Please purchase "Trump the Press" through Create Space.

The book is on Kindle. Order here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Adah Menken, America's first porn star




     She was born Marie Rachel Adelaide de Vere Spenser in Bordeaux, France, or Dolores Adios Los Fiertes in New Orleans, or Ada C. McCord in Memphis, Tennessee, or New York City or Arkansas. But no matter how many tales she told about her past, Adah Isaacs Menken was America's international sensation of the 1860s, whose admirers included Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens, and whose lovers included French novelist Alexander Dumas and English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. George Sand was her son's godmother.
     Adah Menken loved poetry, which she wrote as well as read. She also loved poets. Her fame came from being strapped “nude” to a horse at the climax of the play, “Mazeppa.” That was pretty racy stuff a century and a half ago.
     Born on June 15, 1835, to somebody somewhere, Adah Isaacs Menken grew up in New Orleans -- likely the daughter of Auguste Theodore, a black freeman, and his wife, Magdaleine Jean Louis Janneaux, a beautiful French creole. However, their daughter knew that a little mystery never hurt a career in show business.
     Menken became a ballet dancer in Cuba; they dubbed her the Queen of the Plaza. When she returned to the United States, she began working on stage, singing, dancing and reciting poems. At one point in Texas, she worked in a circus. After touring the Midwest and Texas, she met and married Alexander Isaac Menken, a musician from a prominent Jewish family in Cincinnati. Subsequently, another of her claims was she was of Jewish ancestry. Most likely her parents raised her Catholic. To be fair, she did take Judaism quite seriously and studied under Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a prominent founder of the American Reform movement, and publisher of The Israelite.
     Her husband became her manager. Early on, she developed a knack for publicity and a taste for self-promotion. She was occasionally risque on stage, which didn't bother her husband, but he became inflamed by her smoking in public -- an act which caused scandal and generated publicity. So did her subsequent marriage to prizefighter Johnnie Heenan in 1857, whom the press insisted was just a publicity stunt; in her defense, they had a son, although he did not survive infancy. Then came the revelation that she had not divorced Menken. Then came her marriage to Charles Blondin, a French acrobat who had crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. They went on tour together.
     During the Civil War, the Union arrested her and accused her of spying for the Confederates, but she was quickly released. She was gathering fame, but what rocketed to international acclaim for her role in “Mazeppa,” a play based on a poem by Lord Byron. The poem tells the story of Ivan Mazeppa, a Ukrainian cossack hetlet or leader who had an affair with Countess Teresa. In the play, Menken played Mazeppa, not Teresa. The reason is that when the count discovered the affair, as punishment, he had Mazeppa strapped to a horse that was then let loose to ride in the wild.
     In reality, Ivan Mazeppa was a Ukranian cossack leader best known for switching sides in the Battle of Poltava between the Russians and the Swedes on July 8, 1709. Tchaikovsky wrote an opera about Mazeppa based on a poem by Andrew Pushkin.
     But with all due respect to Byron, Tchaikovsky and Pushkin, the life of Mazeppa was best known in the mid-19th century by Menken in a flesh toned costume strapped to a horse. In the dim theater lights, she appeared as if she were naked. The show debuted in San Francisco on April 24, 1863. Theater owner om Maguire publicized her appearance in “Mazeppa” in San Francisco by advertising, “Miss Menken, stripped by her captors, will ride a fiery steed at furious gallop onto and across the stage and into the distance.” The elite of the City by the Bay showed up for the opening performance.
     In Europe, her stardom soared. The little lady strapped to a horse became the must-see show of the season. High society and the literary world adored her. As the money came in, she spent lavishly on herself and her friends.
     But the novelty of “Mazeppa” eventually wore off. She tried other plays, but she kept coming back to galloping across the stage on that pony in a flesh-colored undergarment.
     In London, on May 10, 1868, weeks before her 33rd birthday, she gave her last performance. Her health rapidly deteriorated and she died of tuberculosis on August 10, 1868, in Paris. Her well-wishers published a volume of her poems, “Infelicia,” posthumously. Adah Menken was beautiful. She was intelligent. She was a self-promoter. She was original. She was American.


My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.

1 comment: