Adah Issacs Menken, an actress of the mid-nineteenth century became the highest earning performer of her period despite a rather meager store of talent. Others come to mind who lately have done the same thing but she was well ahead of her time. A century before Sinatra sang it, Adah did it her way. She didn't care what people thought of her as long as they thought of her. She began her career at thirteen as a ballet dancer at the Opera House in her native New Orleans, but he burst into national prominence thirteen years later on June 7, 1861 at the Green Street Theatre in Albany, New York.
The play was "Mazeppa" based on a poem by Byron. One publication called it "A trashy melodrama" but the script was of little importance. It was the play's climax that made sitting through the rest of the plot a worthwhile investment. Adah played the "breeches role" of the title character, a Tartar prince. At the climax, Mazeppa is stripped of his clothing, tied to a horse and sent off to his death. You may wonder how they would do that on the stage in 1861. Well, they stripped Mazeppa (Adah) of her clothing (save for pink tights) tied her to a horse and sent her off, hopefully to the wings and not to her death.
The role called for daring and a good figure which Adah had in abundance. Granted the supposedly wild stallion was actually a domesticated mare but the maneuver was not without risk. With a stage storm raging, the steed clattered up a painted mountain over a series of narrow plywood inclines ending off stage in the flies four stories up. The effect of the "ride to death" was sensational with Adah's beautiful face, and lovely auburn hair blowing across her assumedly nude body. She almost never got the chance to do it. At a rehearsal, Adah changed the horse's customary starting place. The confused animal was only part way up the ramp when she crashed down on boards below. Adah was knocked unconscious and sustained a bad cut to her shoulder. When she recovered consciousness, Adah climbed back into the straps and completed the stunt. Now, that's getting right back on the horse!
Despite the courage needed to accompany the horse up a rickety mountain each night, in June of 1861 it took far more boldness to strip down to a nude-colored body suit. It is estimated that at that time over 70 percent of Americans did not approve of the theatre and never had gone to a performance. Horace Greeley in his New York Tribune wrote, "It is to be deplored that a woman whose sole claim to questionable fame is her nightly appearance in the nude before depraved audiences should by hailed as an artist."
Adah reprized "Mazeppa" in New York City and then London and Paris: always to great acclaim. While she would appear in other roles, Adah never enjoyed nearly the same success. Apparently her equestrian skills far exceeded her acting competence.
Perhaps Adah's strongest mission was to get married. She went through the exercise five times in eleven years. Had she not died so young, who knows what number she might have attained. Her second husband, Alexander Isaac Menken bestowed on her the name that she would make so famous that she was often referred to as "The Menken," similar to "The Donald" of today.
Her third husband, John Heenan, was the most famous. Born and raised in West Troy, New York (now Watervliet), he went to California during the gold rush and made a name for himself as a prize fighter, battling under the sobriquet, "The Benicia Boy." His prowess earned him a bout for the acknowledged heavy weight championship of North America (prize fighting was illegal in those days). On October 20, 1858 he entered the roped square to battle John Morrissey, who had been a childhood companion in West Troy before Morrissey's family moved across the river to Troy. Morrissey prevailed when Heenan broke his hand on the wooden ring post.
Heenan married Adah Menken on April 3, 1859. After Morrissey retired, Heenan got another title chance and abandoned his pregnant wife to go to England and fight the British Champion. Their marriage, which had been kept secret, came out because Alexander Menken claimed Adah never obtained a valid divorce from him and so she was a bigamist. She was painted as an immoral hussy when Heenan declared, "The woman calling herself my wife is an impostor."
Adah survived the scandal to go on to other marriages and other roles. While in Paris rehearsing in June of 1868, she became ill. On august 10, 1868, she died and was buried there in a tomb bearing the words "Thou Knowest." She was 33. It would be nice to remember her in Mark Twain's words, "About this time a magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision - the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gas-jets, and shed a glory abroad over the universe as it fell!"