Ah, the great iconic female sex symbols: Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Adah Issacs Menken…Wait – what? Who? While many today may scratch their heads at the mention of Dietrich, they would no doubt be downright dumbfounded by the moniker of Menken; yet, she was likely the most fantastic of them all – conquering not only the stage, but the literary and fashion worlds…Indeed, during her brief span on this planet – a mere 33 years (early death practically being a prerequisite for eternal goddess inauguration) – Menken (or The Menken, as she was affectionately christened), from approximately 1858 to her demise ten years later was arguably the most popular woman on Earth. That her name isn’t instantly recognizable to most folks today is typical celebrity fan fickleness. But that could all change now, as her outrageous life has been spectacularly brought to light in the meticulously-researched new tome A DANGEROUS WOMAN, by authors Michael and Barbara Foster. The Fosters have scrutinized and scoped out The Menken from stem to stern resulting in the most professionally-assembled well-constructed examination of this truly remarkable individual to date. For aficionados of celeb bios – this is required reading; for everyone else…it’s required reading.
That Menken’s story hailed from the mid-19th century, when women generally had little if no power or voice, is stunning enough. But the fact that Menken’s mother was a woman of color and that her father was Jewish, makes her ascension ever most startling. Equally proud of both her heritages, Menken additionally considered herself a lady of the South – having been raised in Louisiana. For those in the know, she has been claimed by several camps. Jewish groups deem her theirs, while African-American contingents also herald The Menken as one of their own. Equally relevant is the recent induction into the gay and lesbian camp; Menken can indeed be considered an early supporter of gay rights (championing and being championed by close friends Walt Whitman and Charles Warren Stoddard). Furthermore, her bisexuality was revealed in several of her poems, including Laurlerack: “(A)s my lips did fondly greet her; I blessed her as love’s amulet; Earth has no treasure dearer, sweeter…” A recently discovered letter to contemporary poet Hattie Tyng confesses: “I have had my passionate attachments among young women, which swept like whirlwinds over me, sometimes, alas! scorching me with a furnace blast.
Whereas in the 1800s, humans of both sexes would go through pains to hide these origins, Menken flaunted them proudly. She lauded her African roots, and became a strict advocate for the creation of a free state of Israel (a main frenemy was the renowned Rabbi Issac Mayer Wise, who strongly preached reform Judaism – seamless assimilation into American society; he nevertheless, too, fell under her spell, including several of her writings in his publications).
Menken’s dark exotic beauty was astounding – even critics of her antics and art admitted she was Venus incarnate. Her lovers read like a Who’s Who of 19th century literature, art, show business and royalty. Barely out of her teens, Menken embraced acting – soon traveling to Cuba where she almost immediately became the lover of famed poet and subsequently executed revolutionary Juan Clemente Zenea. That was only the beginning. Her love life and lust for adventure is a penny dreadful for the ages. Her expertise as an equestrienne made her a prime circus attraction; this led to a tenure as a special member of the Texas Rangers, with whom she valiantly rode across the Southwestern territory. Riding became an integral part of her life – on and off stage. She was married five times – although the legality is suspect. By her own admission, she loved matrimony, but paid little attention to divorce. She had two children out of wedlock – officially and unofficially (both died in infancy). The first with prizefighter John Carmel Heenan, who later swore they were never wed (dubbing her “a dangerous woman,” a 1800s catchphrase for prostitute); the second to infamous Confederate spy, gambler and Wall Street financier James Paul Barkley – a longtime lover. Once she revealed her condition, he did the right thing, but, while their previous relationship had lasted for years, their wedded bliss petered out after three days!
Menken’s envied whirling dervish lifestyle belied her many insecurities; to those close to her, it is obvious that today she would be termed as bi-polar. She appeared to be constantly depressed between failed liaisons (she attempted suicide twice). It was during her lowest ebbs, however, that her creativity flourished – through writing and self-marketing, both in which she was a master. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of her many admirers (her poetry was favorably compared to Poe’s). As far as the latter, Menken early on realized that sex sells. She also saw the incredible advantages of technology – and brilliantly utilized photography to get her point across. She encouraged and “made” the reputation of Napoleon Sarony, generally considered to be the father of celebrity photo portraiture. As for a proper vehicle to showcase herself, Menken, in a stroke of genius, chose the hoary melodrama Mazeppa. This play, based on a Byron poem, concerned the Romeo and Juliet romance between Prince Mazeppa and his beloved Castellan, Olinska. Here’s the switch: Menken played Mazeppa. Mazeppa’s big moment is being whipped into S&M frenzy, lashed naked to a horse – and sent off into the night. Menken’s androgynous interpretation was a sly one. As a woman in such a situation, she could have never gotten away with these shenanigans. So with butch cut, and as nude as she could be (all the while wearing her trademark pink tights), Menken became the Prince – of course understanding that no one would ever mistake her for a man. And did it work – like gangbusters! Women flocked to see the brave Prince in turmoil. Horndogs packed the theaters to get their jollies. But there was one more carrot to these histrionics. Menken actually used a live horse to gallop through the aisles, up the stage and, amidst lightning and thunder effects, atop a four-story faux mountain. Such was the response that overnight Mazeppa became the hottest ticket in town. To ensure she would score a major share of the box office, she created the concept of advance sales (which, on the down side, gave birth to the bastard child, the scalper).
Performing at her peril in the Gold Rush fields of California (peril because hot appreciative miners tossed gold nuggets at her head), Menken soon found herself in demand in Europe – and threw London for a loop, where the show was even a greater success. Prior to this, she virtually owned an 1861 crumbling America – a typical touring headline being: THE NAKED LADY (her new nickname) CAPTURES OUR CITY…and, in smaller type underneath, Fort Sumpter Fired Upon.
Which brings us to another sidebar – that little nuisance known as The Civil War. As woman of color, one would have figured Menken as a Union supporter extraordinaire…But, true to Naked Lady form, Menken thought herself a daughter of the South – and thus became a spy for the Confederacy, – forming relationships with the entire Booth family, and an ongoing pseudo-bff connection with notorious Southern agent Belle Boyd.
Boyd was just one of her gal pals; another, during her New York bohemian days, was free spirit actress/scribe Ada Clare. Menken and Clare shunned accepted sartorial splendor and opted for ghostly complexions of pallor draped in black; in effect they created the goth look 135 years before it rocked the fashion galaxy.
For me, it is The Naked Lady’s European period that comprises the most fascinating part of Menken’s story. Compiling her best work into a volume entitled Infelicia, she pressed to have it published before her death (she was already prone to collapsing on and off the boards – her weakened state being attributed to the hereditary tuberculosis which had claimed her mother and sister). It’s here that we are privy to her many romantic dalliances with the rich and famous – thespians, royals, painters, writers…There’s an account of her going antiquing with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and my favorite, a bitching letter to her American confidante, editor Ed James in which she complains about Charles Dickens taking too long to write the intro to her book (Dickens, who was another fan, did intend to do so – but, as often in his orbit, put way too much on his plate. At the time he was balancing a trying U.S. book tour with the conquest of his latest mistress). She was not in want of replacements. If his procrastination continued, reasoned Menken, she would be forced to go with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Jeez, don’t you hate when that happens?!
What lit the Naked Lady torch even brighter was the explosion of not one, but TWO scandals. The first was during her Mazeppa run in Paris, where she encountered the aging roué Alexandre Dumas. Dumas, who had been insulted by the insinuation that he kept a mistress (by his estimation, it was more like 28: “If I had only one, she would be dead within a week!” He claimed to have sired at least 500 children) became obsessed with The Menken – the most desirable woman in the world. It was reciprocal. The May-December romance took full flight, and the pair became red-hot lovers in a pairing that shook the confines of the City of Light. Menken, who opted to go African rather than Jewish because it was France (hmmm….even then!) especially bonded with Dumas due to his black heritage (the author’s grandfather was a French nobleman who had his father with a black slave whilst stationed in Haiti). The duo, both cognizant of the value of publicity, then shocked the public further by posing for a series of risque photographs, which the local pornographers eagerly hawked on sidewalks (the less lascivious versions ended up in bookstore windows and newsstands; see slideshow). They were soon spread throughout the globe – offending the jealous nature of converted fan Mark Twain, who, from then on, referred to Dumas as “the mulatto in the iron mask.”
In a line that Mae West would be honored to have been credited with, Menken shrugged her couplings with “Good girls are rarely clever, and clever girls rarely good.” She then hung out with buddy George Sand – who adored the younger woman’s choice of men’s suits and top hats (predating Dietrich’s Morocco garb by some 70 years!).
A bigger scandal erupted back in London with controversial poet Algernon Swinburne. When it came to verse, he was fifty years ahead of his time; to paraphrase Billy Wilder (about Erich von Stroheim), when it came to perversion – he was a hundred years ahead of his time!
Frothing at the mouth night after night during performances of Mazeppa, Swinburne could barely contain himself as the glorious Menken, whipped and naked, rode her horse up the mountain. Their meeting was like two locomotives colliding – and, before you could say the Marquis de Sade (whom Swinburne patterned his sexuality after), the twosome were slapping and lashing themselves in private. As Menken later confided, the sex was good, but the poet should understand that there was more to pleasure than biting.
As this new scandal tore London apart, The Naked Lady departed for Germany for the Teutonic Mazeppa. Alas, it was here that her Jewishness did her in. For the first time in her skyrocketing career, she flopped miserably – a victim of rampant anti-Semitism. Menken ended her run prematurely and eventually landed back in France, preparing her next attraction while putting the final touches on her book. She was not to see the fruition of either, as she expired that summer.
It’s confounding to me that all these whining contemporary modern actresses, searching for that perfect project, have yet to have focused upon Menken – either in specific incident or the whole biographical ball of wax. You might ponder yourself: why hasn’t anyone ever brought Menken to the screen? Well, they have…In 1960, Paramount released the western comedy Heller in Pink Tights starring Sophia Loren, a reasonable choice – although, physically, the smoldering, dark Yvonne De Carlo (aptly around the time of Band of Angels) has the right look. Director George Cukor freely admitted that Loren’s character was based on Menken. Bizarrely, on the TV screen, in a move more apropos to Have Gun, Will Travel than Bonanza, the Cartwrights met up with Menken, as envisioned by Ruth Roman (who does resemble the lady). Conan Doyle likewise based Irene Adler (“The Woman”) upon Menken in the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia (Adler’s rupturing the European empire took a backseat to her being the only female ever to capture the heart of the noted detective). Charlotte Rampling played Adah in a 1976 television movie, Sherlock Holmes in New York. Most curious is the obscure 1934 picture Operator 13. Made by Hollywood’s most white bread studio, MGM, and starring one of the industry’s ultimate white bread stars, Marion Davies, the movie is one convoluted affair – gleefully re-arranging historical facts to tell its tale. Davies is a beautiful actress who teams up with a lady spy (supposedly Belle Boyd) to go undercover during the Civil War. Except in this account, Davies’ character spies for the North. Nevertheless the Menken clues are apparent, as she spends most of the pic in blackface (which doubly explains why it is seldom shown today).
Perhaps the most defining and lingering artistic homage to Menken is in the classic Camille, penned by Dumas son – the story of a flamboyant courtesan ultimately felled by consumption (aka TB).
I’ve only chipped away at the many instances and adventures that await readers of A DANGEROUS WOMAN, such as her life after death…inhabiting the domain of spiritualism meister Daniel Douglas Home. And then there’s the…No – better you check this out for yourself.
A DANGEROUS WOMAN: Lyons Press. ISBN # 978-59921-602-7. 347 pages. Cloth. SRP: $24.95.