The Scandalous 19th-Century Actress Whose Wealth and Sexuality Became Her Demise

Adah Isaacs Menken emerged from mysterious origins to become to highest-paid actress of the Civil War era. But her multiple affairs, frivolous attitude towards wealth, and signature nude body stocking soon became fodder for the sexist media.

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Aug 24 2016, 2:00pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Right before her death at the age of 33, Adah Isaacs Menken shared an uncanny understanding of her legacy in a letter to a friend: "I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go." At the time, she was living in poverty in Paris; it was rumored that Menken, the highest-earning actress of the Civil War period, had gambled her money away.

While it may seem like the concept of celebrity is a recent one, American culture has been loving, lauding, and harshly dismissing its female celebrities since the early 1800s. One such celebrity was Adah Isaacs Menken, whose rise to fame was scandalous even by our contemporary standards. She created several alternative narratives regarding her personal history, including that she was born in Louisiana as a Catholic Creole, born in New York, born in Havana, that her father was a freed Black man, and that she was Jewish. She was married at least five times, had extramarital affairs, was accused of bigamy, wrote poetry, adopted an androgynous style of fashion, maintained friendships with writers such as Walt Whitman, and embraced a bohemian lifestyle.

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But because celebrity is fickle, as Menken's fame and fortune eclipsed her acting reputation, she was castigated and scorned by the media to such a degree that she eventually fled to Europe. At the end of Menken's career, American newspaper articles emphasized her materialism and linked it to her sexually transgressive lifestyle. To the media, being a polite, agreeable actress was acceptable—but being a rich actress who flaunted her wealth and sexuality was grotesque and whorish.

In the 19th century, the concept of women's work was complicated by a patriarchal system that put women in situations where employment outside the home was sometimes necessary for survival even as the proper, respectable place for a woman was still considered the home. Conventionally, private women were those who remained in the home and upheld values associated with the cult of true womanhood; "public women" were often identified as prostitutes. However, as the industrialization of America robbed women of the ability to survive on traditionally craft-based, domestic labor, many women were forced out of their homes and into factories in order to make a living.

Factory work was intense, physically dangerous, and emotionally depressing; the wages were also meager, and there was no promise of economic or social mobility. In the 1860s, female factory workers in New York City earned an average salary of $2 a week, while sewing machine operators earned about $4 or $5 a week, not including room and board. In contrast, according to Menken's contemporary, Olive Logan, who is quoted in Claudia D. Johnson's book American Actress: Perspective on the Nineteenth Century, in the 1850s an ordinary actress was likely to earn from $40 to $60 a week, with popular actresses earning from $5,000 to $20,000 a year.

As the idea of acting as viable work became slightly more acceptable, it expanded to include the increasing number of women entering the stage profession. But despite strides made in professionalizing and gentrifying theater work, the actress retained a less respectable reputation than the seamstress or the schoolteacher. Since theater was understood as an "embodied art"—an endeavor that depends on one's use of the body as a vehicle for self-expression—and linked to prostitution, any self-conscious display of the female body caused anxiety. Only a few stage performers were able to maintain the appearance of womanly virtue while enjoying lucrative careers. (The career of opera singer Jenny Lind, for example, demonstrates how strenuous positive marketing and works of philanthropy could preserve a good reputation: Lind managed to maintain her spotless status by giving most of her money to charities, including the endowment for free schools in her native Sweden; she also helped build churches in Chicago and in Andover, Illinois.) Mostly, though, actresses were figures who experienced difficulty navigating the spaces between the private and public, respectability and notoriety, and wealth and poverty.

Menken in "The French Spy" in 1863. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

While Adah Isaacs Menken first entered the public eye because of her marriage scandals, she is most remembered for her theatrical portrayal of Lord Byron's tragic Tartar, Ivan Mazeppa. When Menken played this "britches" role—when an actress appears in male dress—for the first time, she created a sensation: She performed on stage in a flesh-colored body stocking, appearing to be completely naked. She was then tied to the back of a horse, which cantered up a ramp into the rafters and disappeared. This elaborate and dangerous stunt earned Menken praise, guaranteed further work, and launched her reputation as a notable actress.

"We have been forcibly struck with the genius exhibited by the lady whose name heads this paragraph," wrote a reviewer for the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel in 1861, the year of Menken's first performance as Mazeppa. "Whether she be of high or low origin she possesses the rarest attainments, and in her composition are all the elements of nobility." In this article and others like it, Menken is described as possessing the ability to transcend both class and female propriety ("low origin" can just as easily designate poverty as well as prostitution) as well as displaying skill and artistry.

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Aside from promotional purposes, these types of articles quickly made Menken an idol to readers. They describe her beauty, inform us of her myriad talents, gossip regarding her marriage, and provide "intimate" details about her life. After performing Mazeppa, Menken could no longer be an anonymous actress; she became "the Menken."

Intriguing and provocative, yet not wealthy or powerful enough to cause serious problems, Menken thrilled crowds across the United States and Europe. But, as Renee Sentilles notes in her book Performing Menken, it didn't last. "Once she reached that pinnacle of fame, her always controversial act became truly dangerous in the eyes of more conservative taste makers," Sentilles writes.

As her celebrity peaked, Menken became a symbol of female excess. Her financial accomplishments were detailed in various newspapers, but often alongside reviews that mocked or questioned her reputation. It appeared that the more money Menken made, the worse she looked.

This, too, happened quickly. Over the course of just five years, Menken went from being a beloved ingenue to a debased has-been; by the end of her career, Menken was seen as degraded, whorish, greedy, and frivolous. In 1866, the Daily Columbus Enquirer published a scathing review of Mazeppa at the Broadway Theater:

Most of the theatrical critics are rolling up their eyes over the "bare-back" performance of that remarkable animal, Miss Adah Isaacs Menken... that lady's costume... is one eminently adapted to a warm climate, or to some order of civilization which tries to get on with the smallest investment in muslin, for clothing purposes. Her model... seems to have been mother Eve herself, in the garden of Eden, with the exception of the fig leaf, which Menken evidently considers a prudish superfluity wholly unwarranted by the reigning tastes at the Broadway.

If the critics don't take her seriously, why should the audience? Not only does the journalist cast doubt on Menken's talents by positioning her as an object of ridicule closer to a circus freak than an actress, but he also compares her to the horse she performs with—an obvious jab at her "animal" sexuality.

Another scathing 1866 opinion piece, "The Mockery of a Faded Woman's Success," demonstrates how deeply Menken's material wealth came to be identified with her reputation as a scandalous woman. The writer begins the article by identifying Menken with her possessions: "her diamonds, her funds, her femme de chambre, and all her costly wardrobe." After characterizing Menken as an exceedingly wealthy women with inclinations towards greed, the writer completes her exhaustive catalogue of Menken's materiality: "jewelry and court dresses, jewelled fans...her hair, neck, and bosom powdered with dust of real diamonds." What emerges is a portrait of a woman who is actually made of money; Menken's body transforms into diamonds, and her sexuality takes on monetary proportions as well.

When Menken died in 1868 in Paris from a mysterious ailment (some have suggested tuberculosis or cancer), she was fresh off a scandalous affair with the much older novelist Alexandre Dumas. She left no valuables or money—perhaps there was truth to rumors of her gambling addiction. Nevertheless, the figure of a woman so wealthy that she could afford to risk it all on the masculine pastime of gambling could be interpreted as a perverse triumph: Menken's entire career was, after all, one sustained risk.


Other sources consulted during this research are "Representing 'Awarishness': Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-Century Pin-up," published in The Drama Review in 1999, and Women in American Theater by Chinoy, Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins.