Commentary Magazine

Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken, by Allen Lesser

A Lady of Valor
Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken.
by Allen Lesser.
New York, The Beechhurst Press, 1947. 284 pp. $3.50.


In his biography of Adah Isaacs Menken—an American actress who in the middle of the 19th century stirred sensation everywhere between Virginia City (Nevada) and Paris—Allen Lesser tries to penetrate the secret in which this amazing Jewish woman wrapped herself. Driven by human curiosity as well as a genuine interest in stage life, he patiently elicits from old documents, newspapers, theater programs, and photographs the truth behind a legend, or at least that part of the truth which is enclosed in pertinent facts. And since he assembles these facts with literary taste and condoning irony, the result is a lively portrait of an extraordinary creature.

In 1857, Adah, then twenty-two, started her career as an amateur performer with the Crescent Dramatic Association of New Orleans. Her ambition was boundless; and once she was let loose, she soon found out that the less people knew about her the more she could impress them. In her self-dramatization, and while she did not deny her Jewish faith, she purposefully posed as a Byronic character of mysterious origins—a myth which kindled the imagination of all men-about-town. In reality, she was born Adah Bertha Theodore in a village near New Orleans. And instead of being captured by the Indians as a girl, she spent her childhood in prosaic middle-class surroundings.

The fame she won resulted from her natural gifts rather than consummate acting. When she recognized that she would not do as Lady Macbeth, she resolutely exchanged tragedy for melodrama and Protean farce, playing masculine parts, or exhibiting her bare legs and more. At the beginning of the Civil War she starred as Mazeppa in the play of this title—a Mazeppa who in the first act is stripped, lashed, and bound fast to the back of a horse which gallops away with him. It was a hit, aided by the anathemas of the Puritans. Audiences in New York, San Francisco, and London raved about this triumph of nudity and bravura, and Adah’s name was on everyone’s lips. In the Paris Théàtre de la Gaité she performed in Les Pirates de la Savane, a French melodrama located in Mexico; but the playwrites inserted for her a run on horseback à la Mazeppa, so that the public would not miss the attraction of two continents.

And yet her fame was not entirely unmerited. Mr. Lesser points out that she contributed to the emancipation of the American theater from its European heritage. “Her success led eventually to the development of a new type of musical comedy entertainment which reached its peak in the soubrettes of the Eighties and Nineties.” Imitations of her Mazeppa stunt cropped up in many parts of the world, but none of them could outshine hers. She possessed a magnetic quality; not only the undiscriminating multitude, but the old Alexandre Dumas surrendered to her charm, and so did Dickens.



Her life was a series of scandals, interrupted by four marriages which also ended in scandals. When her first husband, Alexander Isaac Menken (from a prominent Jewish family in Cincinnati), lost his money, she talked him into becoming her manager—an affair doomed to failure. Then, wrongly assuming that her rabbinical divorce was legal, she married Tom Heenan, the heavyweight boxing champion of America, who, in the belief that he was being cheated, allowed his lawyer to call her a prostitute. She pretended to commit suicide, but soon carried on with more gusto than ever before. Her subsequent husband, a literary editor, blundered in trying to reform this feminine Mazeppa, whereupon she escaped through a window after exactly one week. The fourth and final attempt at domestication did not even last that long.

Married or not, the Menken insatiably consumed what life offered her of friendships, amorous intermezzi, extravagances, and other pleasures. She mingled with the Bohemian set in New York and San Francisco, explored—dressed in male clothing—the infamous Barbary Coast, frequented gambling haunts and spiritualist sessions; and drove through London in a brougham that sparkled with silver-plated nails and gold foliage. Her lovers ranged from shady characters to shining celebrities; one of them was the poet Swinburne, who boasted of his easy conquest with masculine pride and little taste. The newspaper gloated over these goings-on, and Adah saw to it that they had always something to gossip about. What seemed abandon on her part often sprang from an acute sense of publicity. She lavished favors on those who knew how to pull strings, and advertised herself with the ingenuity of a born huckster.

However, in spite of her sham aspirations and staged eccentricities, this amazing woman was by no means devoid of genuine dreams and emotions. Rather, she was a mixture of deceit and sincerity so imperceptibly fused that probably she herself was unable to distinguish between them. No doubt, she really loved the heavyweight champion; and while posing as a suicide, she wrote a despondent farewell letter that could not have been more convincing. Her flimsiness was also a matter of true imagination. Part of her fantasies crystalized in poems inspired by the Bible, Byron, and Walt Whitman. In fact, the Menken was something of a poet. Contributing to The Israelite of Cincinnati, the New York Sunday Mercury, and other magazines, she reveled in bold images which expressed her preoccupation with death, her despair, and the wild longings of her forever unsatisfied nature. Occasionally, she took flight to more intellectual spheres, challenging orthodox church-goers and the opponents of women’s emancipation in essays that had a subversive ring. It was not all gold foliage and mere pretense. Throughout her short life—she was only thirty-three when she died—she felt attracted by literati, who in turn eagerly sought her company. The young Mark Twain asked her to criticize his sketches, and George Sand, once Chopin’s muse, communed with her in impassioned discussions.

Mr. Lesser traces the meteoric career of his heroine without any real inquiry into psychological motives and social background. Who was the Menken? This question continues to intrigue the more inquisitive minds.

It is perhaps not accidental that the Menken prospered at a time when Rachel’s triumphs were still alive and Sarah Bernhardt’s star was beginning to rise. No one will think of comparing her with these great actresses; but she shared with them the burning desire for blazing a trail through life—an all-devouring intensity which may well have been their common Jewish heritage. Released from the ghetto one or two generations earlier, the Jews strove to assert themselves in a world of mounting industrialism which favored the expression of their long-suppressed energies. This might well account for the intensity with which they developed inner potentialities or seized upon fortuitous chances. But the world into which they emerged proved a sort of vacuum, a place outside the boundaries of fixed values and venerable traditions. As much as they tried to assimilate, they went astray in it, losing foothold, confidence, and discernment. What remained, undiminished, was their intensity, which they now mobilized in the pursuit of the futile as well as the essential. Lie and truth flowed together, and frivolous pleasures were amalgamated with profound feelings. To some extent this was the case with the Menken.



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