Adah Isaacs Menken
(1835 - 1868)
Today, celebrities such as Madonna, Wilt Chamberlain
and Warren Beatty are as well known for their defiance of conventional
values and the notoriety that surrounds their personal lives as they
are for their professional accomplishments. It was more than a century
ago that Adah Isaacs Menken, the first American Jewish "superstar,"
helped pioneer the art of cultivating an outsized, even outrageous,
personality as a path to fame and fortune. Even fame, however, could
not guarantee her happiness.
In the 1860s, Menken earned world fame in an equestrian melodrama,
"Mazeppa." She daringly appeared on stage playing the role
of a man, wearing nothing but a flesh-colored body stocking, riding
a horse on a ramp that extended into the audience. Menkens costume
scandalized "respectable" criticseven as it attracted
huge and enthusiastic audiences that included such notables as Walt
Whitman and the great Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth.
As an actress, Menken became an early master of self-promotion. According
to historian Alan Ackerman, she made certain that a photograph of her
striking face appeared in shop windows in every city in which she performed.
Even in the context of the 1860s, when most Americans looked upon
actors as "loose" and disreputable, Menken was notorious for
violating norms. She cropped her dark hair close to her head (she may
have been the first important American woman to do so) and smoked cigarettes
Even more unladylike, Menken openly defied conventional married life,
marrying four men in the space of seven years. Her second marriage,
in 1859 to world heavyweight boxing champion John C. Heenan, led to
the birth of a son, who died in infancy. Eight years later, a son by
her fourth husband suffered the same fate.
Her first marriage, to a Jew named Alexander Isaacs Menken in 1856,
lasted only a few years but confirmed her own Jewish identity. Adah
Menkens true religious origins are controversial. Born in Louisiana
in 1835 to Auguste and Marie Theodore, some historians believe that
she was raised a Catholic, an assertion that Menken herself denied.
In response to a journalist who called her a convert, Menken replied,
"I was born in [Judaism], and have adhered to it through all my
erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest
comfort and blessing."
In 1857, Adah and Alexander moved from
New Orleans to Cincinnati, then the center of Reform
Judaism in America. Adah learned to read Hebrew
fluently and studied classical Jewish texts. It was
at this time that Adahs other artistic and intellectual
talents emerged. An aspiring writer, she contributed
poems and essays on Judaism to Isaac Mayer Wises
weekly newspaper, The Israelite. Menken saw herself
as a latter-day Deborah,
advocating for Jewish communities around the world.
She urged the Jews of
Turkey to rebel against oppression and place their
faith in the coming of a messiah who would lead them to restore Jerusalem.
She publicly protested the Mortara Affair, the kidnapping
by Italian Catholic officials of a young Jewish boy
whom the officials claimed the Jewish community had
stolen. She also spoke out forcefully when Lionel Nathan
was denied his seat in the English Parliament. And long
before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax did so, Menken refused to appear on stage during the High Holy Days even at the very height of her public success.
Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menkens
deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet. She built friendships
among an international literary elite that included Charles Dickens,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Algernon Swinburne
and George Sand, who served as godmother to Menkens second child.
Menken was accused of having affairs with Dumas and Swinburne, neither
of which can be confirmed, but the constant hint of scandal wherever
she performed did little to discourage box office receipts.
Adah Isaacs Menkens life, like her celebrity, was like a comet.
She died in Paris in 1868 at the age of 33, apparently from a combination
of peritonitis and tuberculosis. When treatment by the personal doctor
of Napoleon III of France provided no relief, a rabbi kept a bedside
vigil. Menken was buried in the Jewish section of Montparnasse Cemetery.
Little remembered today, Menken was
a path breaking risk taker who lived a scandalous life
in the theater, but who was a creative, if unpolished,
literary talent. A collection of her poems, Infelicia,
appeared a week after her death. Charles Dickens quipped
about her, "She is a sensitive poet who, unfortunately,
cannot write." Despite cultivating her "bad
girl" persona assiduously, Menken retained a sincere
devotion to her fellow Jews around the world. Todays
Hollywood celebrities have nothing on the glamorous,
scandalous, tragic and paradoxical Adah Isaacs Menken.
Jewish Historical Society