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The History and The Culture of Chess
New Orleans' Other Prodigy
January 17, 2005
! WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS ALMOST NOTHING ABOUT CHESS !
Born on a hot June day in New Orleans in the mid 1830's, this prodigy's career started in 1857 and by 1861 had taken the world by storm and reached the height of fame.... only to die relatively young.
Obviously, I could be talking about Paul Morphy and just as obviously, I'm not.
While perusing the historic photographs at the Louisiana State Museum, I came across this little snippet:
Adah Isaacs Menken was born Adah Bertha Theodore on June 15, 1835 - exactly 51 weeks after Paul Morphy's birth.
French Opera House of New Orleans, 1859
When she was 8 - the same year that Morphy attended the Stanley-Rousseau match with his Uncle Ernest - she danced ballet at the French Opera House in New Orleans. Like Morphy, she was an exceptional student and multilingual - she spoke German, Spanish, Latin and, of course, English. Though it's not mentioned, if she lived in New Orleans and her mother was Creole, it's inconceivable that she didn't also speak French.
While her life seemed to parallel Morphy's to a surprising degree in place, time and conditions, it quickly breaks down to an equally surprising degree in their approach to life. To Morphy, fame was a burden; to Adah, fame was her passion. Morphy was a paragon of propriety; Adah lived to shock people. It's almost as if they were opposite forces occupying the same time and space.
Her acting career began in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1857 where she had a part in Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s romantic comedy, Lady of Lyons. The same year she had a role in Alexander Dumas' drama, Fazio in New Orleans. In 1859, she moved to New York where she won a part in the comedy, The Soldier's Daughter. She played a series of lesser parts and her acting career seemed to have come to a halt when she was offered the leading role in the Andrew Ducrow's Mazeppa, also called The Wild Horse of Tartary, a strange adaptation of Lord Byron's poem to the stage. Mazeppa propelled Adah to fame, not because of her great acting ability, but because of her possibly brilliant and definitely daring handling of the role. In a Tchaikovsky opera adaptation of the same tale, a Russian suitor was trapped by his lover's fiancé, strapped to a wild horse and driven into the icy Steppes; in the play the roles were reversed and Adah was the one strapped to the horse. But she carried the concept even further by wearing flesh-colored tights and, according to the Anatomy of Burlesque:
Photographs from Mazeppa
According to a detailed article by Women of the American West:
The play with Adah in the starring role was immensely successful. She gained both fame and riches as well as notoriety and familiarity with such people as Twain, Walt Whitman, Bret Hart, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne and Alexander Dumas. In spite of her male adorers, she was a perpetually married woman. She had met and married Alexander Isaac Menken before becoming famous. She converted to his religion, Judaism and as one writer put it, kept his religion and name but got rid of the man. In truth, however, it was Alexander who divorced Adah. She then, in 1859, married John Carmel Heenen, who was considered the world heavyweight boxing champion of his day, fighting under the name of Benicia Boy. He turned out to be as abusive to her as he was to his opponents and she soon divorced him. She and Neenan had a son who died at birth. In 1862 she married Robert Henry Newell who was a published writer under the pen-name Orpheus C. Kerr (The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers, 1862-1871; The Walking Doll, 1872; There Was a Man, 1884). she divorced him in 1865 and the next year married James Paul Barkley, a professional gambler. Before long, she left him, but bore him a son who also died in childbirth.
Her daring didn't start and end with Mazeppa. Adah had donned blackface and performed as a man, Mr. Bones, in minstrel show; she gave Shakespearian readings; performed impersonations of Edwin Booth as Hamlet; traveled the vaudeville circuit with a circus tightrope walker named Blondin; She smoked and drank champagne in public.
She continued to perform in the U.S. and Europe, mostly reprising her role in Mazeppa, but her lavish lifestyle and unrestrained generosity left her broke. In 1868 during a performing run at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, an abscess was discovered in her side and the Frenzy of Frisco died on August 10, 1868 at age 33.
The story seems to be over, but if it were, one might forget her precocity.
Even before her modest theatrical beginnings in Louisiana in 1857, she was able to have a book of her poetry, entitled, Memories published in 1856 under the pseudonym, Indigena. Just eight days after her death, a second book of her poetry, entitled Infelicia, was published in London.
Performing Menken by Renee M. Sentilles is a book of her life.
Her book of poems, Infelicia
The Victorian Dictionary (compiled by Lee Jackson) says this about Adah Isaacs Menken:
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