MENKEN (née Theodore), ADAH ISAACS (1835–1868), U.S. actress, known mainly for her flamboyant way of life. The first of her four husbands was a musician, Alexander Isaac Menken, whose name she kept after he divorced her. Her stage career began in 1856 in New Orleans. Probably not a great actress, she had an arresting stage personality, and displayed her dark, slim beauty with a boldness that created a sensation wherever she appeared. The first American actress to wear flesh-colored tights, she made her most spectacular appearance in the play Mazeppa (adapted from Byron's poem) in which she rode up a steep ramp strapped to a fiery horse. She mixed in the circle of American literary bohemians that included Walt Whitman, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain. In London in 1864 her Mazeppa angered the press, but she won the literati with her poems. Dickens, Charles Reade, and Rossetti were her friends. Swinburne described her as the world's delight and claimed she was his mistress. She enjoyed triumph in Paris in 1866, won over Gautier and George Sand, and became the mistress of the elder Dumas. Though she invented fanciful accounts of her origin, which was obscure, she took a militant pride in her Jewishness. In 1857 she led a protest against the exclusion of Jews from the House of Commons. She never performed on the Day of Atonement and kept a Hebrew Bible under her pillow. Her two books of poems, Memoirs (1856) and Infelicia (1868), teem with biblical allusions. She died in Paris, and Baron Lionel de *Rothschild erected a memorial on her grave in Montparnasse.
A. Lesser, Enchanting Rebel (1947); B. Falk, Naked Lady (1934); P. Lewis, Queen of the Plaza (1964).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.