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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.
Her first marriage, to a Jew named Alexander Isaacs Menken in 1856, lasted only a few years but confirmed her own Jewish identity. Adah Menken’s true religious origins are controversial. Born in Louisiana in 1835 to Auguste and Marie Theodore, some historians believe that she was raised a Catholic, an assertion that Menken herself denied. In response to a journalist who called her a convert, Menken replied, “I was born in [Judaism], and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”
In 1857, Adah and Alexander moved from New Orleans to Cincinnati, then the center of Reform Judaism in America. Adah learned to read Hebrew fluently and studied classical Jewish texts. It was at this time that Adah’s other artistic and intellectual talents emerged. An aspiring writer, she contributed poems and essays on Judaism to Isaac Mayer Wise’s weekly newspaper, The Israelite. Menken saw herself as a latter-day Deborah, advocating for Jewish communities around the world. She urged the Jews of Turkey to rebel against oppression and place their faith in the coming of a messiah who would lead them to restore Jerusalem. She publicly protested the Mortara Affair, the kidnapping by Italian Catholic officials of a young Jewish boy whom the officials claimed the Jewish community had stolen. She also spoke out forcefully when Lionel Nathan was denied his seat in the English Parliament. And long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax did so, Menken refused to appear on stage during the High Holy Days even at the very height of her public success.
Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet. She built friendships among international literary elite that included Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Algernon Swinburne, and George Sand, who served as godmother to Menken’s second child. Menken was accused of having affairs with Dumas and Swinburne, neither of which can be confirmed, but the constant hint of scandal wherever she performed did little to discourage box office receipts.
She died in Paris in 1868 at the age of 33, apparently from a combination of peritonitis and tuberculosis. When treatment by the personal doctor of Napoleon III of France provided no relief, a rabbi kept a bedside vigil. Menken was buried in the Jewish section of Montparnasse Cemetery.
Little remembered today, Menken was a path breaking risk taker who lived a scandalous life in the theater, but who was a creative, if unpolished, literary talent. A collection of her poems, Infelicia, appeared a week after her death. Charles Dickens quipped about her, “She is a sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write.” Despite cultivating her “bad girl” persona assiduously, Menken retained a sincere devotion to her fellow Jews around the world. Today’s Hollywood celebrities have nothing on the glamorous, scandalous, tragic and paradoxical Adah Isaacs Menken.