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Adah Isaacs Menken: Jewish Superstar

Adah Isaacs Menken: Jewish Superstar

Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868), the original Jewish American superstar and beautiful sensation of the Victorian era, revolutionized a woman's role on stage and in private life. Adah's heartfelt cause was the plight of the Jewish people under hostile regimes, and their need for a homeland. Daring as performer and poet, her verse reveals, as Allen Lesser describes, "an untamableness of spirit, a messianic zeal, and a yearning for sublimity that is unmistakably Hebrew." Adah, the Civil War soldiers' pin-up, North and South, became the toast of New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris. Petite, dark-haired, and curvy, Adah married five husbands, including a heavyweight boxing champion, a literary critic, and a Rhett Butler-style gambler.

Adah sang, danced, and mimed, and gained global fame in Mazeppa, a popular melodrama adapted from Lord Byron's poem. She played the heroic prince who leads Ukrainian troops against the Russian Czar, fighting for independence. The action-packed climax was Adah's perilous ride strapped to a wild stallion up a four-story stage mountain, which she apparently performed nude though wearing a pink body stocking. From roaring gold camps of Nevada to a command performance at the Théatre Gaîté before Emperor Napoleon III of France, Adah Menken became famous as The Naked Lady.

In 1835, while Haley's Comet shone, Adah Bertha was born in New Orleans to Marie Théodore, a French-speaking woman who professed the Jewish faith. Marie had a series of "husbands," which explains Adah's tall tales about a mysterious, aristocratic father.

In Galveston, Texas, in 1855, Adah married musician Alexander Isaac Menken, who hailed from a prominent German-Jewish family in Cincinnati. After the financial panic of 1857, Adah and Alexander returned to Cincinnati where Adah became a disciple of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of Reform Judaism. Born in Bohemia in 1819, the year of a massive pogrom, Wise believed the Jewish future meant adapting institutions and religious ritual to the modern world. He fought discrimination, worked to unite American Jews into a national union, and introduced mixed and equal seating for men and women in his temple. Adah became a leading light at Wise's weekly publication The Israelite. According to Leo, Rabbi Wise's son, "Several of her poems were included in the 'Minhag of America' hymn book," Wise's Reform ritual.

Adah's strong, messianic poetry in the Israelite impressed Baron Lionel de Rothschild, who called her, "the inspired Deborah of her people." In her essay "Shylock," Adah attacked playwrights, even Shakespeare, for portraying Jewish stereotypes. Meanwhile, Adah's husband and theatrical manager, Alex, drank heavily and physically abused her, and in July 1859 she fled to bustling New York and Broadway fame. In an Irish subculture, Adah Menken advertised her Jewishness by refusing to perform on Jewish holidays and slept with a Hebrew Bible close by.

Adah quietly married John Carmel Heenan, American bareknuckle boxing champion, who left Adah pregnant and penniless. Heenan went to England where he won the world crown, and he denied the marriage on his return. At the same time, Alex Menken claimed he had never divorced Adah. On front pages, the national press painted her as a bigamist, "the most dangerous woman in the world."

Adah's emotional turmoil and attempted suicide led to "wild soul poems" written "in the stillness of midnight. . . The soul that prompted every word is somewhere within me . . . to wait the inspiration of God." Adah's next husband, Robert Newell, editor of the Sunday Mercury, published her confessional verse, telling his readers, "The lady is a Jewess, and almost insane in her eagerness to behold her people restored once more to their ancient power and glory."

While playing the role of Prince Mazeppa, Adah became a Civil War hero. She toured hospitals, performed on Broadway and in gold rush California, and was wildly successful. She and her fifth husband―an ex-Confederate officer―sailed for London. The darling of genius and royalty, Adah counted admirers among Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, female novelist George Sand, and the great Alexandre Dumas. But the curtain would fall on her brief romantic life. By 1868, injured, and suffering from tuberculosis, her strength and fortune spent, Adah lay gravely ill in a Parisian hotel. Her only visitor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote her a love poem. A journalist wrote, "Menken died in possession of the Jewish faith, attended by a minister of her religion. However stormy her life may have been the end was peaceful and serene." Adah's monument in the Jewish section of Montparnasse cemetery has the inscription, "Thou Knowest."

For further reading: Allen Lesser, Enchanting Rebel: The Secret Life of Adah Isaacs Menken (The Beechhurst Press, 1947)

Adah Isaacs Menken, Infelicia (1869 and later editions)

Barbara and Michael Foster are coauthors of A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken (Lyons Press, 2011).

Published: 2/24/2015

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Reform Judaism
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