The world of celebrity is all about gossip, scandal, and larger-than-life personalities—and nobody knew that better than Adah Isaacs Menken. This 19th-century actress didn’t just entertain, she made headlines. After capturing the public’s attention with a sensational stunt, she kept people talking with her multiple marriages, one-of-a-kind wardrobe, and above all, a spirit no one could stifle.
Adah Isaacs Menken was born on June 15, 1835—but that’s about all we know for sure of her earliest days. Conflicting stories about Menken’s origins abound, but there’s a secret behind all of them. The future drama queen herself made up wildly different accounts of her beginnings, including multiple birthplaces on multiple continents.
Whatever the truth, there’s one thing we know for sure: Adah got her flair for the dramatic young.
Adah was a natural performer and something of an attention hog. She danced in the ballet at New Orleans’ French Opera House, rode horses with abandon, and mastered three languages before working as a language tutor to make ends meet. Intelligent and quickly becoming beautiful, it looked like the world was Adah’s oyster…but she was already turning into a wild child.
Before she hit the age of consent, Adah caused a family crisis. The young girl started making public speeches for the presidential candidate Franklin Pierce—super scandalous for a time when women were supposed to be meek and quiet. Her mother, horrified, demanded she stop. Adah refused, writing in her diary “The woman of today is not slave, but free!”
In the end, though, these antics just turned out to be child’s play.
Practically the minute Adah turned 18, she ramped up her rebel antics to a whole new level. While she was tutoring the daughter of the dashing Baron Friedrich von Eberstadt, the nobleman asked Adah to come with him on a trip to Havana, Cuba. No, this was nowhere near a decent proposal—but Adah had no idea what she was getting into.
Soon, Baron Friedrich and Adah touched down in Havana. Then the situation went from sketchy to scandalous. The young Adah very likely became the Baron’s mistress during this time. And sure, anyone with half a brain could have told innocent, naive Adah that was going to happen. But they couldn’t have guessed what came next.
Sadly for poor Adah, her fairy-tale romance came to an abrupt halt. While in Cuba, the Baron got tired of his plaything, and ended up abandoning her in Havana while he took off for greener pastures. According to Adah, though, she wasn’t bothered in the least. In fact, she used his leaving as an opportunity to launch her career.
While flying solo in Havana, Adah made a name for herself in a risque way. Using some of the skills she learned in the New Orleans ballet, she became a dancer and earned the nickname “Queen of the Plaza”. Audiences went wild, calling the small, dark girl “a beauty unlike any that have entertained here before”. But there is another, much darker side to this story.
While Adah always claimed that she made a good living as the “Queen of the Plaza”, that may not have been the truth. In reality, many historians think that Adah was so hard up for cash in the wake of the Baron’s abandonment that she turned to selling her body. Whatever really happened, Adah eventually made her way back home to the US.
When she returned, she was much less innocent than when she started off. And believe me, it showed.
Adah came back to the United States on a mission. Instead of dancing, she now wanted to act, and she knew just how she was going to get the funds to do it. Her plan was daring and shameless. She set about finding a rich husband who would be able to bankroll her burgeoning career. Only, she didn’t do it in a conventional way.
While looking for her man, Adah published a personal ad in the form of a poem in the Liberty Gazette, introducing herself and announcing her quest for a man. Her publication read: “I’m young and free / The pride of girls / With hazel eyes / And nut brown curls”. Her verses might leave something to be desired, but they certainly had the desired effect.
Adah’s strange dating methods proved a success when one Gazette reader stumbled across her poem. Aspiring musician Alexander Isaac Menken was either touring as a conductor or else working as a traveling salesman for his well-to-do father when he came across her words. Utterly charmed, he arranged a meeting with her. It ended in a surprise twist.
Clearly, the two lovers hit it off in their meeting, because Alexander ended up proposing right then and there. Being no dummy, Adah knew the wealthy Menken family could help her achieve her dreams, and she eagerly accepted. In fact, the pair of them did everything eagerly: They were married just days later on October 3, 1856.
Nonetheless, Adah already had a secret from her new husband.
Throughout her courtship, Adah may have been hiding a big detail. There is some evidence that she had actually already been married before walking down the aisle with Alexander…and she definitely had a type. Her first husband was the musician G W Kneass, whom she had impulsively married in 1855 and divorced just as quickly.
Still, Adah was on a better, bigger path now—and she jumped right into notoriety.
As it turned out, Alexander Menken was as thirsty for fame as his wife. After marrying her, he even took it upon himself to become her manager. Because, you know, it’s never a bad idea to keep it in the family when it comes to managing celebrity careers. Adah herself happily modified her married name and took up the stage name “Adah Isaacs Menken”.
She then got to work touring around the country in stage shows..but it did not go as planned.
Unfortunately for Adah, her first forays into stardom were an utter disaster. Although people praised her “reckless energy”, critics mostly didn’t see what the fuss was about. Instead, her male co-stars like Edwin Booth went on to international acclaim and sold-out shows, all while she waited on the sidelines. Frustrated, Adah took matters into her own hands.
If Adah couldn’t get people’s attention through her acting, she sure as heck was going to get in through other ways. Namely, her image. And while her drop-dead gorgeous looks helped matters, Adah didn’t stop there. She began sporting a scandalous bob, wore trousers, and leaned into androgyny to get the press all a-twitter.
Well, it worked. She was soon something of a touring celebrity, and audiences couldn’t get enough of her so-called “exotic” looks. But the tables were quick to turn.
In 1857, Adah got ruinous news. With the recession of that year, her husband Alexander’s lost nearly all his family wealth—AKA the number one thing that Adah had married him for. Still, she wasn’t going to let a thing like that slow her down, and she simply ramped up her acting career, becoming the main breadwinner in the family.
Only, she hadn’t counted on one thing: With the reversal of power dynamics, her husband went through a disturbing transformation.
As Adah kept stoking the fire of her personal image, the line of male theater-goers crowding her dressing room grew longer, with each admirer showering her with roses and praise. Alexander, meanwhile, was already reeling and insecure from his financial losses, and watching his wife flirt with fans often drove him into rages. But his gripes didn’t end there.
One of Alexander’s biggest grievances was Adah’s somewhat newfound habit of smoking in public—a very bad girl act for a time when men weren’t even supposed to smoke in the presence of a lady. He also personally detested her androgynous outfits, particularly her penchant for wearing pants. It all led to a breaking point.
Adah’s courtship poem in the Liberty Gazette had clearly stated that she was “young and free”, but apparently Alexander hadn’t fully got that memo. He now insisted that he wanted a traditional wife, and engaged in multiple fights with her over her behavior. But if he thought his complaints would change Adah’s tune, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Alexander’s attempts to control Adah did not impress her. In fact, it led her to an ultimatum. In her diary, she fumed about his double standards, saying “I have told Isaac I will leave him if he does not stop badgering me with his sermons”. Then, in a declaration that would forever ring true, she added, “I will not submit to the dictation of any man”.
Adah and her husband were now trapped in a game of chicken. It ended about as badly as you’d expect.
Eventually, Alexander figured out what should have been crystal clear from day one: There was no stopping Adah from being Adah. If he wanted “traditional”, he’d be better off looking just about anywhere else. Giving up, he left her to her own devices in New York City. But before you cue up the triumphant music for Adah…her life then hit rock bottom.
Adah continued to find acting work after the split, but where before critics had tolerated her, now they seemed to hate her. When she starred in The French Spy, she was expecting standing ovations. She got pure cruelty. The New York Times called her “the worst actress on Broadway” while The Observer quipped that she was “delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent”.
Yeah, ouch. Everything was not coming up Adah. But when times got hard, she knew just where to turn.
While in New York, Adah ran into her next love interest, famed prizefighter John Heenan—which wasn’t hard to do, with John’s 6’2” frame and 200-plus pounds of muscle. The fiery ingenue figured a man from the boxing ring might prove a little more fun than one from the orchestra pit, and she eloped with John in 1859. Only, there was something not quite right from the beginning.
During their courtship, Adah made sure she was front and center at all Heenan’s boxing matches—after all, he was almost as much of a celebrity as she was, and loved making huge claims about his prowess in the ring. But when they got married, that all changed: They tried to keep it a secret—”tried” being the operative word.
Despite their efforts, their nuptials leaked out in the press just months later. And that’s when Adah realized she made her worst mistake yet.
When news of the union between Heenan and Adah was published, it got right back to her first husband Alexander. In response, he made a jaw-dropping confession. Menken revealed that he’d never actually filed for divorce when he left Adah, making the up-and-coming actress a criminal bigamist. It wasn’t a good look, and it wasn’t going to get better.
In the wake of the revelation, the press had an absolute field day lambasting Adah for her immoral ways, they also later accused her of using Heenan’s fame as a boxer, partly because she went under the name “Mrs Heenan” in her performances post-marriage. So by the time Alexander Menken finally did push through a real divorce, Adah’s name was mud.
But at least she had the love of her new husband, right? Um, about that…
The two-timing accusations against Adah weren’t the only ones swirling around the Menken-Heenan union. As it turned out, Heenan wasn’t the world’s greatest husband: He was a big drinker, and allegedly didn’t spend much time at all with Adah. Worst of all, there were mutterings that he was actually violent towards her. Then again, there is a more scandalous interpretation.
In this mess of a marriage, some claimed that it was Adah who physically threatened and mistreated her husband, with one story getting out that she once hit him full in the face. Whether or not any of these rumors have truth to them, we may never know. It is, however, 100% certain that Adah’s third marriage was a bust….and they definitely went out with a bang.
If Adah was shocked to hear she had never been divorced from Alexander Menken, the hot-headed Heenan was furious. Correction: He was furious at her, never mind that she hadn’t been aware of it herself. His reaction was infamous. When the scandal hit, Heenan didn’t stand by his woman. Instead, he fled to England—and got into some big trouble.
At this point, Adah wasn’t ready to give up on her marriage, which made the next fiasco especially hard to bear. While across the pond, Heenan fought fellow boxing champ Tom Sayers in a match that had tongues wagging. The fight was especially vicious, with the jilted, enraged Heenan going at Sayers so mercilessly that promoters cut it short, fearing for Sayers’s life.
Unfortunately, when Heenan came back to America after blowing off this steam, he was still in no mood to kiss and make up.
While Heenan was gone, Adah had waited out his months-long absence alone in a sea of scandal and gossip. Unfortunately, her patience was in vain. Upon arriving home, her husband’s first move was to completely renounce their marriage and give her up for good. Again, all because she was in the dark about her marital status. But behind closed doors, no one the truth.
Get a load of this: When John Heenan callously abandoned Adah to go fight in London, she was actually very pregnant with his child. While he was away, she gave birth to a son…and then it turned tragic. The newborn didn’t survive past the first few hours. By the time Heenan returned and ended things, all traces of the boy were gone from Adah’s life.
Beaten down and barely coping, Adah retreated into herself for months. But when she rallied again, she made sure to leave an impression.
After these dark days, Menken swore off husbands for a bit and began collecting famous friends. Soon, she called literary luminaries like Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and even Charles Dickens her confidants. Still, even her friends dealt her barbs. Dickens once wrote that Menken was a “sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write”. Ouch.
With vibes like that floating around, maybe it’s no surprise Adah went back to seducing men. The wrong men, of course.
It’s clear that Adah wasn’t for the faint of heart, so it’s no surprise that she felt drawn to daredevils. She seemed to have a knack for finding New York’s most interesting people, and among them was Charles Blondin, a professional performer of daring deeds best known for tightrope walking across Niagara Falls. Instantly, Adah had a huge crush—and it was her turn to make an indecent proposal.
Adah quickly came up with a proposition for Blondin, one that she was sure he couldn’t refuse. The deal was simple: If Blondin let her perform alongside him in a dangerous tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, she’d return the favor by giving him her hand in marriage. The offer of a double act was enticing, but Blondin’s response was surprising.
Even Charles Blondin thought Adah’s offer was too dangerous and said “nope”. In his words, he would be “distracted by her beauty”, lose his balance, and plummet into the whirlpool below before he could make it to the altar. So instead of a double act and marriage, the pair settled for a whirlwind romance and a vaudeville tour across the United States.
When the tour ended, Adah was ready to return to the stage and become a respected actress at last. It was a fateful decision.
In the early 1860s, Adah landed a role that made her utterly infamous. She nabbed a part in the production of Mazeppa, playing a Tartar boy caught in a serious scandal. With Adah’s androgynous reputation, this “britches” part seemed perfect for her and played to her strengths. Still, Adah wasn’t satisfied with that. She had much bigger plans.
At one point in the drama, the Tartar is stripped of his clothing and strapped to the back of a horse, headed toward his certain end. Now, before this most productions had simply used a dummy to act out this part, since asking any actor to get undressed in front of a crowded audience seemed indecent. Well, you can bet what Adah’s reaction to that was.
Rather than share the spotlight with an inanimate object, Adah insisted she play the role from start to finish. It was more scandalous than anyone could have imagined. While barely dressed in a full-body stocking that looked a whole lot like her birthday suit, Adah hopped on the back of the horse and cantered up into the rafters for the play’s climax.
Watching her, audiences were beside themselves with shock, terror, intrigue, and pretty much any emotion you can name. And then the strangest thing happened.
Adah was no stranger to taking risks, but none paid off quite as handsomely as this one. Audiences may have been scandalized, but they also couldn’t stop flocking to the theater to see her. Soon, they dubbed Adah simply “The Menken”, and even critics couldn’t ignore she had a certain talent. And throughout it all, Adah had a serious trick up her sleeve.
Make no mistake, Menken’s ride definitely pushed boundaries…but by the rules of her time, she could technically get away with it. In 1800s America, female characters absolutely had to appear clothed onstage—but Adah was playing a boy, so nothing explicitly forbade her from doing the scene in a shocking stocking. Clever girl.
With the success of Mazeppa, Adah’s life changed completely.
If Adah had been notorious before Mazeppa, she was now a household name—and she hadn’t even hit her 30s yet. At the peak of her career, she was the highest-earning actress in the United States, making a jaw-dropping $500 per week. Soon, she traveled across the country to take her scandalous show to far-flung places like San Francisco, earning her the new name “Frenzy of Frisco”.
But as with everything Adah did, she earned terrifying enemies for her antics.
Adah’s memorable Mazeppa act came with its share of bad publicity. In California, one group complained that her style belonged back in the lawless days of the Wild West, not “respectable society”. And some reviews were downright cruel. To quote one, “most of the critics are rolling up their eyes at the ‘bare-back’ performance of that remarkable animal”.
Still, no one could deny Adah’s animalistic charms…and she soon put them to naughty use.
Adah Isaacs Menken was on top of the world, which is why her next move stunned people. In 1862, she married the quiet-type literary editor Robert Henry Newell, a man quite different from her usual daring fare. He did, however, have one thing to recommend him: Newell had been publishing her poems for years, and Adah still very much thought herself a poet.
As with Alexander Menken, then, Adah’s fourth wedding might have been a canny business move. Only, it didn’t end so well.
Adah had more than a few attempts at the altar, but she saw little success with her choices in men. Sadly, Newell might have been different on the surface, but the relationship still floundered. They split after just three years together—though, to be fair, in “Adah Isaacs Menken” years, that’s practically a century. And just after the divorce, her love life really went downhill.
Adah just wasn’t ever going to stay single for long, so when she met the raucous gambler James Paul Barkley just months after her last divorce, she immediately thought: “good idea”. And maybe she was desperate for a change from the literary Newell, because she ran down the aisle with bad-boy Barkley in 1866 for her fifth marriage. It went wrong literally instantly.
In the end, Adah didn’t get to see much of married life with Barkley. Just three days after their wedding, Adah abandoned him, for once in her life doing the betraying rather than being betrayed. And, like everything Adah did, she made sure to do it dramatically—she set sail to France without her beau in tow. Still, there was a plot twist.
Now, I’m not saying Adah showed good judgment when it came to her grooms, but she may have had cunning motives when she said “I do” to Barkley. Namely, by the time Adah headed off to the continent, she was very pregnant. In that case, it’s likely that her quickie marriage to Barkley was a (failed) bid to stave off scandal in their relationship.
Of course, as soon as Adah landed in France, she started drawing attention to herself.
In France, Adah gave birth to her second child, a boy she dramatically named Louis Dudevant Victor Emanuel Barkley. Not stopping there, Adah also named George Sand, the famous French author and dear friend whom Adah had joined in Europe, as the boy’s godmother. But before Adah could settle into her new life, tragedy struck.
Years after the loss of her first child, grief marked Adah’s life again. Instead of raising her bouncing boy abroad with her close friend, Louis died in infancy just like Adah’s first son. Bereft and at a loss for what to do next, Adah fell back on one of her old standbys. That is: Cause as much scandal as humanly possible. Well, she succeeded.
While Adah was in France, she really got around, and her choice of (alleged) lovers was top-notch. At one point, photos surfaced of Adah cozying up to the famous French writer Alexandre Dumas, who was over twice her age. Around this time, she also had a fling with the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a man who wrote about risque topics like cannibalism.
But while Adah was drinking deeply from the well of life, she had no idea that a dark fate was waiting in the wings.
By 1867, Adah was back in London and trying to incite ever more scandal, reprising her role in Mazeppa. She was in for a rude awakening. Audiences no longer seemed interested in her brand of bad girl, and slowly the crowds started to trickle away from her once-iconic show. Not ready to give up, Adah just tried harder…but there was only so far she could push.
Although she was only in her early 30s at this time, disturbing signs began showing up in Adah’s life. She was frequently ill and, just when she needed to stay in the public eye the most, she had to cancel shows to recover. It wasn’t long before she began to struggle financially for the first time in years. Sadly, this was just the beginning of the end.
In the summer of 1868, Adah was back in rehearsal and trying to cobble together enough physical strength to appear on the stage again. Instead, it turned terrifying. While at rehearsal, she collapsed on stage, and it suddenly became clear that something was very, very wrong with the actress. Her colleagues rushed her to the doctors, and everyone waited for the results.
As Adah lay bed-ridden, physicians tried to figure out what was wrong but could find no clear indication. Instead, they gave her heartbreaking advice. They told her everything was fine and that with a little bit of rest and relaxation, she would surely recover. Except, well, she wouldn’t. Instead, over the coming weeks, it only got worse.
By August of 1868, it was clear that Adah was on death’s door, whatever her mysterious illness was. Knowing she didn’t have long to live, Adah penned some final gut-wrenching words. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred”? Just days later on August 10, she was dead at 33 years old.
Historians struggle to diagnose the fiery actress to this day, but they do have some chilling ideas.
It’s unclear if Adah herself even knew what was wrong with her, and some researchers suggest she was suffering from tuberculosis or peritonitis, an inflammation of the stomach lining. There is one other frightening possibility. More modern medicine has indicated that Adah Isaacs Menken may have died from advanced cancer.
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