The Arty Semite

Adah Isaacs Menken: a Civil War-era Sexpot Remembered

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Elizabeth Taylor, Edwin Booth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, Adah Isaacs Menken, Nathan Meyer, Wolf Mankowitz

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.