A poet and rebel, Adah Menken was known to Victorians as “The Naked Lady.” Born into a Jewish, Creole (Colored) family in antebellum New Orleans, Menkah was the first actress to apparently bare all in terms 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 33, the height of her fame, this femme fatale mysteriously died. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at her bedside, composed a farewell love song.
Her definitive biography, “A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken 1835 – 1868 America’s Original Superstar” ((Globe Pequot, $24.95-book; $9.99-Kindle) by Michael Foster and Barbara Foster reveals America’s original tragic star. In a century remembered for Victorian restraint, Menken’s modern flair for action, scandal and unpopular causes — especially that of the Jewish people — revolutionized show business.
“A Dangerous Woman” is the first book to tell the entire fascinating story of Menken. Born in New Orleans to a “woman of color” and to a father whose identity is debated, Menken became a true daughter of Texas in her teens, learning to shoot and ride. Eventually she moved to the Midwest, where she became an outspoken protégé of the rabbi who founded Reform Judaism. Menken wrote heartfelt verse and essays in defense of the Jewish people. Later, in New York, she became Walt Whitman’s ally and a revolutionary figure in her own right. During the Civil War she was arrested as a Confederate agent — and became America’s first pin-up superstar.
Menken married and left five husbands, and influenced the lives of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas and Sarah Bernhardt. She could sing and dance, and she was a wonderful comic. She was fond of gambling the night away dressed in men’s evening clothes. She rode horses astride, took and discarded lovers, and wore revealing sheath dresses in an age of hoop skirts. Ultimately, this naughtiest of Victorians — who fought racial, religious, and gender oppression in her own time, and today represents sexual liberation for men and women alike — paid dearly for success.
Menken’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.