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Americans are mesmerized by superstar pin-ups, an attraction that can outlive the seductress herself. Case in point: Nearly 50 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe returns to the silver screen this holiday season in yet another new movie, “My Week with Marilyn,” starring Michelle Williams.
With all respect to that blonde seductress, author and historian Michael Foster says an even older femme fatale could be an even bigger box-office draw.
Alas, he notes, though Americans have spent all year observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, few know the name Adah Menken, darling of soldiers on both sides. The actress had more chutzpah than Monroe and showed a lot more skin than World War II’s favorite pin-up, Betty Grable, write Foster and co-author Barbara Foster in their new biography, “A Dangerous Woman” (Lyons Press).
“When the telegraph was Twitter, Adah owned the media. Her scandals made front-page headlines,” Foster says. “Long before Demi Moore posed naked on the cover of Vanity Fair, Adah was ‘The Naked Lady.’ And by the time she died at age 33, she had matched Elizabeth Taylor husband for husband – five – by the same age.”
She counted among her friends writers Walt Whitman, George Sand and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A young newspaper reporter, Samuel Clemens, called her attractive – and frightening. Later, better known as Mark Twain, he dubbed her “The Great Bare.”
Born poor in New Orleans of black, Jewish and Irish descent, Menken spent her teen years in Texas, where she attended Nacogdoches University. Her poetry was published in the local paper, and she worked as a circus performer, the Fosters write. According to one story she later told, she was captured by an Indian chief, escaped, and was sheltered for several months at Gen. William Harney’s military outpost, where she learned to ride horseback, shoot and use a dagger.
At 20, she got work as a dancer in a theater company and with the help of her new husband (her second) began her acting career at the New Orleans Crescent Dramatic Association.
“She hit Broadway on June 3, 1861, in ‘Mazeppa,’ ” Foster says. “In one scene, a horse races up a four-story ‘mountain’ with her strapped to its back wearing only a pink body stocking to appear nude. It was a scene male actors had refused to do – they substituted a dummy.
“‘Mazeppa’ brought her instant stardom.”
The first celebrity photographer, Napoleon Sarony, took portraits of Adah in her body stocking and soon, her picture was pinned to tent posts in military encampments across the country, Foster says.
“But she risked her life during every performance. Other actresses who tried to duplicate the horse scene came crashing down the ‘mountain;’ one was killed. Adah would suffer injuries that, along with tuberculosis, contributed to her early death.”
She wasn’t just a famous actress, Foster says. She used her celebrity to champion unpopular causes, including writing essays and speaking out in defense of Jews during an anti-Semitic era.
“She gladly entertained wounded Union troops in hospitals near the front. But she also admired the Confederate generals and posted photos of them on her dressing room walls,” he says.
While fewer people know of Menken than more recent superstars, she hasn’t been overlooked in pop culture, Foster notes.
“There are a number of movies and TV episodes based on Adah Menken, starting with the old Western ‘Bonanza,’ in which she was played by Ruth Roman,” he says. “Sophia Loren played her in ‘Heller in Pink Tights’ opposite Anthony Quinn. In the recent movie ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ Rachel McAdams plays an athletic, seductive Irene/Adah. The Sherlock Holmes story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ filmed several times for TV, features Irene Adler playing a character clearly based on Menken.
“In ‘Scandal,’ Dr. Watson reveals, “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.’ ”
Published: December 15, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 35