In 1847 the western territory of the United States was a sleepy wilderness populated mostly by Indians and Mexicans. But when word reached the eastern states that there were rich deposits of gold in the mountains of the frontier, the region changed virtually overnight. Two hundred thousand restless souls, mostly men, but including some women and children, traveled to the untamed western lands, primarily to California, during the first three years of the Gold Rush. They came from all over the world, leaving homes and families for the dream of finding riches.
Soon the West was dotted with mining boomtowns and bustling new cities. Fortunes were made and lost daily. Lawlessness was commonplace. At first gold seekers were content with the crude entertainment provided by ragtag bands and their own amateur fiddle-playing neighbors. They flocked to bear-wrestling and prize fighting exhibitions. In these impetuous atmosphere gambling dens, saloons, brothels, and dance halls thrived, but after a while the miners and merchants began to long for more polished amusements. Theatre, backstreet halls, tents, palladiums, auditoriums, and jewel-box-sized playhouses went up quickly and stayed busy, their thin walls resounding with operas, arias, verses from Shakespeare, and minstrel tunes.
The western pioneers’ passion for diversion lured brave actors, dancers, singers, and daredevils west. Entertainers endured the same primitive conditions as other newcomers. They lived in tents and deserted ship and canvas houses or paid enormous rents for the few available wooden cabins. But nineteenth-century thespians were often prepared for such a lifestyle. Acting was largely an itinerant profession at the time, and most players earned their living barnstorming from town to town and even from country to country, performing different plays or musical numbers from a large repertoire every night of the week. Bored miners were willing to pay high sums to these entertainers, especially to the females.
Many of the most popular women entertainers of the mid-and late-1800s performed in the boomtowns that dotted the West, drawn by the same desire for riches and bringing a variety of talents and programs. They were mostly well received and sometimes literally showered with gold. Adah Menken was one of those celebrated entertainers. She was said to have had one of the most beautiful figures in the world.
On August 24, 1863, San Francisco’s elite flocked to Maguire’s Opera House. Ladies in diamonds and furs rode up in handsome carriages; gentlemen in opera capes and silk hats strutted in stylishly. It was an opening night such as the city had never before seen. All one thousand seats in the theatre were filled with curious spectators anxious to see the celebrated melodramatic actress Adah Menken perform.
Adah was starring in the role that made her famous, that Prince Ivan in Mazeppa. It was rumored that she preferred to play the part in the nude. Newspapers in the East reported that audiences found the scantily clad thespian’s act “shocking, scandalous, horrifying and even delightful.” The story line of the play was taken from a Byron poem in which a Tartar prince is condemned to ride forever in the desert snipped naked and lashed to a fiery, untamed steed. Adah insisted on playing the part as true to life as possible.
The audience waited with bated breath for Adah to walk out onto the stage, and when she did, a hush fell over the crowd. She was beautiful, possessing curly, dark hair and big, dark eyes. Adorned in a flesh-colored body nylon and tight-fitting underwear, she left the audience speechless. During the play’s climatic scene, supporting characters strapped the star to the back of a black stallion. The horse raced up the narrow runway between cardboard mountain crags. The audience responded with thunderous applause. Adah Menken had captured the heart of another city in the West.
Adah Isaac Menken was born Adois Dolores McCord on June 15, 1835, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her mother was a very beautiful French Creole, and her father was a highly respected free Negro. Prejudice against her ethnicity plagued her early career. Theatre owners who were familiar with her heritage refused to hire her. As a result, Adah created many stories about her upbringing and parentage. Historians believe this was necessary for her to secure work and be accepted by audiences across the United States. The confusion about Adah’s lineage added a hint of mystery to her image. The truth about her roots was not uncovered until the early 1900s.
Twenty year old Adah began her quest for stardom in Liberty, Texas. She made a living giving public readings of Shakespeare’s works, writing newspaper articles and poems, and teaching dance classes. She began to search for a rich husband to support her acting career by placing an advertisement in the Liberty Gazette newspaper on November 23, 1855: “I’m young and free, the pride of girls with hazel eyes and nut brown curls. They say I’m not void of beauty–I love my friends and respect my duty. I’ve had full many a BEAU IDEAL, yet never found one real. There must be one I know somewhere, in all this circumambient air; And I should dearly love to see him! Now what if you should chance to be him?
Alexander Isaacs Menken, a well-to-do pit musician and conductor, was touring the Texas Panhandle when he came upon Adah’s delightful poem. He wrote to her, and the two met, instantly firing one another with passion and ambition. They were married the following April in Galveston, Texas. Soon after Adah and Alexander said “I do,” Adah began working onstage in supporting roles at the Liberty Shakespeare Theater and, with her husband’s financial help, quickly moved on to lead roles at the Crescent Dramatic Association of New Orleans.
Alexander worshiped his new bride, and Adah was quite taken with him, but their notions of what married life should be were diametrically opposed. Alexander wanted a traditional, stay-at-home wife who would make his meals and raise his children. Adah was not at all interested in such a domestic life; in fact, in one of the articles she wrote for the Liberty Gazette, she said that “women should believe there are other missions in the world for them besides that of wife and mother.” The only beliefs Adah shared with Alexander were his religious ones. She adopted his Jewish faith and remained steadfast in it until her death.
Regardless of his opinions, Alexander found himself relying on the money Adah was making when he lost his fortune in ill-advised real estate investments. Adah tried to bolster his demoralized spirit by naming him her manager, but new marital troubles were on the horizon. Adah enjoyed the adulation of her audiences and the adoration of the young men who gathered at the stage door, roses in their arms. Alexander was extremely jealous of the attention she was given. He distanced himself from his popular, independent wife when she insisted on wearing pants and on smoking in public, things proper women of the time absolutely did not do. When he could tolerate it no more, the pair separated.
Adah got over the collapse of her marriage by going on another acting tour. She traveled across the Great Plains and the West, performing in the plays Great Expectations and Mazeppa. Dressed in risqué costumes, the immodest Adah packed houses in boomtown theaters, prompting overeager critics to state, “Prudery is obsolete now.” Frontier men fell in love with Adah’s style, lovely face, and exquisite figure.
Adah was one of the first actresses to recognize the value of photography for both publicity and posterity. Playbills featuring her picture preceded her arrival, appearing in every newspaper and on every theater anywhere near where she was set to perform. Her portrayal of the Prince of Tartar in Mazeppa and a lovesick sailor boy in the play Black-Eyed Susan brought rave reviews from theater critics everywhere.
Adah played theaters throughout the country in lead roles in The Soldier’s Daughter and The French Spy. Audiences still went wild for her. Critics called her a second Lola Montez, comparing her to the Gold Rush performer known for being bawdy and without inhibitions, and observed that “her style of acting is as free from the platitude of the stage as her poetry is from the language.” The poems and articles she wrote when she wasn’t on stage were distributed freely to be reprinted in the newspapers of the towns in which she performed. Her plays drew expectant crowds all across the country.
As her fame increased, Adah gained and lost two more husbands and had another child. She never stopped working, though, and became known as “The Frenzy of Frisco.” San Francisco adopted her as its favorite daughter. The Saint Francis Hook and Ladder Company made her an honorary member of its firefighting brigade; she was presented with a beautiful belt, and the entire brigade, including a brass band, serenaded her.
Adah wasn’t satisfied with being only “The Frenzy of Frisco.” She wanted to be the frenzy of the entire West. In 1864 she took to the road again, traveling east to Virginia City, Nevada. The Gold Hill News touted the actress’ arrival on the front page: “She has come! The Menken was aboard one of the Pioneer coaches which reached Gold Hill this morning, at half-past eleven o’clock. She is decidedly a pretty little woman, and judging her style we supposed she does not care how she rides–she was on the front seats with her back turned to the horses. She will doubtless draw large houses in Virginia City, with her Mazeppa and French Spy in which she excels any living actresses.”
Adah opened her Virginia City show on March 2, 1864. Tickets ranged in price from $1.00 for a single seat to $10.00 for a private box. The theater was packed on opening night. Many people were forced to stand in the aisles, and hundreds were turned away.
Adah earned an estimated $150,000 from her twenty-nine Nevada shows. When it came time for her to leave Virginia City, lovesick miners presented her with a silver brick valued at $403.31. It was stamped: MISS ADAH ISAACS MENKEN FROM FRIENDS OF VIRGINIA CITY, NEVADA TERRITORY–MARCH 30TH, 1864. Their devotion to the actress didn’t end there–they named a local mine after her and formed the Menken Shaft and Tunnel Company. The company’s stock certificates bore a picture of a naked lady bound to a galloping stallion. Adah left Nevada promising she’d return as soon as she could.
She traveled to Europe, still performing in Mazeppa, and toured Paris and Vienna. Although her talent was appreciated abroad, she never felt more loved or accepted by an audience as she had when she performed in California and Nevada.
In June 1868, while performing in her famous “nude scene,” the horse Adah was bound to ran too near one of flats on the stage and the flesh of Adah’s leg was torn. Later a doctor found that a cancerous growth had formed as a result of the accident. Six weeks later Adah collapsed from an advanced case of tuberculosis. She died on August 18, 1868, at the age of thirty-three and was buried in Paris.
Adah’s talent and daring made her world famous and the toast of princes and poets of two continents. The plays in which she chose to perform and costumes she selected to wear in those plays would be sensational today, but was almost incredible in the straight-laced early Victorian times. Among some of her most loyal fans were Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Samuel Clemens later known as Mark Twain. Clemens’ description of her performance published in the Humboldt Register is considered the best surviving account of Adah in action. “She is a finely formed woman down to her knees,” he wrote in March 1864. “Every tongue sings the praises of her matchless grace, her supple gestures, her charming attitudes. Well, possibly these tongues are right… She works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body like a dancing jack; her every movement is as quick as thought. If this be grace then the Menken is eminently graceful.”
Additional Adah Menken Facts
*She was an accomplished poet who contributed to a publication called The Israelite.
*Her essay on Jews in Parliament appeared in the September 3, 1858, edition of The Israelite. The essay was a powerful plea for the right of Jewish men to sit in the British House of Parliament.
*Her second husband was prizefighter John “Benicia Boy” Heenan.
*Members of an organization called the Reform Group complained that Adah’s style “belonged more to the wild old time of the Forty-Niners, than to respectable society where many days often pass without any murders at all.”