Black Jewish History Month: Adah Isaacs Menken

Today in Black Jewish History Month, Adah Isaacs Menken.

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Adah Isaacs Menken was an American actress, painter and poet.

She was born Adah Bertha Theodore in New Orleans to a French Creole mother and a Free Negro father, Auguste Theodore. She danced as a child in New Orleans, Havana and Texas. Eventually she worked in San Francisco. Menken was known for her poetry and painting, though both were poorly received. In 1859 she appeared on Broadway in the play “The French Spy. Once again, her work was not highly regarded by the critics. The New York Times described her as ‘the worst actress on Broadway’. The Observer said “she is delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent”.

She converted to Judaism and married a Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken. The commentators continued to be cynical, saying that a marriage to a rich husband was the only way to sustain a flagging (acting) career. The marriage to Alex Menken was short-lived. Alex Menken separated from and later divorced Adah, though she remained committed to Judaism her entire life. She had four marriages in the space of seven years. Her second husband was John C. Heenan, the American prizefighter. As she had not yet secured a legally recognised divorce from Alex Menken, Adah Menken was accused of bigamy. At the time, John Heenan was one of the most famous and popular figures in America, particularly on the east coast and especially in New York, his home town. The press were quick to point this out as they continued to accuse her of marrying solely to maintain her celebrity status. However, everyone that knew her well said that she genuinely loved the gregarious and outgoing Heenan.

The marriage lasted less than a year. By the time Heenan left to fight in England in January 1860, the couple were estranged. Heenan’s popularity would increase dramatically because of his fight with the English champion. The Washington Post described him as the most famous man in America. Menken would bill herself as ‘Mrs. Heenan’ throughout 1860, despite protestations from Heenan’s entourage (though not Heenan himself). There is no doubt that the productions Menken appeared in benefitted from Menken’s use of her married name.

In 1860-61, she contributed a series of poems to the New York Sunday Mercury, as well as a glowing piece praising Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass in 1860 as “centuries ahead of his contemporaries”.

She played “Mister Bones,” a minstrel character, and impersonated Edwin Booth as Hamlet and Richelieu. She performed with Blondin, a Niagara Falls tightrope walker. Her provocative stage performance, strapped to a horse bareback, wearing only tights in Mazeppa, helped establish her reputation as a scandalous figure. On August 24, 1863, the master of San Francisco theater, Tom McGuire presented Mazeppa with Miss Menken. She later became Mrs. Robert Henry Newell (better known by his writing pseudonym Orpheus C. Kerr). Even later she became Mrs. James Barkley. The probable facts of her life were not established until 1938.

She went to perform in Paris, France and was romanced by Alexandre Dumas, père. She went to London, England, and was wooed by Charles Reade, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Tom Hood, and became a friend to Charles Dickens. Rosetti is said to have offered her ten pounds to seduce Swinburne away from his fetish for flagellation, but that after six weeks she admitted defeat and returned the money.

Later, in ill health, she wrote to a friend, “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.” She died at the age of thirty-three in Paris, France in 1868 and is interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

This is Black Jewish History Month at Manishtana’s Musings.

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