A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America's Original Superstar

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Marilyn Monroe might never have become the legend she did without America’s original tragic star: actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–68). In a century remembered for Victorian restraint, Menken’s modern flair for action, scandal, and unpopular causes—especially that of the Jewish people—revolutionized show business. On stage she was the first actress to apparently bare all. Off stage she originated the front-page scandal and became the world’s most famous, highly paid actress—the darling of New York City,...
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A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America's Original Superstar

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Marilyn Monroe might never have become the legend she did without America’s original tragic star: actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–68). In a century remembered for Victorian restraint, Menken’s modern flair for action, scandal, and unpopular causes—especially that of the Jewish people—revolutionized show business. On stage she was the first actress to apparently bare all. Off stage she originated the front-page scandal and became the world’s most famous, highly paid actress—the darling of New York City, San Francisco, London, and Paris. At thirty-three this femme fatale mysteriously died. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at her bedside, composed a farewell poem.

A Dangerous Woman is the first book to tell the entire fascinating story of Menken. Born in New Orleans to a “woman of color” and to a father whose identity is debated, Menken became a true daughter of Texas in her teens, learning to shoot and ride. Eventually she moved to the Midwest, where she became an outspoken protégé of the rabbi who founded Reform Judaism. Adah wrote heartfelt verse and essays in defense of the Jewish people. Later, in New York, she became Walt Whitman’s ally and a revolutionary figure in her own right. During the Civil War she was arrested as a Confederate agent—and became America’s first pin-up superstar.

Menken married and left five husbands. She could sing and dance, and she was a wonderful comic. She was fond of gambling the night away dressed in men’s evening clothes. She rode horses astride, took and discarded lovers, and wore revealing sheath dresses in an age of hoop skirts. Ultimately, this naughtiest of Victorians—who fought racial, religious, and gender oppression in her own time, and today represents sexual liberation for men and women alike—paid dearly for success.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The beautiful and charismatic actress and poet Menken deserves a better biography than the tedious narrative delivered by the Fosters (Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neel). Menken became famous for wearing little while dashing up an artificial mountain strapped to the back of a horse in Mazeppa, a popular play of the 1860s. She frequently dressed as a man, smoked cheroots, married five times, was an ardent Zionist, had male and female lovers—all before dying at 33 of consumption. Describing her theatrical itineraries in detail and repeatedly reporting rave reviews while dismissing negative critiques as products of prudery, the Fosters speculate on Menken's psyche, claiming to lay bare her "orphaned inner child." Clichés abound (in 1861 the U.S. "hesitated on the brink of war"; Menken's second husband "ran fast as a deer" from an illegal boxing bout; and her career was "like a shooting star"). Readers interested in Menken will find the authors' Web site (www.TheGreatBare.com) better written and more engaging. (Feb.)
From the Publisher


“The Fosters’ skillful narrative biography of nineteenth-century superstar Adah Menken captures the richness and complexity of this Civil War-era Jezebel, an archetypal American bad girl.”

 —Eve LaPlante, award-winning author of American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans

Praise for Adah Isaacs Menken


“A magnificent spectacle dazzled my vision—the whole constellation of the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens.” —Mark Twain

“Adah was the premier sight of the West, the Rockies a very poor second.” —Life magazine

“This is she . . . the world’s delight.” —Algernon Swinburne

“She is so lovely she numbs the mind and the senses reel.” —New York Post


“The inspired Deborah of her people.” —Baron Lionel de Rothschild

“Today’s Hollywood celebrities have nothing on the glamorous, scandalous, tragic and paradoxical Adah Isaacs Menken.” — American Jewish Historical Society

“Adah Menken was the most remarkable mingling of angel and devil.” — Napoleon Sarony, the first celebrity photographer

 “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. She eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” — Arthur Conan Doyle on Irene Sadler, his character based on Menken


“Hers was a great human life, very well written up in ‘Forbidden Journey.’... Surely this biography will provoke even more interest.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating account of the life and exploits of the brilliant 20th century Frenchwoman who became the first European female to enter the holy city of Lhasa.” —Harper’s Bazaar

“Blakean imagery in Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet magnetized me toward Buddhist meditation. Now, her own vast sacred life record is happily accessible.” —Allen Ginsberg

Kirkus Reviews

One of the first media superstars receives an uninspiring biography.

The Fosters (The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet and Its Forbidden Practices, 1997, etc.) chart the life and career of Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–68), an actress and poet who briefly captivated the world in with her iconic turn in the playMazeppa, in which she played a male Cossack and, in a sensational set piece, rode a horse up the side of a four-story artificial mountain, clad in not much more than a pair of pink tights. The danger and provocative sexuality attending this stunt cemented Menken's status as a "dangerous woman" and media superstar, but contemporary scholars are more interested in pinning down the actress's vague ethnicity and identity politics—she has been variously identified as a woman of color, a Jew and a lesbian (or at the very least bisexual). The authors enthusiastically explore these possibilities, but a crippling dearth of verifiable evidence reduces their sleuthing to a convoluted series of educated guesses. What is certain is Menken's status as a proto–sex symbol and feminist touchpoint. Her multiple husbands included famous boxer John Heenan and Alexander Menken, a Jewish musician—this union would lead to Menken's conversion to Judaism and her stridently pro-Jewish poetry. The Fosters praise Menken's writing profusely, but the work excerpted here is didactic and shrill. She did enjoy many high-profile literary friendships, including relationships with Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas, but the Fosters fail to establish their heroine as a significant artist in her own right. Her lasting contributions boil down to a series of slightly hysterical poems, a starring role in a crowd-pleasing spectacle and some racy photographs. More troubling, Menken, who must have cut a charismatic figure, fails to come to life in the Foster's pedestrian prose. The authors exhort the reader to appreciate Menken's singular nature, but she remains an enigma, and the catalog of her lovers, confidants, enemies, professional reversals and emotional crises becomes a tedious litany of woe.

A dull account of a largely forgotten American icon.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781599216027
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Foster is the author of the novel Freedom’s Thunder.

Barbara Foster is an associate professor at the City University of New York who specializes in women’s studies. The Fosters are the coauthors of Forbidden Journey and Three in Love.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 29, 2010

    It's not like a bio! It's like a beautiful movie. It has life!

    "The public needs a goddess, if only to sacrifice!" was a powerful illustration of Adah Isaacs Menken by the Fosters that shook me a bit being myself a young Indian author.

    Michael Foster and Barbara Foster have presented the world with the biography of the great woman, the original superstar of America, unmistakably, Adah Isaacs Menken, a true Lady, true to herself and the world.

    The honesty, with which the authors have portrayed the life, loves, and scandals, makes it worthwhile calling it the best biography ever written of this great Lady; for, it immortalizes her with utmost sincerity.

    There have been movies portraying this superstar, but I am sure that even centuries later, people will read the future editions of this wonderful work of the Fosters of the Life of this great Lady and she will live until the English language lives; for, books are closer to people than movies.

    This book is a page turner and is so delicious like a great novel. I couldn't take my eyes off the book until reading the last word. The reading was not like reading a bio. It was like watching a beautiful movie.

    The authors have cited various references to portray the real great lady Adah Isaacs Menken was and when I finished reading this book, I understood that she was not really a dangerous lady as referred by her betrayer.

    Her transparency showed her trust on fellow beings. Her inability to act against the feelings of her heart showed her strength and honesty as well as weakness. Her only defect being self pity couldn't win her either.

    The life of this great life-risking Actor, Sensational Poet, and Rebel who struggled for Feminine Freedom, gives lessons of how lack of caution tried to pull her down each time and how perseverance kept her the superstar she was.

    I wish that everyone learn the wonderful lessons this biography offers.

    Ann Wilson, Indian Author

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2011

    Adah Menken the Original Superstar

    Oprah would love this story. A Dangerous Woman is the best biography of America's first global superstar, actress Adah Menken. She was a woman of color born poor and Jewish in New Orleans. During her short life of 33 years Adah Isaacs Menken triumphed over racial prejudice and became world famous, the highest paid actress of Victorian society, and the best known and loved Civil War celebrity. Our modern publicity industry owes a lot to "the naked lady." She was the first American superstar to become famous for being rich and famous. A Dangerous Woman gets to the heart and soul of the woman behind the myth making. It reads like a good novel and leaves you wondering--Is there any actress out there today who could or would risk so much for fame? A highly recommended book! Ten stars.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2011

    Wonderful, Easy to Read, Highly Entertaining

    We have come a long way since the days of actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Or have we? Her life was a Victorian scandal. She wore pants on and off stage, smoked cigars, and gambled the night away. She married the world's boxing champion and became world famous herself playing Mazeppa. Her brief exciting life 1835 - 1868 is the subject of this finely written biography that reads like a novel. The depth of the Fosters' research is amazing. The style is easy to read and captivating. I could not put it down until I'd read it all. The book should be required reading in courses for womens' studies, black history, and fashion Institutes. Adah Menken was a fashion goddess, a trend-setter that bared all. The book's early photographs by Napoleon Sarony are a treasure. More than an elegant coffee table book, A Dangerous Woman details a period of American history we would rather cover up. Adah was a woman of color who used lead makeup to appear white. Racial ambivalence. She was a woman playing a man onstage. Sexual ambivalence. Adah Menken's story has universal appeal. A Dangerous Woman explores the mystery of a mystery woman. A delight!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2010

    A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken

    I was delighted to learn from this brilliant, extremely well researched biography by M. and B. Foster that Adah Menken, the original American superstar and Civil War pin-up was secretly a black woman, Jewish, a poet and actress, a Confederate spy, a friend of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Swinburn and Dumas. The toast of Paris, she was a gambler and cross dresser friend of George Sand. Why is the best part of history too often ignored? We learn about battles and casualties not the human dramas that reshape society and relationships. Adah Menken, this heroic woman, fought duels on and off stage. During Victorian times she appeared apparently nude on stage playing prince Mazeppa (Byron's poem.) She married five husbands and wrote passionately about womens' causes. She used celebrity scandal and photography to become world famous and infamous. She personified the Civil War conflict that divides America today. A love goddess is celebrated and sacrificed young and beautiful in each great war. Adah Menken--A Dangerous Woman--shook Victorian morals to their foundation but was loved by heros from North and South.

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