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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. Menken’s costume scandalized “respectable” critics–even 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 in public.
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.
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