Adah Isaacs Menken: America's First Glamour Girl

The First American Jewish Superstar

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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.

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Michael Feldberg

Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.