Adah Isaacs Menken was also known as Adelaide McCord and Ada Bertha Théodore. Because Menken told so many version 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. She was variously reported to have been born in New York, Havana, and other places. She was said to have been born of a distinguished, old Southern family; another account claimed she was born in Arkansas of a French mother and an American-Indian father.
Ada was fluent in French (which Creoles used and was still a prominent language in New Orleans) and Spanish. She was described as having a gift for languages.
|The French Opera House in New Orleans|
|Ada Bertha Théodore|
She was 26 years old when the Civil War began.
|Edwin Booth as Hamlet|
She added an "h" to her first name, and an "s" to Isaac; by 1858 she billed herself as Adah Isaacs Menken. Menken wore her wavy hair short, a highly unusual style for women of the time. She also smoked cigarettes in public, which her husband objected to. She cultivated a bohemian and at times androgynous appearance. She was particularly keen to be photographed with famous literary figures of the day and in risqué attire.
Alexander Menken separated from Adah, and the couple eventually secured a rabbinical diploma dissolving their marriage. Adah continued using Menken as her stage name, and 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 that surpassed that of most poets, artists and actresses. In March 1859 she made her New York debut as the Widow Cheerly in The Soldier's Daughter.
|Menken in The French Spy|
Menken continued to perform small parts in New York, as well as reading Shakespeare in performance, and giving lectures around town.
|John C. Heenan|
"The Benicia Boy"
|John C. Heenan|
To please his English mistress, Heenan denounced Adah, and the accusations that flew back and forth were all over the front pages of the penny press. Heenan left Adah pregnant with a son who died soon after his birth. They eventually divorced in 1862, but she continued to use the name Mrs. Heenan to gain other bookings in Boston, Providence, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
She was influenced by Whitman's work and began to write in a more confessional style. She published 25 poems in the Sunday Mercury, an entertainment newspaper in New York. 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".
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.
|Leaves of Grass|
The public was shocked with Menken’s short hair and even shorter skirts, and that she wore pants on occasion. She once gave a press conference lying on a tiger skin, sipping champagne, and smoking a cigarette.
|Blondin's Rope Ascension over Niagara|
|Cartoon comparing Abraham Lincoln to Charles Blondin|
|Robert Henry Newell|
A magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision—the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gas jets, 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".
Her next marriage, in 1866, was to James Paul Barkley, a gambler whom she soon left. She returned without him to France, where she was performing.
|Menken and Dumas|
|Algernon Charles Swinburne|
"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."When treatment by the personal doctor of Napoleon III of France provided no relief, a rabbi kept a bedside vigil. She died on August 10, 1868, at the age of 33. Fittingly for someone whose early life is shrouded in a fog, it is not known what killed her. Theories include an abscess, tuberculosis, peritonitis, cancer, or “a complication of disorders.”
|Montparnasse Cemetery, Jewish Section|
She is now arguably most famous as a Jewish or African-American poet, and is becoming an increasingly popular figure in lesbian studies.