Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Menken, Adah Isaacs (ca. 1835–1868)
Author:
Stansell, Christine
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Born Dolores Adios in New Orleans in straitened circumstances, possibly to a Jewish family, the woman later to be known as Adah Menken performed from an early age as an actress, musician, artist's model, and dancer in opera houses and circuses up and down the Mississippi Valley, the Midwest, and in Texas. Although lacking formal education and, as an actress, consigned to the Victorian demimonde, Menken was a serious artist and published poetry and essays in local newspapers. A marriage to a Jewish musician, Alexander Menken, ended in divorce. She arrived in New York in 1858 and, aided by a second marriage to the popular prizefighter John Heenan, became something of a celebrity on the Bowery theater circuit. In 1860 she created what was to become an international sensation in the melodrama Mazeppa. Menken played a deposed prince. In one daring scene, dressed in a tight flesh-colored costume which simulated male nudity, she rode a "fiery untamed steed" across the stage. During her New York sojourn Menken was, along with her friend Ada Clare, one of a handful of women to ignore conventions of female propriety and frequent the bohemian saloon Pfaff's; she met Whitman there along with the drama critics and writers she cultivated. A poet herself, she was moved by his gifts; he, in turn, saw the group of women of which she was a part as some of his greatest supporters at a low point in his career. Menken took up residence in Europe in the 1860s, befriending literary notables in Paris and London, including Swinburne, Dickens, and Dumas père. She continued to write poetry, some of it Whitmanian free verse. She died of unidentified causes, attended by a rabbi.

Bibliography

Falk, Bernard. The Naked Lady: A Biography of Adah Isaacs Menken. London: Hutchinson, 1934.

Northcott, Richard. Adah Isaacs Menken: An Illustrated Biography. London: Press Printers, 1921.


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