Adah Menken, an actress "not known for her talent, but rather for her frenetic energy, her charismatic presence, and her willingness to expose herself," was born in a suburb of New Orleans (Richards 192). Adah’s given name was probably Adah Bertha Theodore, but conflicting accounts of her early years and parentage (many generated by herself for publicity purposes) make it difficult to say with certainty. Adah began her acting career in Louisiana, touring the South and West in various roles, and her writing career began with "Fugitive Pencillings" in the Texas Liberty Gazette and in the Cincinnati Israelite. In 1856 she married Alexander Isaacs Menken, son of a Cincinnati dry-goods merchant. By 1859, however, at the time of her New York debut, she had divorced him (or thought she had!) and married John Carmel Heenan, a prizefighter. The couple separated after a scandal in 1860 over whether she was actually divorced when she married him (G. Allen 262).
In the summer of 1859, Menken first became introduced to Pfaff's by her friend, the actress Ada Clare. According to scholar Justin Martin, Menken soon gained the reputation as being "the wildest, most brazen, and most colorful" of the Pfaffians (Martin 68). In 1862 she married fellow Pfaffian Robert Henry Newell (Orpheus C. Kerr), but the union did not last. At Pfaff's, Menken met individuals such as Fitz-James O'Brien and Walt Whitman. Whitman had a genuine affection for Menken and her close friend, Ada Clare, according to Martin (73). Whitman would influence Menken's work as she "was an early convert to his signature style of 'rhapsody'" (Richards 195). It was also through Pfaff's that Menken found a true sense of community with the other women of bohemia, including Clare, Dora Shaw (the subject of one of her poems), and others. In the 1860s, Menken left New York with Clare to find work in the entertainment industry out West in California (Levin and Whitley 5). During this time, she had a resurgence in her acting career as she found great success in her role in Captain Smith's version of the play, Mazeppa.
Menken died after suffering a collapse in Paris after rehearsals, just eight days before her collection of poems, Infelicia, which wrote knowing she was dying, was published in 1868 (Richards 197). The work, dedicated to Charles Dickens, included poems that focused "on the impossibility of human connection and the voices that no one is willing to hear" (Martin 253; Levin and Whitley 6). Speculations on the cause of her death include tuberculosis, an abscess in the side, peritonitis, or cancer (T. A. Brown 335). Following her death, T. Alston Brown paid a final tribute to her: “Miss Menken possessed a character of mind peculiar from the many. She was a lady of extraordinary intellectual endowments and of high literary attainments. Her writings are redolent of bright and beautiful thoughts, and while very young she produced many poems and tales. It was the study of her life to make all within the circle of her acquaintance happy and contented. In her habits she was social and genial, of an equable, amiable and pleasant disposition. Only those who knew her intimately could properly appreciate her noble qualities. Her memory will long be affectionately cherished by a large circle of sorrowing friends, who have known and fully appreciated her many excellent traits of character” (335).
Menken began visiting Pfaff's early in 1860 (229-230). Menken was introduced to the literary circle around the time Whitman was in Boston. According to Allen, Menken was so moved by Whitman's third edition of Leaves of Grass that "she tried to become a disciple and adopt some traits of his verisification" (262). Allen feels that her friendship with Clare was influential in her "hero-worship of Whitman" (262).
Menken had been married twice by the time she joined the Pfaff's circle. Her most recent marriage had been to prize fighter John Heenan, who deserted her in the spring of 1860 when he went to England to fight the British champion. Henry Newell, editor f the New York Sunday Mercury, "had been attracted by this vivacious woman" and began printing her poetry in early 1860. Newell disliked Whitman's work, but Menken was able to convince him to print her "highly eulogistic" review of Leaves of Grass June 3, 1860. According to Allen: "Like the anonymous reviewer in the Saturday Press, she regarded Whitman as a great philosopher, 'centuries ahead of his contemporaries...He hears the Divine voice calling him to caution mankind against this or that evil; and weilds his pen, exerts his energies, for the cause of liberty and humanity!'" (262).
Allen also notes that Menken may have "influenced Swinburne to see in Whitman a prophet of the new social order" when Swinburne was working on some of his European social and political propaganda (431).[pages:229-230,262,431]
The life and remarkable career of Adah Isaacs Menken, the celebrated actress: An account of her career as a danseuese, an actress, an authoress, a poetess, a sculptor, an editress, as captain of the "Dayton light guard," as the wife of the pugilist John C. Heenan, and of "Orpheus Kerr" ...
Brown records her first New York appearance as occuring in June 1859 at the Chatham Theatre. He also notes that Menken's first engagement at the Old Bowery Theatre occurred March 19,1860.
Menken is described as a versatile actress, appearing to be a skilled and well-rounded performer in acting, singing, and dancing. Brown also discusses her intellect and literary achievements.
Brown mentions that Dumas was an admirer.
Brown discusses Menken's fatal illness - she thought she had inflammatory rhematism. Menken's death was attributed to an abcess in her side according to Brown's account. She died Aug. 10, 1868. She was buried in Paris and later moved to New York. Menken's headstone states that she was born in Louisiana.
Born in a suburb of New Orleans, Adah's given name was probably Adah Bertha Theodore, but conflicting accounts of her early years and parentage (many generated by herself for publicity purposes) make it difficult to say with certainty. (Fellow Pfaffian Augustine Daly claims that her true name was Adelaide McCord.) At various points, she gave her father's name as Josiah Campbell, James McCord, Richard Irving Spenser, and Ricardo Los Fiertes. This father, who is sometimes noted as a "free man of color," died when Adah was a baby, and her mother remarried. Her mother, speculated to be a native of Pensacola, was stated to be either Creole or Jewish of Franco-Spanish descent.
Adah began her acting career in Louisiana, touring the South and West in various roles, and her writing career with "Fugitive Pencillings" in the Texas Liberty Gazette and in the Cincinnati Israelite. In 1856 she married Alexander Isaacs Menken, son of a Cincinnati dry-goods merchant, but by 1859, at the time of her New York debut, she divorced him (or thought she had!) and married John Carmel Heenan, a prizefighter. The couple separated after a scandal in 1860 over whether she was actually divorced when she married him (G. Allen 262).
During this period, Menken frequented Pfaff's and met actress Ada Clare, poet Walt Whitman, and writer Fitz-James O'Brien. In 1862 she married Pfaffian Robert Henry Newell (Orpheus C. Kerr), but the union did not last. An article in Current Literature suggests that Kerr "unconsciously did the funniest thing of his life when he married the beautiful and seductive Adah Isaacs Menken, thinking that he could reform her. She proved false and faithless to him, as she had to half a dozen other men, but Kerr sincerely loved her, and the blow, which his own credulity brought him, was a cruel and lasting one" ("General Gossip" 479).
Menken did not let her romantic troubles keep her from working; her poems, later to appear as a collected edition, appeared singly in the New York Sunday Mercury and the Israelite. At Pfaff's, Menken may have met John Brougham as well; she later appeared in a short run of one of his plays, The Children of the Sun, which is said to have been written for her. Her acting took her on tours through upstate New York and the Midwestern United States. Her greatest success occurred at this point, when she starred in H. M. Milner's Mazeppa, based on Byron's poem. At the climactic moment she appeared on a horse, garbed so as to appear naked. The thronging public was appropriately shocked and titillated, and she toured the show in Europe as well.
In addition to the crowd at Pfaff's, Menken joined other literary and artistic circles as well. In San Francisco she performed at Tom Maguire's Opera House to a group including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Artemus Ward, Joaquin Miller, and others who met in Joe Lawrence's Golden Era office. In London such men as Charles Dickens, Charles Reade, Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Charles Fechter were among her guests. In the meantime, she had divorced her next husband Robert Henry Newell and married James Barkley who did not accompany her when she left for France in 1866; there she gave birth to her son Louis Dudevant Victor Emanuel Barkley, whose godmother was George Sand.
During her time in France, Menken is rumored to have had affairs with Alexandre Dumas and Charles Swinburne, the latter of whom may have modeled his poem "Dolorida" on her (Gilliland). Menken died after suffering a collapse in Paris after rehearsals, just eight days before her collection of poems, Infelicia, which she dedicated to Charles Dickens, was published in 1868. Speculations on the cause of her death include tuberculosis, an abscess in the side, peritonitis, or cancer (T. A. Brown 335).
Following Menken's death, T. Alston Brown paid a final tribute to her: "Miss Menken possessed a character of mind peculiar from the many. She was a lady of extraordinary intellectual endowments and of high literary attainments. Her writings are redolent of bright and beautiful thoughts, and while very young she produced many poems and tales. It was the study of hr life to make all within the circle of her acquaintance happy and contented. In her habits she was social and genial, or an equable, amiable and pleasant disposition. Only those who knew her intimately could properly appreciate her noble qualities. Her memory will long be affectionately cherished by a large circle of sorrowing friends, who have known and fully appreciated her many excellent traits of character" (335).[pages:i.334-335,515, ii.196]
Browne says she "went to Pfaff's occasionally." Browne describes her as "ill-fated"(157).[pages:157]
Buszek provides biographical information about Menken's theatrical career, as well as photographic images. Menken's careers as poet, essayist, and Women's Rights activist are also discussed.[pages:146,147,151(ill.)-154, 153 (ill.), 154(ill.), 155,]
Confran challenges the various biographical information commonly regarded as true for Menken. He claims that Menken's birth name was Adah McCord and that her birthdate was June 15,1835. Confran also claims that Menken was born in Memphis to parents Richard and Catherine McCord and had a brother and sister named John and Josephine. Confran also claims that Menken later had a step-father named Josiah Campbell.
Confran's claims are based on census data from 1850 and a posthumous autiobiographical article written by Menken.[pages:47-54]
Mentioned in the 1861 chapter.[pages:54]
Etyinge describes a chance meeting with Menken at the shop of her French hairdresser, Gentil. Upon seeing "a swathed and betowelled form occupying the operating-chair," Etyinge turns to leave (310). She is stopped, however, by Menken who encourages her to stay. Awestruck, Eytinge reports that "never, either before or since, have I heard anything so perfect in sound as that voice. It transfixed me; it was like the softest, sweetest tones of an aeolian harp" (311). Eytinge ends her memoir with this anecdote about Menken.[pages:310-311]
Figaro reports that Menken has returned from London and is currently staying at the New York Hotel (25).[pages:25]
The article mentions that Orpheus Kerr "unconsciously did the funniest thing of his life when he married the beautiful and seductive Adah Isaacs Menken, thinking that he could reform her. She proved false and faithless to him, as she had to half a dozen other men, but Kerr sincerely loved her, and the blow, which his own credulity brought him, was a cruel and lasting one."[pages:479]
Ruled out as "Ellen Eyre" because she had recently married the editor of the Sunday Dispatch. Menken was a possible candidate for author of the letter because she was an admirer of Whitman when she was Swinburne's lover.
She may have written an enthusiastic reivew of the third edition of Leaves of Grass for the Sunday Mercury. Menken also mentioned Whitman in her column in the Mercury, "Swimming Against the Current," June 10, 1860. Menken also stole a line from "Song of Myself" for one of her poems.
Menken is mentioned as a friend of Ada Clare. Holloway gives the name Heenan as another last name for Menken. Her prizefighter husband accidently killed their baby when he was drunk.[pages:109-110,115]
Ada Clare, "Bohemian fellow traveler Adah Isaacs Menken," and
Menken began showing up at Pfaff's in 1859, but remained either silent or totally misleading about who she actually was (57).
In 1868 Menken's health failed, and she died in Paris at age 33.
Menken's strikingly good looks got her onto the stage, but left her with a "defensive obsession to demonstrate genuine talent" (58).
After the dramatic resolution of her third marriage, Adah Menken plunged into despair. In a small apartment in Jersey City, she wrote her suicide note. But rather than carry through with it, she chose to reinvent herself, accepting a role to play the male part of Mazeppa in Voltaire's History of Charles XII, King of Sweden. The part was a huge risk and required Mazeppa to be tied naked to a horse and sent into the wilderness. Menken's performance was "remarkable" and is thought to be "inseperable from the dislocations and disruptions of war [...] and the bringing of such commercialized sensuality to the respectable stage" (113).
Menken's health began failing in 1868, and she died in Paris at age 33 (116).[pages:57-58, 60, 79, 107, 112, 113, 116]
Menken is noted as a famed female Bohemian who was a "sometime poet and successful actress" (21).
Levin notes that by defining themselves as "Bohemians" women like Adah Isaacs Menken created a certain sexual license that allowed them to "flaunt and justify their alleged improprieties or immoralities [...] without incurring the assumption [...] that they were in fact 'public women' or prostitutes" (43).[pages:21, 42, 43, 68]
Levin describes her as a "sometime poet and successful actress." Menken achieved international fame in 1860 in a melodrama in which final scene features her in flesh-colored body suit lashed to the back of a horse, riding towards the horizon (22). Menken was one of several writers associated with Pfaff's to relocate to San Francisco and write for the Golden Era (162).[pages:22,54,55-56,61,90,162]
Augustin Daly says in his introductory comments on this brief autobiographical sketch by Menken, "Disjointed as the memoranda are, they give for all that, when her excusable vanity permits, and honest revelation of her own feelings."
Augustin Daly writes of Menken's life and death, "Menken's crime was weakness of heart! There never was so weak a woman. And with this feminine feeling came its attendant fault, reckless generosity! . . . Paris may have changed her, but I doubt it much; and yet I read in the Figaro that scarcely ten people followed her to the grave, and among these, not a writer, not an actress. 'Where,' asks the Cynic, 'Where were all her comrades; all the journalists who were never tired of praising her beauty and her talent?'" (2-3)
One of several women who frequented Pfaff's.[pages:16]
Menken is written about as part of what Odell claims is the Broadway Theatre's turn "away from comedy to mere sensationalism" in the 1865-66 season (34).
Menken began her engagement in Mazeppa April 30, 1866. Odell describes her as "beautiful and erratic." The show ran for nearly a month. Menken received bad reviews from the Tribune because of her scandalous performance. Odell reprints the Tribune review of Mazeppa on p.34-35. Mazeppa runs to May 21, followed by The French Spy. A benefit was held for her shortly after that included The French Spy and Black-Eyed Susan. Odell cites T.Allston Brown's mentions that her engagement ended abruptly because of her illness (35). Menken reappeared the next month at the Broadway.
Odell states that "The myth of Menken is one of the ineradicable obsessions of American theatrical history, aided as it is by the well-known photographs of her taken with the elder Dumas and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and by the legends of her wild romantic life" (34).[pages:34 (ill), 34-35, 36]
Menken was annouced as coming out of New Orleans in the 1858-1859 season. She was seen by a New York audience for the first time on March 1, 1859 in The Widow Cheerly. Odell says she "has left behind her one of the most intriguing reputations known to the theater, was at the time of her debut here but an untrained girl, revealing no great possiblities for the future" (145). Odell discusses Menken's later international fame and relationships with "poets" and "gilded youths." Odell also makes mention of pictures of "the Menken" taken with the elder Dumas and A.C. Swinburne. Odell quotes an early review of Menken that discusses how she is talented but requires training.
Odell calls Menken "beautiful and erratic" (233) and discusses her first appearance at the Bowery in the 1859-60 season. At this performance, Menken announced herself Mrs. John C. Heenan, identifying herself with the "Benicia Boy" (?)(233). The Bowery performance seems to have endeared her to the crowds. Menken appeared again in this season identified in playbills as Mrs. J.C. Heenan; Odell reprints reviews and lists her roles.
Menken is listed among the readers at Hope Chapel (1859-60) when "mystery-woman, 'disintguished actress and authoress'" read from Shakespeare and modern poets (294). Menkened plays the Canterbury and the Melodeon. She was booked for six nights at the Melodean during the 1860-1 season and failed to appear; she does not seem to have appeared for any of her run. Odell states that "Menken's reputation, savoury and unsavoury, was still in the making" (360).
During the 1861-62 season Odell states that "A great night came in on the 9th of June, when the beautiful, mysterious, daring, and not altogether shrinking Menken began an engagement, performing nine characters in Three Fast Women (409). Odell lists several other credits for Menken for that season, including the title role in Lola Montes.
On June 16, 1862, she appears in Mazeppa. Odell states: "On June 16th, Menken at last appeared in New York in the part associated with her fame, Mazeppa, in which she made the ascents and descents of the perilous scaffoldings of the scenery, on the bare back of the stead, and one might say delicately, on her own bare back - 'a feat never before attempted by any woman'" (409). Odell claims that "this sensation drew the town" and Mazeppa became the closing thrill of her benefits that season (409). Odell states, "The fame of this daring enterprise has come down to our own times, and will doubtless go on" (409).
During the same season, J.C. Heenan wrotes a Nov. 1 letter to The Herald in which he denied being married to Menken. He also responded to allgations that he spent her money (she seems to have filed a suit against him or written allegations that he spent her money in The Herald)(445).
Odell describes Menken's return to the stage in 1862-63 season, her roles, the revival of Mazeppa, and the other plays she performed for benefits. Odell also discusses performances of Mazeppa that do not star Menken and occured when she was "turning the heads of literary Europe" (572).[pages:145-6, 233, 234,294,342,356,360,409, 416 (ill), 445, 495,572]
Parry mentions that Ada Clare sailed for California on February 3, 1864, "to join Adah Isaacs Menken and to learn the secret of stage triumphs" (28). Clare and Menken met and made friends in California. Parry writes that "Both of them came from the South, there was only one year of difference in their ages, and they were equal in their love of adventure and unconventional life." Parry notes, however, that Menken did not help forward Clare's stage career and sailed from San Francisco to England in April, 1864, leaving Clare behind in California (30).[pages:28,30]
In an 1864 letter to John Foster Dickens writes, "At Astley's there has been much puffing at great coast of a certain Miss Adah Isaacs Menken, who is to be seen bound on the horse in 'Mazeppa' 'ascending the fearful precipices, not as hitherto done by a dummy'. Last night, having a boiling head, I went out from here to cool myself on Waterloo Bridge, and I thought I would go and see this heroine. . . . Now who do you think the lady is? If you do not already know, ask that question of the highest Irish mountains that look eternal, and they'll never tell you--
Personne writes that "Mistress Menken, or le Capitaine Menken, has left town, and the Tribune office still stands erect" (2).[pages:2]
Personne mentions that the "Benecia Girl" is at the Bowery Theatre and warns the other "crickets" to "beware" (3).[pages:3]
Personne refers to Menken here as "Mrs. Heenan" and discusses the "Benicia Girl's" "alleged matrimonial connection with the Boy who has gone over to England with the laudable intention of punching the head of Mr. Thomas Sayers" (3). Personne also mentions attempting to bribe someone else to see her perform at the Bowery this week (3).[pages:3]
Personne mentions that Menken has debuted at the National Theatre. Personne reprints the Tribune review of her performance (3).[pages:3]
Quelqu'un asks the General why it didn't go "hear" Menken on Monday. Declares that "all the Adas are lovely, showing that there is something, anyhow in a name." Discusses her and what she needs to do to get the General to go see her; basically by drawing upon her talent rather than any social position (3).[pages:3]
"The notoriety of [Adah Menken and Ada Clare], who are usually mentioned in connection with each other, combined with Clare's scandalous lack of shame in bearing a child out of wedlock, their membership in the country's best-known literary circles, and the supposed proclivities of subcultural bohemia of the time, generated many questions about their sexual desires" (76).
"And, though Adah Isaacs Menken performed a repertoire very similar to Cushman's, her cultivation of a Bohemian lifestyle is far from the careful respectability with which Cushman surrounded herself. The scandals and shocking behavior that seemed to follow both Forrest and Menknen were avoided by Cushman" (45).
"The free-and-easy Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-69) was a notorious performer (and poet) best known for her seemingly 'naked' wild ride while strapped to the back of a real horse in the sensational stage play Mazeppa" (63).
"Mark Twain, however, was not as taken with Menken as other male writers were and was actually quite critical of what Thomas Schirer calls Menken's 'substitution of sexual illusion for acting ability.' Twain lambasted her unmotivated cavorting in Mazeppa, referred to her as 'that manly young female,' [...]" (73).[pages:6, 12, 45, 63-79]
Menken was an actress. She is also mentioned as one of "the handful of women artists [who] figure in the accounts of New York Bohemia" (111).
Stansell describes Menken as a "successful actress" and writes that "in 1860 she would achieve international noteriety as the star of a melodrama in which in the last scene, clad in flesh-colored tights and a G-string, whe rode into the horizon lashed to the back of a 'fiery steed'" (112).[pages:111,112]
Whitman refers to Adah Issacs Menken as "Mrs. Heenan," in reference to her marriage to the boxer John C. Heenan.
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015