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America’s Original Bad Girl

on November 7, 2011 – 3:17 am

It’s tough being a sexy superstar in today’s media age. But try doing it in the middle of the prudish Victorian era. Yet for Adah Isaacs Menken, the “mother of theatrical and film nudity,” swimming against the current brought her overflow audiences from Broadway to Paris. She married five husbands, including the world heavyweight boxing champion. Her notable lovers ranged from kings to authors Alexandre Dumas and Algernon Swinburne, and some said George Sand, with whom she shared a penchant for cross-dressing. Adah’s front-page scandals and under-the-counter nude photos made her an erotic sensation unequaled until Marilyn Monroe and her calendar a century later. Today’s wannabe bad girls aren’t in the same league.

A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America’s Original Superstar is Barbara and Michael Foster’s immensely enjoyable new biography of America’s first supernova. Wrote cub reporter Mark Twain about how Adah captivated gold rush San Francisco: “A magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision—the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens.” The Fosters’ definitive yet easy-to-read biography, with photos by Napoleon Sarony, the Rembrandt of the camera, brings to startling life the pin-up girl for Civil War troops North and South. “The Naked Lady” grew closely involved in the conflict: No wonder, Adah was born, as the NAACP recognized, “a colored girl from New Orleans.”

Adah Isaacs Menken, c. 1866
[Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division]

The daughter of a beautiful Creole mother, father unknown, Adah had a series of stepfathers, one who abused her, another who taught her the classics. Jewish by religion, Adah grew up in Texas where she became a trick rider in the circus. In Havana, she had a youthful love affair with Juan Zenea, a great Cuban poet shot as a revolutionary. Back in Texas, Adah married the musician Alex Isaac Menken, played in regional theaters, and fled from race riots to Alex’s hometown, Cincinnati.

Adah Isaacs Menken, c. 1866
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Here, in the bosom of a wealthy family, Adah became a disciple of Rabbi Wise, founder of Reform Judaism. In his weekly Israelite she wrote articles and poems defending the Jewish people. Marital discord and her burning ambition caused Adah to leave for New York, where she performed in everything from comedy to tragedy to song and dance. A friend of Walt Whitman, she defended his poetry, usually denounced as filth. Secretly, Adah married handsome, bare-knuckle champ John Heenan, who defeated the British champion to claim the world crown. Returned to America on the eve of the Civil War, Heenan became America’s first great sports hero. To please his English mistress he denounced Adah, and accusations back and forth stole the front pages from Abe Lincoln’s election.

Adah, depressed and suicidal, was saved by Prince Mazeppa, a role that led to fame. Sensational and sexy, the drama Mazeppa was based on a tribal prince who fought Tsarist tyranny. Adah dueled, declaimed, and rode a “wild stallion” up a four-story stage mountain—while stripped apparently naked. From Albany to the Midwest and Nevada’s booming Virginia City, the crowds went wild over this man/woman performance. The miners pelted Adah with bags of gold dust, which, dressed as a sporting gent, she gambled away all night. Shedding a fourth husband, a literary critic, Adah sailed from the Golden Gate to London, carrying along her final husband-to-be, a Rhett Butler-style Confederate agent.

Across Britain, Adah’s popularity swelled, and she thrilled young Arthur Conan Doyle, who would make her the heroine of his first Sherlock Holmes story. Le Menken became the toast of Paris, the world’s highest paid performer. Making clever use of the era’s new media—newspapers, the telegraph, trains, and steamboats, above all the camera—Adah became the first universal Love Goddess, the godmother to Harlow, Monroe, and Princess Diana. From royalty to authors such as Charles Dickens—who wanted to do a double act with her—everyone of note attended Menken’s salons. She was pursued by would-be lovers, including Emperor Napoleon III, and new front-page scandals.

The lifespan of the love goddess—the few who dominated the libido of their time—is not long. They fly high and sparkling until, at a young age, they crash to earth. Adah’s daredevil act and devil-may-care life ended at thirty-three. She died in a Paris garret, the poet Longfellow at her side, writing a eulogy, while a crowd stormed a nearby theater, demanding to see their Naked Lady. Adah’s influence on glamour, fashion, and lifestyle lives on—through her poetry and those who write about her, and a series of movies in which she has been portrayed by Ruth Roman, Sophia Loren, and recently Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes. In the Fosters’ A Dangerous Woman, Adah Menken is born again.

For more information, gossip, and photos, visit www.thegreatbare.com.