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Menken, Adah Isaacs (1835-1868)

Rachel Adelaide
de Vere Spenser
Actor, Journalist, Poet

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).