Adah Isaacs Menken's extraordinary beauty, her flamboyant style of acting and her daring display of her shapely figure made her the sensation of the Victorian Age. She was born on June 15, 1835, near New Orleans, Louisiana, to Adah Bertha Theodore and was raised in the Jewish faith. Her father died when she was two years old. Her mother married a man named Joseph and had two children by him before he died in 1853. That was the same year that Adah and her sister, Josephine, made their stage debut at the French Opera House in New Orleans.
After a successful tour with her sister, Adah decided to go to a private school to learn to speak, French, German, Spanish and Hebrew. She claimed that she published her first book of poems, "Memories," in 1856, under the nom de plume "Indigena."
She married Alexander Isaacs Menken, an orchestra leader and the son of a prominent Jewish family in Cincinnati. She loved the stage and returned to it, making her husband her manager. She went to New York in 1859 and starred in "The Soldier's Daughter." Her marriage to Menken fell apart and she divorced him. She married John Heenan, a famous boxer, in 1859, and they had an infant son that died. This marriage also fell apart and they were divorced.
Menken went back to the stage and appeared in the play "Mazeppa," based on a poem by Lord Byron. In this play, she wore flesh colored tights with a wispy loincloth that gave the impression that she was naked and in one scene, she was tied to a horse that ran wildly around the stage. The audiences responded with thunderous applause and the press called her the "naked lady" and the "most perfectly developed woman in the world." Her role as a sex symbol was with her the rest of her life.
She married Robert Henry Newell, a journalist, in 1862. Two years later, she went on a stage tour of England with him. He remained with her a short time and then returned to United States. Menken's nudity illusions in "Mazeppa" caused contradictory comments that brought her much publicity. This resulted in her receiving the record sum of $500 a performance.
She returned to the United States in 1865, after her divorce to Newell. She married James Barkley, a wealthy man, and after three days, she left him to return to Europe. In Paris, she gave birth to a son and named him Louis Dudevant Victor Emanuel Barley in honor of George Sands, his godmother.
All of her life, Menken was proud of her Jewish heritage. She never performed on Yom Kippur and she slept with a Hebrew Bible under pillow. She was sometimes militant against anti-Semitism and in 1857, she protested against the exclusion of Jews from the British House of Commons. She died on August 10, 1868 from tuberculosis and is buried in the Jewish part of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
Adah Isaacs Menken introduced a new form of acting style on the stage which pierced the Victorian Age armor of rigid propriety. Her poetry was an artistic expression that gave her another dimension as a person. Her contributions were invaluable to the arts.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 12 May 2011