Adah Isaacs Menken  

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Adah Isaacs Menken (15 June, 1835 - August 10, 1868) was an American actress, painter and poet, best remembered for her performance in the 1861 theatrical adaptation of Byron's Mazeppa. She died prematurely aged 33.

She was born Adah Bertha Theodore in New Orleans to a French Creole mother and Free Negro 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. In 1859 she appeared on Broadway in the play "The French Spy."

She converted to Judaism and married a Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken. Their marriage was short-lived. Menken separated from, and then later divorced her, though she remained committed to Judaism her entire life. She had four marriages in the space of seven years. She was Mrs. John C. Heenan (and accused of bigamy because Menken had not secured a divorce).

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 Newel. 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 and Tom Hood and became a friend to Charles Dickens.

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.

Much of the information pertaining to Menken's racial and religious background has been questioned in more recent historical biography, particularly in Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Sexual reputation

From A compleat alternative sexuality history timeline

This most famed sexpot of the Victorian age was the star of Mazeppa. She flashed apparent nudity in the face of Emperor Franz Josef -- he liked it. She was also the lover in reality, or publicly held fantasy, of many famous men including numerous crowned heads and chiefs of government. She was once paid by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to spend the night with poet Charles Swinburne, giving him the flogging he wanted, possibly in an attempt on Rosetti's part to convince the poet that women were desirable sex partners. [JWB]


  • Dickson, Samuel. Tales of Old San Francisco - 1957 Stanford University Press. L.C. # 57-9306

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