Women of the West

Narcissa Whitman

Adah Isaacs Menken


Adah Isaacs Menken

This article intends to give the reader an impression of what kind of a person Adah was and what her life was like. Due to many contradictory reports and statements in her various biographies, a truly chronological approach considering both her private life as well as her life as an artist, is quite difficult. Adah Isaacs Menken, also known as Adelaide McCord and Ada Bertha Théodore (in 7.) was a woman who had various talents - she was an actress as well as a poet who led a life which even in our times would have been considered as unusual. Up to the year 1938, the probable facts about Adah's life before her stage career were more than obscure (in 5.). In order to make reading less complicated and confusing, Adah's life will in the following be described from two different points of view which are closely entwined though. The first part will deal with the artistic career of Adah Isaacs Menken, mainly considering her theatrical ambitions that made her famous as an actress as well as her achievements as a poet. The private life of Adah Isaacs Menken will provide the reader with probable facts about her descent, her husbands, her beliefs. For a comprehensive understanding it is important to take all facets of Adah's life into account.  

Adah Isaacs Menken's career
Although it was her performance in "Mazeppa" that made her famous in the first place, Adah Menken was not only an actress but also a poet who gained wide recognition. Born on June 15, 1835, Adah had gained stage experience from childhood on, e.g. by dancing in the New Orleans French Opera House (in 2., 5.). She had her theatrical debut in 1857 in Shreveport, Louisiana, where she performed in "The Lady of Lyons" and later that year in "Fazio" in New Orleans (in 7.). Her debut in New York took place two years later in "The Soldier's Daughter" (in 7.). During that period, i.e. between 1857 and 1859, Adah started publishing some of her poems in the Cincinnati Israelite (in 2.) and later, between 1860 and 1861, in the New York Sunday Mercury (in 2.). Adah herself claimed that she had already published her first book of poems called "Memories" in 1856, using the name "Indigena" (in 4.). This shows that Adah did not only pursue her career as an actress but also her career as a poet on a parallel basis.

Only having played minor roles until 1861 (in 7.) and always driven by her enormous desire for public recognition, Adah, when being offered the role of the main character in "Mazeppa" in New York the same year, decided not to play it in the traditional way but in a much more daring manner (in 5.). The play which is also called "The Wild Horse of Tartary" is a melodrama based on a poem by Lord Byron (in 7.). The climax of the play is a scene in which the Tartar Mazeppa is "stripped of his clothes by his captors and bound to the back of a wild horse" (in 5.) galloping through the set consisting of papier-maché cliffs. At the dramatic end of the wild ride, the horse and its horseman jump over the cliffs and disappear in the clouds in the back of the stage. The traditional way of performing this scene had been by using a stuffed dummy (in 5.) but Adah insisted on playing the scene herself (in 5.). This apparently dangerous act as well as the fact that Adah appeared to be - but not actually being - nude, made her an "overnight sensation" (in 7.). The press from then on called her the "naked lady" (in 4.) or even the "Frenzy of Frisco" (in 1.).

The opinions regarding the actual danger of Adah's performance deviated from each other, but all critics agreed in that Adah's costume was very risqué (in 1.). Reports of what exactly Adah wore during her performances range from a short Greek skirt to tight-fitting cotton underwear, as for example observed by a member of the audience in Virginia City (in 1.). Also, there are differing reports regarding the horse Adah rode. It was described as a gigantic bay horse, a vivacious black horse or even as a gentle mare which would stroll across the stage towards a hidden trainer who lured the mare with some sugar cubes (in 1.).

When Adah went to Virginia City in 1863 in order to perform there, the whole town celebrated this event and the local fire brigade serenaded her after her arrival (in 1.). According to Brown (in 1.), three reporters of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia had planned to deride Adah Menken in their articles. They had seen posters all over town announcing Adah's performance, but in their opinion she could be nothing but a circus performer. Among those three reporters was Mark Twain and things turned out quite different - soon after the performance had started, Adah had conquered the hearts of those three cynic journalists already, especially Mark Twain's. His very enthusiastic critique about Adah's performance was printed in many newspapers all over the country. When Mark Twain visited Adah in her hotel room, he found her sitting at a table, drinking champagne and feeding her lap-dog with sugar cubes drenched in spirits (in 1.). Brown states that Twain was so charmed by Adah's personality that he showed her some of his manuscripts and asked for her opinion. Besides that, he wrote a mystery poem about Adah's lovely hands.

With very few exceptions, the public was captivated by Adah and adored her. The gold diggers in Virginia City, for example, gave her a gold ingot worth 2000 dollars and named a street as well as a mine after her (in 1.). One evening, Adah allegedly claimed that she could box as well as any man - since she had at a time been married to a boxer - and would box against anyone willing to give it a try. It is said that she knocked out a gold digger in the second round (in 1.).

Adah Menken toured the United States performing in "Mazeppa" and even "received encouragement from Walt Whitman" (in 2.). Besides Mark Twain, she had friends like Bret Harte and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (in 2.) and "mingled with the young Samuel Clemens [...], and Joaquin Miller" (in 7.). In 1864, Adah decided to go to Europe and bring "Mazeppa" to London and Paris where she was successful as well. In London she met people like Charles Dickens, to whom she dedicated her posthumously published collection of verse (in 2.), Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rosetti (in 2.), always seeking the company of other writers. While touring Europe, "she fell in love with, and was adored by, Alexandre Dumas, pére" (in 5.). Meanwhile, her third husband Newell, who had accompanied her to Europe, went back to the United States and divorced Adah (in 4.). Adah herself successfully toured the United States in 1865 (in 2.) before she returned to Europe again in 1866 and played the stages of Paris and Vienna (in 2.). Although she performed in various other plays as well, the public always demanded for "Mazeppa", the play that had made her famous. In her biographies, not much is said about Adah's recognition as a poet during that time. In 1867, Adah returned to London (in 2.). In the winter of 1867/68 her attempt to revive "Mazeppa" was not successful (in 7.). She gave her last performance ever at the Sadler's Wells Theatre on May 30, 1868 (in 2.). "London was cold, unfriendly. She returned to Paris and Paris had found new loves" (in 5.).

When Adah died in Paris at the age of 33, on August 10, 1868 (in 7.), "her passing was unmarked, save for a grief eulogy in verse that appeared in a Paris paper:

Ungrateful animals, mankind;
Walking his rider's hearse behind,
Mourner-in-chief her horse appears,
But where are all her cavaliers?" (in 5.)

Eight days after Adah's death, a collection of her poems titled "Infelicia" was published in London (in 2.). Her posthumously published verse give a different facet to Adah Menken's life and show that her life and achievements cannot only be reduced to the famous performances in "Mazeppa". Her poems can be viewed at http://digilib.nypl.org80/dynaweb/digs/wwm9717/@Generic_BookView at The Digital Schomburg - The New York Public Library or at http://www.hti.umich.edu/english/amverse/ at the University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative.

The private life of Adah Isaacs Menken
As already mentioned, the actual facts about Adah's early life are still unclear (in 2.). Among various others, two of the alleged places of Adah's birth were New York and Havana (in 5.). Even today, there are still some inconsistencies and contradictory statements regarding her place of birth as well as her descent. As suggested by Samuel Dickson, this may be the case because Adah was ashamed of her origins and therefore spread many different stories about herself (in 5.). Regarding her place of birth, some recent biographies state that she was probably born in Memphis, Tennesse on June 15, 1835 (in 2., 7.), other sources name New Orleans, Louisiana (in 5.), or Chartrain which is now called Milneburg, Louisiana, and is a suburb of New Orleans (in 3., 6.). At some time, either before Adah's birth in 1835 or in her early childhood, her family probably moved to New Orleans (in 2.).

Adah's father died when Adah was very young, and her mother married a man called Josephs (in 3.). Again, there are different versions regarding Adah's ethnic background. It is often stated that her father was mixed-raced (in 3.), but according to Dickson it is most likely that "her mother was a very beautiful French Creole" and "that her father was Auguste Theodore, a highly respected 'free' Negro of Louisiana" (in 5.). Adah herself must have caused much confusion by, for example, claiming that she originally came from an old Southern family or, on another occasion, by claiming that she was born of a French mother in Arkansas (in 5.).

Adah was also very intelligent and spoke various languages fluently, among them German, Spanish and Latin (in 3.) as well as French (in 5.) and Hebrew (in 4.). Still a child, she went to Havana in order to dance there and "was crowned queen of the Plaza" (in 5.). She also claimed that besides dancing in the French Opera House, she "modeled for a sculptor" and "rode horses in a circus" in her youth (in 3., 6.).

When Adah was on tour in Texas, she met Alexander Isaac Menken, a "very handsome and distinguished musician" (in 5.), "an orchestra leader and the son of a prominent Jewish family in Cincinnati" (in 4.). Again, at this point uncertainties arise as to whether Adah "was raised in Jewish faith", as claimed by Brody (in 4.) or whether "she adopted the Jewish faith [during her first marriage] and remained steadfast in it until her death", as claimed by, for example, Dickson (in 5.). The latter is more likely to be true, for in The Handbook of Texas Online it says that Adah "embraced Judaism" (in 7.) after she got married to Alexander Isaac Menken in 1856, and that "she occasionally even claimed to have been born a Jew" (in 7.). No matter what the truth is, Adah kept her strong beliefs until her death.

Adah Menken, as she is mostly referred to, was not married to Alexander Isaac Menken for a very long time. The reason for this was probably a different attitude towards marriage - Alexander wanted a family and a home whereas Adah preferred the life on stage (in 5.). Also, Alexander did not appreciate Adah being adored by so many young men who would give her roses at the stage door (in 5.). When Adah started smoking cigarettes in public, Alexander could not take it any longer and left her (in 5.). There are different versions regarding the scandal which ensued in regard to Alexander's and Adah's divorce. One version says that the divorce was secured by a rabbinical diploma, but that it turned out that this kind of divorce was not legal (in 7.). When Adah married John Carmel Heenan, a prizefighter, in 1859, Alexander Menken is said to have told the press that his divorce from Adah was not legal and therefore a scandal arose (in 7.), for this meant that Adah was guilty of bigamy. Dickson, on the other hand, writes that Adah "had assumed it was the duty of the man of the family to attend to legal matters, including such details as divorce" (in 5.). In this version, Alexander heard about the scandal Adah was involved in at a later point and "did the gentlemanly thing" (in 5.) - he divorced Adah.

The man Adah was now married to, John Carmel Heenen, an Irish prizefighter (in 7.) who was also known as the 'Benicia Boy' (in 5.), was only Adah's husband until 1862 (in 7.) - another short-lived marriage. According to Dickson, Heenen started beating Adah soon after they got married, and therefore she divorced him (in 5.). Adah gave birth to a boy, but he died at birth which contributed to Adah's sorrow after all the misfortune in her private life - two broken marriages, the scandal that arose and now her baby's death (in 5.).

In the following years, Adah was married and divorced two more times. The first of those two marriages was with "Civil War satirist Robert Henry Newell (pseud. Orpheus C. Kerr)" and lasted from 1862 till 1865 (in 7.). In 1866, Adah married a gambler called James Paul Barkley but left him very soon after (in 7.). In Paris, Adah gave birth to Barkley's son (in 7.), whose godmother became George Sands, but he - like Adah's first child - died in infancy (in 4.).

During all this time, Adah had travelled and toured the United States as well as Europe. She had gained a lot of money, but her wealth slowly disappeared because she was very generous and enjoyed the life in luxury (in 7.) - soon "she lived in comparative poverty"(in 5.). In the winter of 1867/68 Adah tried to be successful on stage again, but this attempt was of little avail. On May 30, 1868, she gave her last performance at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London (in 2.). After that, she returned to Paris. The reasons for her death on August 10, 1868, do not become quite clear - in one biography it says that Adah died because of "an injury she had sustained while performing in London" (in 7.), another one claims that tuberculosis was the reason for her death (in 4.). Nonetheless, Adah stayed faithful to Judaism until she died. During the last hours before her death, she spoke to a "friendly rabbi" about life, faith and hope (in 5.). According to Dickson, she left the following lines: "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." (in 5.).

 

 



Bibliography

  1. Brown, Dee (no date): Pulverdampf war ihr Parfum: Die sanften Helden des Wilden Westens. Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg. Original title: "Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West". Lincoln University of Nebraska Press, 1958, 1981. 
  2. "Menken, Adah Isaacs". Encyclopaedia Britannica. <wysiwyg://52/http://britannica.com>
    [Accessed Thu Jan 11, 2001]
  3. "Menken, Adah Isaacs". Britannica online. <http://women.eb.com/women/articles/Menken_Adah_Isaacs.html> [Accessed Thu Jan 11, 2001]
  4. "Adah Isaacs Menken: Noted Actress and Poet". By Seymour "Sy" Brody. Florida Atlantic University Libraries.
    <http://www.fau.edu/library/brody23.htm>
    [Accessed Thu Jan 11, 2001] 
  5. "Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868)". By Samuel Dickson. Museum of the City of San Francisco.
    <http://www.sfmuseum.org/bio/adah.html>
    [Accessed Tues Jan 9, 2001] 
  6. "Menken, Adah Isaacs".
    <http://www.blackhistory.eb.com/micro/736/73.html>
    [Accessed Wed Jan 17, 2001] 
  7. "Menken, Adah Isaacs." By Pamel Lynn Palmer. The Handbook of Texas Online.
    <http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/MM/fme21.html>
    [Accessed Thu Jan 11, 2001]


 


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