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June 15: Adah Menken, the First Glamour Girl

June 15, 2013
adah_isaacs_menken_as_mazeppa_18661328812812841Actress, painter, and poet Adah Isaacs Menken, who scandalized audiences in the 1860s by appearing onstage in the role of a man, wearing a flesh-colored body stocking and riding a horse on a ramp extending into the seats, was born in New Orleans, possibly on this date in 1835. Her ancestry was contested throughout her life: She may have been a mixed-race woman; she may have had a Jewish Spanish father and a French Catholic mother; her parents may have been Creoles. Raised Catholic, she married a Reform Jewish musician, Alexander Isaac Menken, in 1856 (he became her manager) and began to build a Jewish identity for herself, publishing articles and poems on Jewish subjects in The Israelite in Cincinnati and the Jewish Messenger in New York. Menken became well known as an artist and poet, but gained her greatest fame as the best-paid stage actress of her day, both in the U.S. and in Europe. She led a bohemian life, had affairs, married several times, cropped her hair close to her head, sometimes dressed in men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes in public, was strongly influenced in her writing by Walt Whitman, wrote political commentary, and generally broke boundaries of propriety as a woman of her time. Menken lived only to 33, but “when all is said and done,” she wrote to a friend just before her death, “have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred?” adah isaacs menken“She publicly protested the Mortara Affair, the kidnapping by Italian Catholic officials of a young Jewish boy whom the officials claimed the Jewish community had stolen. She also spoke out forcefully when Lionel Nathan was denied his seat in the English Parliament. And long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax did so, Menken refused to appear on stage during the High Holy Days even at the very height of her public success.” —Jewish Virtual Library