Adah Isaacs Menken (June 15,1835 – August 10,1868) was the original global Superstar, the first media celebrity, a daredevil American performer who risked her life on stage. Her definitive biography A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken 1835 – 1868 America’s Original Superstar by Michael Foster and Barbara Foster is now available in hardcover and kindle. A poet and rebel, she was known to Victorians as “The Naked Lady.”
Born into a Jewish, Creole (Colored) family in antebellum New Orleans, Adah Menken was the first actress to apparently bare all–the mother of theatrical and film nudity. Off stage, she originated the front-page scandal and became the most famous, highly paid actress in the world–the darling of New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris. At thirty-three, the height of her fame, this femme fatale mysteriously died. Longfellow, at her bedside, composed a farewell love song.
The beautiful stripper was a powerful writer. Born to a kept woman of color in New Orleans, the identity of her father is still debated. In her teens she became a true daughter of Texas, learning to shoot and ride. In her twenties in the Midwest, she became a protege of Rabbi Wise, founder of Reform Judaism. Adah wrote heartfelt verse and essays in defense of the Jewish people. Later, in New York’s Bohemian scene, she became the disciple of poet Walt Whitman.
During the Civil War Adah was arrested as a Confederate agent. Adah was America’s first pin-up, her photos adored by soldiers North and South. She married and left five husbands, among them the world heavyweight boxing champ, a leading literary figure, and a Rhett Butler-style gambler. Adah was friend or lover to the outstanding men of any time: Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Dante Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, Algernon Swinburne, and women who included George Sand. Menken’s ghost fascinated 19th and 20th century seances.
Her life intrigued literary, theater, and film greats such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Jerome Kern, Billy Rose, Stella Adler, George Cukor, and David O. Selznick. One admirer, Joaquin Miller, the original cowboy poet, declared, “Nothing is known about her except lies!” Adah played Mazeppa (the naked lady) and won the American West. In London and Paris she was escorted by royalty. During her skyrocket career, she drove herself to success, gave away a fortune, took outlandish risks, and paid with her life. Several attempts, including a script for Marilyn Monroe and a movie starring Sopia Loren, have been made to bring Adah’s story to the big screen. But it remains to do justice to her technicolor life.
Here is a recent podcast done by the authors for Tablet magazine.
Here is an article from the Jewish Women's Archives an online encyclopedia
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