Saturday, June 29, 2013

Adah Isaacs Menken, born June 15, 1835

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.

 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. 
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.  

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.”

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.  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, likely also a Louisiana Creole.  Ada would have been raised as Catholic.

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
At the age of seven, she performed as a dancer with her sister, Josephine, in the ballet of the French Opera House in New Orleans. Appearing in Havana, Cuba, at seventeen, the beautiful young woman had an affair with the Cuban poet and revolutionary Juan Clemente Zenea; in his poem, Silva, the poet is transfixed by her voice and gestures. 
Ada Bertha Théodore 
Ada left dance for the stage, and began working as an actress. The first documented evidence of her presence in Texas appeared in a Liberty Gazette advertisement on October 8, 1855, announcing that Ada Bertha Théodore would be giving readings of Shakespeare. Subsequent issues contained poems and essays attributed to her and datelined Austin City and Washington, Texas. 

According to Gregory Eiselein, her first marriage was in Texas in 1855 to G. W. Kneass, a musician in a minstrel show. It ended by 1856. 

She was 26 years old when the Civil War began.

Texas, 1850
In Texas she met Alexander Isaac Menken, a theatrical musician who was from a prominent Reform Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio.  They married on April 3, 1856 in Livingtston, Texas, and he began to act as her manager.  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, including Edwin Booth in Louisville, Kentucky.  She played "Mister Bones," a minstrel character, and impersonated Edwin Booth as Hamlet.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet
In 1857 the couple moved to Cincinnati, then the center of Reform Judaism in the United States.  She studied Judaism. learned to read Hebrew, and was committed to the faith for the rest of her life, although she apparently never formally converted.  In this period, she published poetry and articles on Judaism in The Israelite in Cincinnati, the newspaper founded by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  She also began to be published in the Jewish Messenger of New York.  Menken later told a reporter that she was born Jewish. 

The Israelite 
In 1857 she appeared as Pauline in The Lady of Lyons at Shreveport, Louisiana, and then appeared in Fazio, as Bianca, in New Orleans.  

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
Later 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". 

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"
She married her second husband, John C. Heenan, a famous champion prizefighter, on September 3, 1859. A boxer, Heenan was a popular national figure in the United States, known around the world as the Benicia Boy.  Some time after their marriage, the press discovered she did not have a legal divorce from Menken, and accused her of bigamy. As John Heenan was one of the most famous figures in America, the press also accused Menken of marrying for his celebrity. 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.  When the Civil War began, soldiers from both North and South  tacked up Adah’s 3 by 5 inch photograph cards on tent poles, along with those of her husband, world heavyweight boxing champion.  

John C. Heenan
Adah Menken was the first star whose image was turned into thousands of 3 x 5- inch cartes de visites (photographs mounted on postcards). In turn, these were copied by poster artists whose work decorated many a billboard and saloon wall.

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.
Ada Clare
While in New York, Adah frequented Charlie Pfaff’s tavern at 653 Broadway. In this dim, smoky cellar, Adah met New York’s first Bohemians, and she became friendly with Ada Clare, the feminist writer; Artemus Ward, America’s first stand-up comic (who defined a Bohemian as “an educated hoss thief”); the poet Walt Whitman, and some others of his bohemian circle. 
Walt Whitman

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". 

Christina Rossetti
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 admirers included Christina Rossetti. 

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
Another supportive friend was Ed James, journalist for The Clipper.  James, a Member of Parliament, had been caught making love to a nobleman’s wife and fled London for New York.  He would become Adah’s confidant and, more importantly, her publicist.

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
Menken had a vaudeville tour (and affair) with Charles Blondin, the famed tightrope walker who had crossed Niagara Falls. 

Cartoon comparing Abraham Lincoln to Charles Blondin
After their tour ended, she appealed to her business manager, James Murdock, to help her become recognized as a great actress. Murdock offered her the "breeches role" (that of a man) in the melodrama  Mazeppa, based on a poem by Lord Byron.  At the climax of the play hit, the hero was stripped of his clothing, tied to his horse, and sent off to his death.  The audiences were thrilled with the scene, in which a dummy was  strapped to a horse.  Menken wanted to perform the stunt herself: dressed in nude tights and riding the horse on stage, she appeared to be naked and caused a sensation.  Not only was she a woman playing the part of a man, she heightened the sensationalism by appearing to be nude.  New York audiences were shocked, but still attended. 

To build her box office, Menken rode a white horse round Central Park, accompanied by ten grooms. Such publicity sold out the Broadway. Extra chairs were placed in the aisles to accommodate the overflow' latecomers fought for standing room or window sill space. Menken received an astounding $12,000 for 24 performances.

Menken took the production of Mazeppa to San Francisco. Audiences concerned less about convention flocked to the show and made it wildly popular.  She became known across the country for this role, and San Francisco adopted her as its performer.   In the West she became acquainted with the young Samuel Clemens, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller.

Joaquin Miller
In 1862 she married Robert Henry Newell, a humorist and editor of the Sunday Mercury in New York, who had published most of her poetry.  Newell attained nationwide prominence during the Civil War under the pseudonym of Orpheus Kerr. President Lincoln chuckled over his satires about corrupt office seekers in Washington.  Menken and Newell were married about three years.
Robert Henry Newell
She was so well known that she was referred to as "the Menken", needing no other name. This period established her lasting image. The highest earning actress of her time, she was generous to friends, theatre people in need, and charities.  

Charles Dickens
While in Europe, the Menken continued to play to the American public as well.  

Tom Hood
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.  

Charles Reade
In 1864, Mark Twain, who worked as a fledgling newspaper reporter for the Californian, witnessed the Menken bring down the house. He described how
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".
Mark Twain
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.  

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. 

George Sand
There she had their son, whom she named Louis Dudevant Victor Emanuel Barkley; the baby's godmother was the author George Sand.  Louis died in infancy.

She had an affair with the French novelist Alexandre Dumas, pere, considered scandalous as he was more than twice her age. Dumas’ father, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals, was a black man from Haiti, and Dumas boasted of his African heritage.

Menken and Dumas
Returning to England in 1867, she had an affair with the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.  
Algernon Charles Swinburne  
By 1867, she had become a merchandising phenomenon. Her name was used to sell cravats, jewelry, hats, clothing, and handkerchiefs. You could even buy a Menken shaving mug. Her photographs were seen virtually everywhere.

She struggled to attract audiences to Mazeppa as attendance fell off.  Menken fell ill in London and was forced to stop performing.  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. 

She moved back to Paris, where her last performance was on May 30, 1868; she collapsed with pains in her side. 

She wrote a brief note to an acquaintance: 
 "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.”

Menken was buried in the Jewish section of Cimetière de Montparnasse.  On her tomb, at her request, were engraved the words of her favorite saying,“Thou Knowest.”

Montparnasse Cemetery, Jewish Section

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; 
shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayer
But spare us, Lord most holy, 
O God most mighty, 
O holy and most merciful Saviour, 
Thou most worthy Judge eternal, 
Suffer us not at our last hour
for any pains of death to fall from Thee.

Man that is born of a woman hath
but a short time to live,
 and is full of misery.
He cometh up, and is cut down like a flow'r; 
he flee'th as it were a shadow, 
and ne'er continueth in one stay. 

In the midst of life we are in death: 
of whom may we seek for succour, 
but of Thee, O Lord, 
who for our sins are justly displeased? 
Yet, O Lord most mighty, 
O holy, and most merciful Saviour, 
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death. 

Her only book, Infelicia, was published shortly after her death.  Adah had dedicated her book of verse to Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle turned Adah into Irene Adler in his breakthrough Sherlock Holmes tale, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The King gushes over how amazing Adler is, saying "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?" Holmes replies scathingly that Miss Adler is indeed on a much different level from the King (by which he means higher — an implication lost on the King).  Declares Dr. Watson, “To Holmes she is always the woman.”

Menken’s image lives on through the incandescent theatrical portraits of New York based Napoleon Sarony. His contemporaries dubbed him “the father of artistic photography in America”.   Sarony introduced painted backgrounds, interesting accessories into his pictures, and added a fluidity of movement—the opposite of his colleagues who placed sitters in the same dull positions, a set expression on their faces. In his studio at 630 Broadway, Sarony captured the elaborately costumed Menken at her most dramatic. Menken anticipated the poses, attitudes and roles that would be assumed by models on everything from calendars to magazine covers over the next 100 years.

Another admirer, Billy Rose, called Adah, “the lollapalooza who rates with Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and other standouts in the cuddle-up sweepstakes.” Rose collected Menkiana, pale reflections of the original.

She is now arguably most famous as a Jewish or African-American poet, and is becoming an increasingly popular figure in lesbian studies.

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