The Arty Semite

Adah Isaacs Menken: a Civil War-era Sexpot Remembered

By Benjamin Ivry

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The 19th century New Orleans-born entertainer and sex symbol Adah Isaacs Menken is still shivering timbers long after her premature death in 1868. Back in 2003, Renée M. Sentilles, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, published an enjoyable scholarly analysis with Cambridge University Press, “Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity.” On February 1, Lyons Press published a more popular offering, “A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America’s Original Superstar” by Michael and Barbara Foster.

Pitched at a resolutely pop-culture level, “A Dangerous Woman” dishily recounts how in 1856 she married a Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken, and to a journalist who asked if she had converted to Judaism, she responded, “I was born in [Judaism] and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”

Onstage Menken did a little of everything, whenever possible when garbed in form-fitting tights, whether minstrel acts, celebrity impressions of noted actor Edwin Booth (the brother of Lincoln’s assassin), and tightrope walking. Yet despite this circus-like activity, even more than later famous showbiz converts such as the late, lamented Elizabeth Taylor, Menken shows every sign of being a devoted student of Judaica, reading Hebrew fluently and pondering the Talmud and other sacred texts. Menken was a regular contributor of poems and prose to the newspaper “The Israelite,” founded and edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

Indeed, Menken was no mere occasional writer; in 2002, the distinguished literary publisher Broadview Press published a selection of her texts, “Infelicia and Other Writings,” edited by Gregory Eiselein.

Yiddishkeit inspired Menken’s poetic muse, as proven by such verse titles as “Oppression of the Jews, Under the Turkish Empire”; “To Nathan Mayer, M.D.”; and “To the Sons of Israel.” Ever mouthy, Menken expressed her decided views on the 1858 Mortara Affair, which involved the kidnapping by Italian Catholics and forced baptism of a young Jewish boy.

Although constantly on tour, Menken made it clear that she should not be expected to perform during the High Holy Days. Abroad, she was if anything even more lionized than in America, with fans that included such notables as Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. More recent writers, from Wolf Mankowitz to Allen Lesser have been enchanted by Menken’s legend. “A Dangerous Woman” proves that this fascination for her “erratic career” has dissipated by not one iota.


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