Biography of Muse and Poet Adah Isaacs Menken Part 1

About the famous actress, poet, and muse Adah Isaacs Menken, biography and history of her influence.


Adah Isaacs Menken (1835?-1868)

"My dearest love," Alexander Dumas, pere, had whispered as he looked into the huge soulful eyes of Adah Menken, "if it's true that I have talent, so it is true I have love. Both are completely thine."

And during a later period, across another breakfast table, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne gazed at the lovely Adah and mur-mured, "My darling, a woman with such beautiful legs as yours need not bother about poetry."

Adah Isaacs Menken managed to charm the most brilliant and talented men of her day. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Charles Dickens all fell under her spell. But she was more than a mere Victorian vamp. She was an inventive and talented actress and a clever and inspired poet. All during her life she wrote essays as well as poetry. Her work often reflected her mood of the moment, but sad or happy she continued to write. Many of her poems were published in the Cincinnati Israelite, an Anglo-Jewish weekly, and in New York's Sunday Mercury. A book of Adah's autobiographical poetry, Infelicia, was her only collected work, and that was published posthumously. She was also an early exponent of the emancipation of women. In 1860 she wrote, "Daughters should be trained with higher and holier motives than that of being fashionable and securing wealthy husbands. . . . there are other missions for women than that of wife and mother."

When was Adah Menken born? It could have been 1832, 1835, or 1838. Where was she born? New Orleans is a good guess. What was her real name? The evasive Menken offered her public a variety to choose from, including Adelaide McCord, Adah Bertha Theodore, and Dolores Adios Fuertos. Each time a newspaper requested a biography, Adah invented a new name and background. The earliest information concerning her acting career was recorded in March, 1857. She was then a performer with the Crescent Dramatic Association of New Orleans, and she made her first appearance in The Lady of Lyons, a five-act drama in blank verse about the French postrevolutionary period. At that time she had been married for a year to Alexander Isaacs Menken, a musician.

The ambitious Adah Menken, determined to become a great actress and famous, talked her way into a part in Macbeth. It starred James E. Murdoch, the well-known Shakespearean actor. Adah knew nothing of Shakespeare, but she "winged it" and got through the part. But it was the first and last time she played Shakespeare. The lighter theater, she was often told, was more her forte. By March, 1859, she was starring in The Soldier's Daughter, an 18th-century English comedy, at the National Theater in New York. During those days there were often several plays presented at each performance, and an actress didn't have much time to perfect a part. It was an exhausting year for Adah. She didn't want to continue the tiring schedule, and her busy program was beginning to affect her marriage. It was during this period, while appearing in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, that she met the handsome, 6 ft. 2 in. American pugilist John Carmel Heenan. Believing that her husband had obtained a divorce, Adah married John Heenan--bigamously, it turned out--on Sept. 3, 1859, after a whirlwind courtship.

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