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The First Celebrity

IT MUST BE TRUE that human culture has always lavished attention on “celebrities” who boast no readily identifiable talents. No doubt a few poseurs were immortalized in ancient cave drawings just because they knew how to draw attention to themselves. But modern American culture is hard to beat when it comes to the lionization of individuals who, as a wise man once put it, are “famous for being famous.” What every one of these blessed souls knows is that airtime is always available to the exhibitionist, defined by psychiatry as someone with “the recurrent urge to expose the genitals to a stranger or to an unsuspecting person.”

An argument could be made that the first modern master of exposure-driven fame was Adah Isaacs Menken, who reigned as “America’s Original Superstar” (as the subtitle of this new book puts it) for less than a decade in the mid-nineteenth century. It should be emphasized that Menken was not Paris Hilton. She possessed genuine abilities as a writer, a poet, and an actress. Few reality show contestants would pen an essay memorializing a distinguished American senator, as Menken did in the case of Senator Rufus Choate of Massachusetts. Literary history should recall that she championed Walt Whitman (a friend from Pfaff’s, the ur-bohemian hangout in the Village) at a time when prominent critics regarded him as worthless. But what truly distinguished her public life was how her stardom—aided by a burgeoning newspaper trade utilizing the latest communications technology, the telegraph—derived from none of these things. It came from a brash willingness to bare herself to the world.

Although she had first achieved notice for her literary and stage efforts in the 1850s, Menken vaulted to the front pages in 1860 via her marriage and spectacular break-up with one of the most honored Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War—the bareknuckle boxing champion John C. Heenan. A bigamy scandal made her a household name: Heenan dumped her when the press reported that she had not divorced a Cincinnati musician. (The truth of the matter is murky.) After a period of suicidal depression, she emerged into superstardom by starring in a play called Mazeppa, adapted from the epic poem by Byron; the show conquered New York, London, and Paris. For a few breathtaking seconds, she bounded across the stage strapped to the back of a horse while scandalously clad in curve-revealing tights, a bold and lucrative display of “flesh” that would mark the first shot in the (public) sexual revolution.

She kept the masses titillated in the years before her early death—at the age of thirty-three—by appearing in controversial photographs with prominent authors: the Victorian version of the celebrity sex tape. In 1867, Paris was awash with a set of pictures of her snuggling Alexandre Dumas, then sixty-four, with whom she likely had an affair. The old lion of French literature sued to halt the sale and distribution of the photographs, which only made them more notorious. In London the following year, Menken was photographed with another (alleged) conquest, Algernon Charles Swinburne, the enfant terrible of English letters, who famously said of her versification efforts, “My darling, a woman with such beautiful legs should not bother about poetry.”

Over the last century and a half, Menken has been subject to a long stream of gawking biographies, with titles such as Enchanting Rebel, Queen of the Plaza, Reckless Lady, The World’s Delight. Since the basic facts of her early life are in disputes—she was, after all, a master at self-invention—these writers have spilled much ink over whether she was Jewish (as she sometimes claimed), partially African-American (as was theorized only after her death), or, as Renée M. Sentilles reported in her excellent Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity, merely “a white Protestant from Memphis who moved to New Orleans when she was fifteen.” In their disappointing effort, which adds little to our understanding of this fascinating character, the authors of this new biography, Barbara and Michael Foster, take the position that her father was Irish and her mother was black, but the factual basis for such a claim is shaky.

Menken was born in 1835, and what is certain is that she began a lifelong, if inconsistent affiliation with Judaism after she married Alexander Isaac Menken, a member of a prominent Jewish family from Cincinnati, in 1856. (She added the “s” for alliteration’s sake.) In between her theater appearances, she penned articles and poems for The Israelite, the weekly newspaper published in Cincinnati by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, a founder of Reform Judaism. The dynamic Rabbi Wise described her as “our favorite and ingenious poetess … who comes to us from the south, crowned with the brilliant success, genius and talent always meet.”

In one of her pieces, Menken defended the right of Lionel de Rothschild to sit in the British Parliament, then a matter of debate. (Menken claimed that Rothschild praised her as “the inspired Deborah of our People,” but this was likely another of her inventions.) In a poem, Judith, she reinterpreted the Apocrypha’s story of the Jewish heroine who lures and decapitates Holofernes, the general who has laid siege to her city. She assumed the voice of Judith herself:

Stand back!

I am no Magdalene waiting to kiss the hem of your garment.

It is mid-day.

See ye not what is written on my forehead?

I am Judith!

I wait for the head of my Holofernes!

Tell it to her husbands. She had four of them, or five.

A brief marriage in Galveston at the age of twenty to a performer was followed by the union with Mr. Menken. Then came Heenan, the boxer, whom she wed at a New York roadhouse known as Rock Cottage, located on rural Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) near what is today West 110 Street. (Jack Herman, “the Ethiopian Minstrel,” was a witness.) Next was Robert Henry Newell, who, writing under the nom de plume Orpheus C. Kerr, was a celebrated humorist much beloved by Lincoln. “Anyone who has not read [him] is a heathen,” said the President. Poor Newell is abused by the authors, who call him a “limp” prude who “could not satisfy her,” an unnecessarily cruel conclusion to draw, particularly without a shred of evidence. After Newell there was James Paul Barkley, a dashing California gambler who the Fosters describe as a “real-life Rhett Butler,” which presumably means he was not limp.

All of which points to a fatal flaw in the book: the Fosters think that Menken cared most about sex. No, the evidence suggests that she lusted for fame. She gained it through a scandalous pseudo-nude instant, repeated so many times on so many rickety stages that it is a wonder she wasn’t killed falling from her famous co-star, “the wild horse of Tartary,” as the playbills described the animal. “She would suffer various accidents, which led to fractured fingers, a concussion, and a torn ear,” the Fosters note. But Menken clearly wanted to be renowned for her poems, which Joan R. Sherman aptly described as “smothered by rhetorical questions, histrionic exclamations, and incoherencies.” She boasted to a friend that Charles Dickens—who, like nearly every major literary figure of the age, knew Menken—“is to revise my poems for me.” But Dickens and the rest of her literary acquaintances provided little help.

She spent her final months urging her publisher, John Camden Hotten, to put out her life’s work, a book of poems titled Infelicia. She died in Paris of a respiratory ailment, in 1868, surrounded by her little dog and a rabbi, without ever holding the finished volume in her hands. The book came out a week later without the publisher’s name printed on it, a final indignity. “I am a vagabond of fancy,” she once wrote, perceptively. “No home – no plans – no ideas. I was born a dweller in tents – a reveler in ‘the tented habitation of war.’ … Consequently, [my] views of life and things are rather disreputable in the eyes of the ‘just.’ I am always in bad odor with people who do not know me, and startle all who do. Alas!”

Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.