Theatre Survey, Vol. 31, 1990
  6. ^ a b c Brooks, Daphne A. “Lady Menken’s Secret: Adah Isaacs Menken, Actress Biographies and the Race for Sensation.” Legacy, Volume 15. Number 1. (1998): pages 68-77.
  7. ^ Wolf Mankowitz, Mazeppa: The Lives, Loves, and Legends of Adah Isaacs Menken, New York: Stein and Day, 1982
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Samuel Dickson, "Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868)", KPO/KNBC radio script, later collected in San Francisco is Your Home, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1947; hosted at The Virtual Museum of San Francisco, accessed 8 August 2012
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Sentilles, Renée M. Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (2003) (ISBN 978-0-521-82070-7)
  10. ^ a b c d Dorsey Kleitz, "Adah Isaacs Menken", in Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century], ed. by Eri L. Haralson, pp. 294-296 (1998) (ISBN 978-1-57958-008-7)
  11. ^ "Adah Isaacs Menken", Jewish Virtual Library, 2012, accessed 8 August 2012
  12. ^ Alcaro, Marion Walker. Walt Whitman's Mrs. G: A Biography of Anne Gilchrist, p. 129-30 (1991)(ISBN 978-0-8386-3381-6)
  13. ^ Buszek, Maria-Elena. “Representing ‘Awarishness’: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression and the 19th-Century Pin-Up,” TDR, Volume 43. Number 4. (1988): page 141-162
  14. ^ Lesser, Allen. Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken, New York: The Beechhurst Press, 1947. ISBN 978-0-8046-1746-8
  15. ^ a b Victorian Sensation, Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century BritainMichael Diamond, , Anthem Press, 2003, p.270
  16. ^ Schuele, Donna C. “None Could Deny the Eloquence of the Lady: Women, Law and Government in California, 1850-1890,” California History, Volume 81. Number 3-4. (2003): pp. 169-198
  17. ^ Stephens, Autumn (1956). Wild Women. USA: Conari Press. p. 7.  


Beginning in New York, her poetry expressed a wider range of emotions related to relationships, sexuality, and also about women's struggle to find a place in the world. Her collection Infelicia went through several editions and was in print until 1902. In the late nineteenth century, critics were hard on women writers, and Menken's public notoriety caused even more critical scrutiny of her poems. Admirers included Christina Rossetti and Joaquin Miller.[3]

Her early work was devoted to family and romance. After her marriage to Menken and her study of Judaism, her poetry and essays for years into the 1860s featured Jewish themes. After her marriage and divorce from Heenan and meeting with writers in New York, she changed her style, adopting some influence from Walt Whitman. She was the "first poet and the only woman poet before the twentieth century" to follow his lead in using free verse.[3]

Menken wanted to be known as a writer but her work was overshadowed by her sensational stage career and private/public life. In total, she published about 20 essays, 100 poems and a book of her collected poems, from 1855-1868 (the book was published posthumously.)

Literary career

Her only book Infelicia, a collection of 31 poems, was published several days after her death.

The inscription on her tomb read - "Thou knowest."[17]

She was believed to have died of peritonitis and/or tuberculosis,[8] which was then incurable. Late twentieth-century sources suggest she had cancer.[1] She was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery.[1]

“I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.”[8]

Menken fell ill in London and was forced to stop performing.[4] Her fame and fortune dissipated quickly, and she struggled with poverty. Her last try to gain some income through art was preparing her poems for publication, and she still longed to be taken seriously as a poet. She moved back to Paris, where she died in 1868. She had just written a friend:

After spending some time in the United States, she returned to Europe, and performed in Mazeppa. Playing in a sold-out run of Les pirates de la savanne in Paris in 1866, Menken was delighted with her reception in France. She also had an affair with the French novelist Alexandre Dumas, pere, considered somewhat scandalous as he was more than twice her age. Returning to England in 1867, she struggled to attract audiences to Mazeppa and attendance fell off. Maintaining her appeal to men, she had an affair with the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.[1]

This period established her lasting image. The highest-earning actress of her time, she was generous to friends, theatre people in need, and charities.[1] While in Europe, the Menken continued to play to the American public as well, in terms of her image.[9] As usual, she attracted a crowd of male admirers, including such prominent figures as the writer Charles Dickens, the humorist Tom Hood, and the dramatist and novelist Charles Reade.[16]

"Here's half the town - if bills be true -
To Astley's nightly thronging,
To see the Menken throw aside
All to her sex belonging,
Stripping off woman's modesty,
With woman's outward trappings -
A barebacked jade on barebacked steed,
In Cartlich's old strappings!"

Jokes and poems were printed about the controversy, and Punch wrote:[15]

Controversy arose over her costume, and she responded to critics in the newspapers of London by saying that she was influenced by classical sculpture, and that her costume was more modest than those of ballet or burlesque. The show opened October 3, 1864, at the Astley Theatre to "overflowing houses".[15] She was so well known that she was referred to as "the Menken", needing no other name.[9]

Menken had the urge to travel. She arranged to play in a production of Mazeppa in London and France for much of 1864-1866, when she swiftly conquered London and Paris. Productions frequently traveled between New York and London, and were promoted in each. The sensational aspects of the production attracted attention before the show opened (adding to the publicity.)

Menken, undated

European years

[1] Louis died in infancy.[1]

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