Adah Isaacs Menken: The First Broadway Star
A predecessor to virtually all stage and screen sirens, Menken thumbed her nose at the Victorian fetish for decorum that deformed the female figure, and celebrated her body electric, firm and active before being wasted from typhus or riddled by bullets.
About this time 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! -- Mark Twain
Broadway began in Albany, New York inJune 1861. Opening night the audience at the Green Street theater gasped as Adah Isaacs Menken catapulted to the theatrical heavens on the back of a wild steed. Mazeppa, a popular equestrian drama based on Lord Bryon’s epic poem, brought her instant stardom On this opening night, John Smith, a theatrical impresario, placed his bet on the violet-eyed beauty whose scandalous personal life kept the Victorian tabloids in copy.
A sheer body stocking made Menken appear nude. Her audacity made the puritanical Horace Greeley, owner of the New York Tribune, the single newspaper which refused to carry advertisements for French contraceptives and virility aids, fume. Greeley blasted the “naked lady” for daring to expose her nude body. Outrage gave way to astonishment: Menken not only usurped an exclusively male role, but in the dangerous scene rode the horse herself instead of using a dummy.
Albany offered Menken a venue for her theatrical athletics, which became a media event worthy of P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum at Ann Street and Broadway in Manhattan also housed a theater. Menken’s presence in Albany turned the town into a provincial version of the “Great White Way”. In Albany, Menken’s manager Edwin James called the first press conference. He lured his fellow journalists up the Hudson to gape at the beauty whose star quality struck them like a bolt of lightning.
Posters Smith concocted to publicize Mazeppa showed Menken lashed to the back of a huge black stallion, its teeth bared, rearing high, front legs pawing the air. It appeared as though Menken were as bare as the stallion. In an era that wrapped women in layers of clothes similar to mummies, Smith knew that his audience would plunk down 50 cents for an unreserved seat, or 75 cents for reserved, or $1 for an orchestra chair, to oogle naked flesh. A parade of 13 trained horses paraded Albany’s streets bearing placards: “The Menken Stud”.
James, the archetypal press agent, knew how to play on the panting journalists’ erotic fantasies; for starters, he provided free drinks all around. James knew that a star, like other saleable commodities benefited from hype -- not that the ambitious Menken needed help to generate her own publicity. She bobbed her hair, smoked cigars, and wore pants in public and published risqué poetry rife with clues to her lurid love life.
Menken fielded questions like seasoned politician. Truth be dammed, as long as her glamorous image wowed them. One secret she could not make public during the racial hysteria of the Civil War : her birth. A New Orleanian, born in 1835, Adah Bertha Theodore had a black father. Her Jewish mother and an Irish ancestor tossed into the gumbo gave her a multicultural pedigree before the fashion.
Other times, Menken invented fictional parents to suit her whim of the moment. In one scenario, she grew up the daughter of a noble Frenchman, in another, of a millionaire Englishman. Yet another yarn cast her in Texas being captured by Indians. Menken started the vogue for gilding the goddess in gold from top to toe as later would Josephine Baker and Marilyn Monroe.
Then as now, journalists in Albany were not concerned about where Menken came from as much as who she carried on with romantically. Menken knew how to tell just enough to titillate and to throw her inquisitors’ gibes back in their faces. When in San Francisco, Brett Harte asked her whether it was true that she lived with Sam Houston in Texas as his “adopted daughter”, she batted her violet eyes and answered, “It was General Jackson and Methuselah and other big men.” If provoked, she fired rockets like, “Good women are rarely clever and clever women are rarely good.”
Menken turned the Albany interview from her romances to her acting triumphs. She proclaimed her affinity for Lord Byron, another rebellious soul, whom she emulated by wearing curls and a white, high collared blouse. The gentlemen of the press looked at each other, then to James for clarification. Had the dashing Englishman adapted his poem about the historical figure Mazeppa into play form as a vehicle for the American beauty? Menken knew this idea was nonsense; however, she smiled in a superior way to add to the reporters’ confusion.
At the end of the interview, Menken drove the reporters wild. She announced, “I must regretfully leave you. The wild steed must be tamed daily.” James ushered his panting colleagues out of the star-to-be’s presence. Menken showed no traces of an accident that almost nipped her career n the bud.. Earlier, at rehearsal, Menken confused her trained horse by changing his customary starting position at the footlights. Belle Beauty zoomed part way up the ramp, only to crash down on planks below. Knocked unconscious, blood spurted from Menken’s shoulder. Typically, Menken refused to show the “white feather” (to "show the white feather" is to display cowardice). Revived, if pale as death, she drew the straps around her, accomplishing the stunt this time to the amazement of onlookers.
Mazeppa-Menken, a Tartar prince, first appeared onstage, a regal figure in black velvet cloak and tights ready for swashbuckling and dueling. At Mazeppa’s climax, a gang of enemy soldiers apparently strip our hero-heroine nude. Tied to the back of a snorting steed, storm raging, Menken clattered up a cardboard mountain over a narrow plywood ramp ending on the “flies” four stories up. This pioneering striptease act kept Menken in the limelight throughout her brief career.
After being anointed in Albany, Menken swept San Francisco, Virginia City, London and Paris. Mazeppa’s popularity surpassed and continued longer than the didactic Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the same era. On 23 March 1866, the superstar returned to New York. George Wood, manager of the Broadway theater, capitulated to her astronomical salary demands. He had no choice, for the toast of Frisco and Europe brought rave reviews from discerning critics like Mark Twain, a friend and admirer. In 1864 Twain, who worked as a fledgling newspaper reporter for the Californian, witnessed the Menken bring down the house. His inimitable prose 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.”
All Menken’s plaudits did not erase the pain she suffered as a struggling ingénue in New York. Three of her four disastrous marriages were performed in New York. Her second one to a bare knuckle boxer, John Heenan, occurred after a whirlwind courtship. This ceremony in September 1859 at Jim Hughes’s roadhouse on Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) was kept secret. Heenan attained enormous popularity because of his fight in England with the British contender for the heavyweight title of the world. Boxing was illegal in New York, although enormous betting went on, anyway. The Irish “Benicia Boy” followed the advice of his managers, convinced that marriage to an actress would hurt his career. Adah’s recent divorce from her first husband assured she would be branded a scarlet woman if the press found out she remarried so soon.
Off to demolish the British champion, Heenan left the pregnant Adah in New York. By January, news of this marriage of beauty and brawn, foreshadowing Marilyn Monroe’s to Joe DiMaggio, leaked out. “Itemizers” pounced on this scandal about to happen. Rumors sprung up that the couple were not legally married. Pro and con reporters split into factions to fight it out in tabloid newspapers.
The pot came to a full boil when Menken’s first husband chimed in that she committed bigamy, denying she obtained a valid divorce from him. This public ridicule damaged Adah’s career, not to mention her sanity. The solitary voice of Frank Queen, chief editor of the Clipper, took Adah’s side. He complained that “The association of her name with John Heenan has made her the target for almost every newspaper scribbler in the country, who have severally married her to Tom Thumb, Jas. Buchanan and the King of the Cannibal Islands.”
Adah retreated to Jersey City where she attempted suicide. An unknown friend, possibly Walt Whitman, found her in time and saved her. In 1860, Adah assuaged her heartache by writing her most gut wrenching poetry. Erica Jong, in a review she wrote of Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence in November 1975, pointed out that “Sylvia Plath’s poetry was the first poetry by a woman to fully express the female rage.” Interestingly, Menken raged more than a century before Plath. Moods of despair alternated with defiant ones. In Judith, published in September 1860 in the Sunday Mercury, Menken blasted Heenan in a Biblical context.
Menken assumed the role of a vengeful Judith lusting for the head of Holofernes. She imagined Heenan’s “long black hair clinging to the glazed eyes . . . The strong throat all hot and reeking with blood.” The same year the Mercury also published Menken’s bold essay in defense of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Menken lashed out at detractors who condemned Whiteman's “barbaric yawp.” In her Swimming Against the Current, she trumpeted the poet “centuries ahead of his contemporaries” . . . who “wields his pen, exerts his energies for the cause of liberty and humanity.”
An admirer of Menken’s poetry, Robert Henry Newell, the influential literary editor of the Sunday Mercury, became her third husband in September 1862. 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. In October 1860, Newell published another Menken essay favoring the emancipated woman. Menken demanded that “daughters should be trained with higher motives than that of being fashionable and securing wealthy husbands. There are other missions for women than that of wife or mother.”
Newell urged Menken to quit the theater and concentrate on her poetry . Instead, Menken quit Newell in 1864. Newell refused to play stage door johnny while his wife’s career rocketed to the sky. The intellectual editor functioned in Menken’s love life, much the way Arthur Miller did in Marilyn Monroe's. One side of Menken craved a man with physical appeal, the other searched for mentors whose minds she respected. Newell introduced Menken to literary circles, including the bohemian group of artists, journalists, theatrical folk -- all regulars at Pfaff’s.
At Charley Pfaffs famous beer cellar on Broadway (just above Bleecker), the literati could count on a special long table reserved for them, Algonquin style. The motley crew had one thing in common: their worship of Edgar Allen Poe. In this first bohemia, Whitman could expound his philosophy of brotherly love or listen to dissidents debate issues of the day. In 1860, William Dean Howells and Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Whitman at Pfaffs, but found it a bit too raucous for their taste.
The New York Adah returned to in 1866 bore scant resemblance to the pre-Civil War capital. Commerce revived to create a leisure class avid to see and be seen at theaters. The elite showed off their fashionable wear at Opera Houses, such as the Academy of Music located on the northeast corner of Fourteenth Street and Irving Place. Horace Greeley objected to the pretensions of the building itself, as well as its audience that was more intent on watching each other rather than the performance on stage. Greeley asked a colleague how much it would cost to burn the building down. He then joked, “If the price is not unreasonable, have it done and send me the bill.” Meanwhile, the poor settled for cheap Bowery playhouses, and immigrants for theaters in their native language.
In 1862, Menken played a brief run at the New Bowery Theater. It drew a more pedestrian crowd than the Broadway houses. Here she did vaudeville-style acts, impersonating several prominent stars of the day, including Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth. The early humorist Artemus Ward ( Chas. F Browne) squired Menken round town, which provoked rumors that they were secretly married. The public, weary from the loss of money and cost of manpower spent on the Civil War, lapped up the escapism Adah provided. Huge crowds from all parts of town ratified Adah’s star quality. However, the New Bowery interlude did not compare in magnitude to Adah’s 1866 smash at the Broadway theater.
To build her box office, Menken rode a white steed round Central Park accompanied by ten grooms, her horse trainer part of the entourage. The Sunday Mercury quipped: “The Menken would we presume wear some clothes on this occasion.” Such publicity sold out the Broadway a week before opening night. Extra chairs were placed in the aisles to accommodate the overflow, latecomers fought for standing room or window sill space. The cholera scare that menaced New York could not dim the luster of Menken’s April 30th premiere. Menken received an astounding $12,000 for 24 performances.
Menken’s martial acrobatics gave audiences a heroine to identify with, one who epitomized America’s expansionist attitude. Hands down, Mazeppa outdrew Ingomar, a hit play the classic actress Kate Braverman starred in at Niblo’s Garden Theater, as well as the popular repertory company at Wallack’s, even the crowd pleasers for German immigrants at the Bowery’s Stadt theater.
Some critics were supportive while others blasted Adah, no holds barred. William Winter objected to “the coarsest and most brutal assembly that we have ever chanced to see at a theater on Broadway. . . The purple nose, the scorbutic countenance, the glassy eye, the bull head, the heavy lower jaw, the aspect of mingled lewdness and ferocity. . . .” The influential Winter, a stuffy Puritan, was tarring Menken with the brush of the predominantly Irish, and supposedly uncouth, boxing crowd.
Menken gave audiences an electric charge uncommon in her day. Actors such as Charlotte Cushman and Fanny Kemble struck stiff dramatic poses on the stage’s apron, whereas Menken hurled herself into space to make ultimate use of the heights and depths of the proscenium arch. Her approach to “special effects” is familiar to Broadway buffs today from Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. Modern playgoers gasp as their field of vision is enlarged beyond traditional boundaries. Action occurs against a panoramic background on aerial, lavish sets which appear three dimensional or to float like a mirage. This recognition of vertical as well as the horizontal possibility onstage, plus a feeling of spatial adventure, is one of Menken’s gifts to modern theater production.
Theatrical success, however, failed to bring Adah personal happiness, although men courted her with priceless gifts. James Barclay, a Civil War hero-financial speculator, became Menken’s lover but she refused to marry him. He installed Menken in an “uptown” town house on Thirty-ninth street in which she poured champagne for elite New Yorkers drawn by the magic her name conjured. Menken dubbed her residence “Bleak House”, in honor of her friend Dickens’ novel. Clare found time to attend Menken’s elaborate dinner parties in between putting the finishing touches on her feminist novel, Only a Woman’s Heart.
A postwar boom, along with easy money, gave New York an air of prosperity in glaring contradiction to the poor immigrants crowded into the Lower East Side. Boss Tweed fashioned a corrupt political machine to hand out favors. Most of Menken’s former bohemian haunts were gone or gentrified. For example, Pfaffs now hosted an upscale clientele, the opposite of down at the heel poets like Whitman -- now isolated from his former friends.
Menken’s fourth marriage, in August 1866, amounted to her briefest: four days. All along Barclay fruitlessly urged Menken to marry him. Pregnant with his child, she agreed to a legal ceremony although she no longer believed in the institution her Victorian society revered. After a quarrel, she sailed for Paris on the Cunard Liner, Java. James, who saw her off, revealed that “She was so ill from an overdose of poison that . . . we had to carry her from the tender to her stateroom.” Once again, Adah, using some barbiturate, had indulged her penchant to nearly commit suicide.
Menken went on to even greater triumphs in London and Paris. In both capitals she carried on notorious affairs: in the former with Algernon Swinburne, in the latter with the elderly Alexander Dumas. At 33, in 1868, the only American star to dazzle the discriminating Parisians breathed her last in a hotel on the Right Bank. At the end she uttered her adieu to the world in lines worthy of a Greek stoic. “I am lost to art and life. Yet have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who lived to one hundred? It is fair then that I go where old people go.”
Menken most regretted that she did not live to see her poetry collection published. (Ironically, Infelicia came out a few months after her death.) Nor did Menken play the serious roles she yearned for. Typecast in the blockbuster Mazeppa, this success nipped in the bud her more serious acting aspirations.
Fortunately, 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.
As early as 1859, Menken advertised herself to the playgoing public using this new, experimental medium. Poses of Menken were on sale in every city she played. The number of her cartes de visites -- about two and one quarter inches by three and one quarter --number over several thousand. However, no photographer satisfied her standards until she met Sarony, formerly a lithographer for Currier and Ives. He became one of New York’s most colorful eccentrics, a celebrity himself because theatrical people knew he understood them. During the last third of the 19th century, he succeeded Mathew Brady as America’s best known portrait photographer, earning the nickname “The Napoleon of Photography”.
Straightaway, Menken put Sarony on notice, “All attempts to photograph me have been failures.” Sarony took eight poses of her. According to Sarony, the finished product caused her to squeal with delight: “Oh you dear, delightful darling little man! I’m going to kiss you for that.” Sarony recorded his opinion of Menken after she died: “Adah Menken was the most remarkable mingling of angel and devil that ever wore petticoats.”
Menken is an American legend and legends live on, reinterpreted by successive generations. The mediums were first to revive her, at least in Spirit. She became one of the most popular ghosts of the 19th century, a regular at the séances of the famous medium Daniel Douglas Home.
Menken’s theatrical innovations, too, are still with us. However, she did not originate the “girlie show”. Menken’s act was solo and dangerous. Nudity in Mazeppa ends after the first act. The Menken persona was sexually ambiguous, much like Marlene Dietrich: one moment the epitome of sexuality in a low cut gown, the next dressed in a tuxedo smoking a cigar. This sort of allure transcends gender or nationality.
Until Jean Harlow, no star embodied Menken’s curves and wit. Harlow is a classic case of the superstar syndrome: a frantic high profile life, then tragic death at an early age. Indeed, Harlow brings to mind the remark the rocker Curt Cobain’s mother made after his suicide: Why did he have to join “that stupid club?” Harlow and Marilyn both joined this anointed, select group of whom Adah Menken is a founding member.
Josephine Baker lived to a ripe, if hand-to mouth-old age. In the 1930s, this American original achieved success in Paris on a Menkenesque scale. She, too, created a past for publicity purposes unrelated to the truth. In Paris George Balanchine fell under the spell of the complex star. Balanchine wrote, “She is like Salome. She has seven veils. If you lift one, there is a second, and what you discover is even more mysterious, and you go to the third and you still don’t know where you are.”
Adah’s parallels with Marilyn Monroe are uncanny: especially the orphaned quality, self-education, hidden past, typecasting and betrayal of both actors more serious dramatic yearnings. Menken also inspired other actors to portray her. Stella Adler played “the divine Jewess”, a Menken based character in the Gold Eagle Guy, a group theater production on Broadway; Sophia Loren gave Menken an Italian twist in the film Heller in Pink Tights opposite Anthony Quinn. Originally Heller in Pink Tights had been designated as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, but the temperamental actress walked off the set.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping Scandal in Bohemia features a lead character, Irene Adler, based on Menken. Scandal in Bohemiawas the first Conan Doyle story to gain popularity, a prelude to his classic Sherlock Holmes mystery stories. In Scandal in Bohemia, Watson reveals: “To Sherlock Holmes she (Menken-Irene Adler) is always the woman. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”
Billy Rose, producer, promoter and columnist, called Adah “a lollapalooza who rates with Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and other standouts in the cuddle-up sweepstakes.” Rose collected Menkiana, pale reflections of the original. Menken inspired the role of Julie, the black singer in Jerome Kern’s Showboat.
Fortunately for posterity, Napoleon Sarony, the Victorian-era photographer who was the first to record glamour on glass-plates, caught Adah's moods and roles -- almost her soul. She speaks to us through these surviving portraits. In the best of the photos, there is a haunting quality of recognition. More likely, we have seen Adah's star-struck look reborn in a later goddess: another beauty carried off by the untamed steed of success. The spirit of the poet in pink tights lives on.
Barbara Foster is a world traveler and has published a wide variety of articles on Women's Studies as well as poetry.
Michael Foster is a novelist, biographer, and historian.