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

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Overview


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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Overview


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

Praise for A DANGEROUS WOMAN
 

“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

Praise for the Fosters’ FORBIDDEN JOURNEY: THE LIFE OF ALEXANDRA DAVID-NEEL and THE SECRET LIVES OF ALEXANDRA DAVID-NEEL

“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: Lyons Press, The
  • 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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