1835: An Exhibitionist Pin-up Star Who Made the Critics Cringe Is Born

The people loved highly creative 'The Menken' even if critics sneered that she was 'delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent'

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Image of actor Adah Isaacs Menken in clothing that was controversial at the time, 1866.
Actor Adah Isaacs Menken in clothing that was controversial at the time, 1866.Credit: Sarony/TCS 19, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University/Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

June 15, 1835, is the birthdate of actress, poet and pin-up star Adah Isaacs Menken. Shapely, exhibitionist and highly creative, Menken was much loved by the public even if critics were less enthusiastic about her artistic abilities. The New York Observer, for example, noted that, as an actress, "she is delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent," while her friend Charles Dickens commented that, “She is a sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write.”

But audiences flocked to see her, both in the United States and Europe, and she was famous enough to be recognizable simply by the moniker “The Menken.”

As a performer both onstage and off, Menken offered different accounts of her personal history, so that even the identity of her parents and her name at birth are subject to debate.

She claimed to have been born a Jew, and although that seems unlikely, there is little doubt that she embraced Judaism as an adult, possibly even underwent conversion.

Who she might have been

She may have been born Ida McCord, in Memphis, Tennessee, or Ada Bertha Theodore, in a small town outside New Orleans. She herself claimed at one point to have been born Marie Rachel Adelaide de Vere Spenser, in Bordeaux, France. We just don't know. There’s also some evidence that she had African ancestry.

Portrait of Adah Isaacs Menken at age 19, 1884-1885.Credit: NYPL Digital Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

Menken does seem to have grown up in New Orleans, however, and it is there that she began performing as a dancer at a young age. This led to similar work in Havana, Cuba, before she returned and began taking minor acting parts around Texas.

After a brief marriage to a musician she had met in Texas, Adah married, on April 3, 1856, Alexander Isaac Menken, from Cincinnati. Although his Reform Jewish family initially disapproved of the union, Adah prevailed on Alex to take her back with him to Ohio in 1858.

There would be another three marriages – and divorces – the first to champion prizefighter John Heenan, the next to satirist Robert Henry Newell, and finally to James Paul Barkley, a gambler. And there would be numerous flirtations and dalliances, many with well-known artists, particularly in Paris, where Menken spent the last years of her life. The latter group included Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poet, and the writer Alexandre Dumas, who was twice her age.

A serious poet and a fraud?

It was during her years in Cincinnati, however, at the time the center of the Reform movement, that Menken actively embraced Judaism. She began writing poems and letters on Jewish subjects, which were published in The Israelite, the monthly paper edited by Reform Leader Isaac Mayer Wise, and also in the Jewish Messenger. She wrote in favor of the seating of Jews in the British House of Commons, and in protest of the kidnapping of the Italian Jewish child Edgardo Mortara.

But scholar Gregory Eiselein, editor of a recent edition of Menken’s writings, writes that many of her Jewish-oriented poems were plagiarized directly from the work of other writers, including the American-Jewish poet Peninah Moise. 

Eiselein doesn’t suggest that Menken was a total fraud: She was a serious poet who broke ground in her use of free form, taking inspiration from her friend and muse Walt Whitman. But she does seem to have been willing to perpetuate literary theft in order to establish her bona fides as a Jew.

With the end of her marriage to Alexander Menken and her growing success on stage, Ada became less involved in Judaism.

It was in 1861, in an Albany theater, that she made her great leap into stardom, in the play “Mazeppa, or the Wild Horse of Tartary,” in which, playing a male character, she dressed in a flesh-colored body stocking and was carried offstage strapped to the side of a horse.

Adah Menken depicting a French spy, 1863.Credit: Charles D. Fredricks & Co./Wikimedia Commons

It was her apparent nudity that really grabbed the public’s imagination, as well as her propensity to be photographed in costumes and poses that were often risqué.

By the end of 1867, Adah Isaacs Menken was past her peak of popularity, and an attempt to revive “Mazeppa” did not go well. She remained in Paris, and it was there that she died on August 10, 1868. She was buried in the Jewish section of Montparnasse Cemetery.

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