Before there were Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow and Betty Grable, there was Adah Isaacs Menken. The sultry Civil War-era stage actress captured hearts in America and Europe, and did it with very few clothes on
Tina Fey: "Betty White once told me, 'Never let anyone tell you, you are not good enough to pose nude.'"
For better or worse, in the movies, on television, on the Net, for print, and in real life, the girls (of any age) are getting naked.
Helen Mirren, at 64, posed topless in New York mag for a puff promoting the film "Love Ranch," in which she plays the madam of a Reno whorehouse. Miscast?
Lindsay Lohan’s nude spread for Playboy struck us, to quote Yogi Berra, as déjà vu all over again.
We are sympathetic to PETA women’s frequent stripping — “to go naked instead of wearing fur” — to get both arrested and media covered for their pro-animal stances.
We are pleased by three topless young Ukrainian women climbing the fence guarding Davos’ World Economic Forum to stick it to the one percent: “Gangsters party in Davos,” proclaimed one bare female torso.
We are impressed by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani posing nude in a French news magazine to protest strictures on women in her homeland. The Iranian government has warned the beautiful young woman never to return, and they have eliminated those who speak out, even abroad.
Golshifteh is in the tradition of Adah Isaacs Menken, the Naked Lady of America’s Civil War era, who risked her life nightly by playing a freedom fighting prince on stage, cheered by packed houses from Broadway to Gold Rush California to Victorian London and Imperial Paris.
Taking it off can make a difference.
Adah, wearing a sheer bodysuit and “a little dimity nothing” (left) that her admirer Mark Twain compared to a diaper, became the first star pin-up. Her daring role in the stage play "Mazeppa," from a poem by Lord Byron, made Adah the overwhelming hit of Civil War entertainment.
Petite, curvy Adah, in battle against the forces of the Russian Tsar, posed, dueled, and when captured and strapped to a supposedly wild stallion, rode up a four-story stage mountain — apparently nude.
Fortunately, the camera and reproducible photos had been invented. North and South the boys in uniform tacked up Adah’s 3 by 5 inch shots on tent poles, along with those of her husband John Heenan, world heavyweight boxing champ.
The original power couple, Adah and John landed in court, to become the original sex scandal spread across the font pages of tabloid two-penny newspapers. To the background of cannon fire, the world of celebrity was being invented.
War and the love goddess are brother and sister in arms. Just as Betty Grable was the siren of World War II, Marilyn Monroe the darling of the Korean War era, Adah Menken, who toured by rail the war-threatened Union, captured the libido of her divided nation.
Crowds overwhelmed the theaters she played, advanced seating was attempted, preachers railed against Adah’s nudity, and the media of the day — newspapers, the telegraph, photography — spread her image, and stories of her love life, far and wide.
In her brief life Adah breezed through five husbands and famous lovers including novelist Alexandre Dumas, poet Algernon Swinburne, and some said George Sand, a fellow cross-dresser.
The publicity drove Adah’s income to unheard of heights, including one-third of the gate in Gold Rush San Francisco, where the audience of miners showed their appreciation by tossing bags of gold dust on stage. After the show, Adah, in top hat and tails, frequented the gambling joints of the Barbary Coast.
The superstar, rich but disdainful of money, was born.
Adah herself had been born into poverty in New Orleans in 1835. Her beloved mother was a woman of color who lived by taking white protectors. Adah’s natural father was Jewish, and her most important stepfather was an Irishman, a retailer who went broke.
Beginning in her teens in Texas, Adah supported the family by trick riding in a circus. At 17, appearing on stage in Havana, the beautiful young woman with a mop of dark, curly hair had an affair with the Cuban poet and revolutionary Juan Clemente Zenea. The great poet wrote her a poem, “Silva,” in which he is transfixed by her voice and gestures.
Returning to New Orleans, Adah quickly married and divorced a minstrel show performer, and next in line came Alex Menken, the black sheep of a Jewish merchant family.
Living in Cincinnati with Alex’s family, Adah became a protégé of Rabbi Isaac Wise, founder of Reform Judaism, and a contributor to The Israelite. While his wife vigorously defended Jewish causes, the overshadowed Alex drank. By early 1859 Adah was playing comedy in New York, and by mid-summer she had left Alex for good.
Adah was a versatile actress who could sing, dance, and do repartee with the audience. In New York she avidly pursued her stage career, as well as a popular, handsome pugilist, John Heenan. Believing she was divorced, Adah quietly married John shortly before he sailed for England to fight for the world championship.
When he returned victorious and acclaimed in late summer 1860 — America’s first great sports hero — Heenan denied he had married Adah, who he derided as a prostitute. Up popped Alex Menken who declared he had never divorced Adah and she was a bigamist.
Her child by Heenan died and Adah attempted suicide. The newspapers jumped on the scandal, sweeping aside the election of Abe Lincoln as President. Adah came back from the pit of despair thanks to "Mazeppa."
She performed in Albany in June 1861 as Confederate troops took Fort Sumter and the war began. The act was sensational, mixing sexuality with danger, and perfectly suited America at war with itself.
Each night as the audience cheered, Adah risked her life, and her popularity soared to such heights that imitation "Mazeppas" were staged, but the actresses were injured and one killed. Adah would take falls from the mountain and sooner rather than later pay the price.
California adored her, London loved her (some of its leading men literally), and she became the toast of Napoleon III’s Paris. Two additional husbands were shed, and Adah threw away her money, sometimes literally to the poor in the street.
The Naked Lady passed away, broke, in a Parisian garret in 1868, while a crowd clamored at the theater to see her next performance. Only 33, Adah was buried in the paupers’ enclave of the Jewish section of Pere Lachaise cemetery. She did not rest in obscurity for long.
Adah became the most popular ghost called up in seances during the Spiritualism craze of the late 19th century. Arthur Conan Doyle turned Adah into Irene Adler in his breakthrough Sherlock Holmes tale, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Declares Dr. Watson, “To Holmes she is always the woman.”
Another admirer, Billy Rose, called Adah, “the lollapalooza who rates with Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and other standouts in the cuddle-up sweepstakes.”
In movies, Adah was initially played by Marion Davies in "Operator 13" (1934). Ruth Roman played her in an early episode of "Bonanza." George Cukor, still another admirer, directed Sophia Loren as a Menken stand-in in "Heller in Pink Tights" (1960), his only Western. The out-West touring theater company plays "Mazeppa," starring a briefly clad Sophia.
At Fox, Marilyn Monroe was offered a Menken role but turned it down. She was trying to put her nude image behind her. However, various Sherlock Holmes TV series featured Adah as Irene, and Charlotte Rampling played her in the TV movie, "Sherlock Holmes in New York" (1976).
Most recently, Adah has emerged again as Holmes’ athletic buddy Irene in Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes.
Our 2011 biography of the Naked Lady — "A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken" — presents a more complex portrait of America’s original superstar.
Hugely successful except in love, her life was a meteor that flamed and burned out. Adah foretold those chosen to follow in her dangerous path: Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana.
We love them all.