One seer pronounced her the victim of a deeply religious and spiritual nature perpetually at war with the flesh that overwhelmed it. As D.H. Lawrence said, ” it is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language… we just don’t listen…The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything… it can’t pigeon hole a real new experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the American the greatest. Because they dodge their very own selves.” Adah Isaacs Menken was a paradoxical American, an artful dodger whose very self can hold a multitude of meanings- a life charged with ambiguity….
Won’t you run come see St. Judy’s Comet
Roll across the skies
And leave a spray of diamonds in its wake
I long to see St. Judy’s Comet
Sparkle in your eyes when you awake
Oh, when you wake, wake ( St. Judy’s Comet, Paul Simon )
Adah Isaacs Menken’s life, like her celebrity, was like a comet. She died in Paris in 1868 at the age of 33, apparently from a combination of peritonitis and tuberculosis. She earned her living on stage by dancing, singing, and miming in the raucous nineteenth-century “Sensation Drama.” Simultaneously, she hobnobbed with the literati of her day, wrote feminist, literary, religious, and philosophical essays and poetry, engaged in serial monogamy, and affected the Bohemian lifestyle- smoking in public, wearing pants on occasion, and hosting soirees for the artsy crowd.
Once she reached stardom, Menken promoted a wide variety of stories about her origins and experiences, including great success in Cuba, descent from French aristocracy, captivity by the Indians, and being born into the Jewish faith.There was an ongoing play of identities: multiple versions of her birth, her parentage, her ethnicity. Her ongoing art work in that sense was an elaborate self-construction – assertively Jewish in her earlier writings, militantly feminist later on. As such the work developed a rare female violence & eroticism: “wild soul-poems” in the writing but mirrored as well in her stage presence, an actress who famously played the young male lead in an adaptation of Byron’s poem “Mazeppa” — transgendered & shockingly nude -or appearing to be so in flesh-colored tights)– as she made her exit from the stage, helpless & strapped astride a “fiery untamed steed.” ( Mark Twain) This was her principal & very real celebrity, which carried her across America and established her soon thereafter in London & Paris.
Menken spent her adult life creating personae to fit the goals she was pursuing at any particular time. She was certainly married to at least four different men after the public record of her life began, but there may have been earlier marriages, with the Cuban romantic poet Juan Clemente Zenea being the most prominent of her subset of possible husbands.
Where is the promise of my years;
Once written on my brow?
Ere errors, agonies and fears
Brought with them all that speaks in tears,
Ere I had sunk beneath my peers;
Where sleeps that promise now?
Naught lingers to redeem those hours,
Still, still to memory sweet!
The flowers that bloomed in sunny bowers
Are withered all; and Evil towers
Supreme above her sister powers
Of Sorrow and Deceit… ( Infelix, Adah Isaacs Menken)
…Menken turned the Albany interview from her romances to her acting triumphs. She proclaimed her affinity for Lord Byron, another rebellious soul, whom she emulated by wearing curls and a white, high collared blouse. The gentlemen of the press looked at each other, then to James for clarification. Had the dashing Englishman adapted his poem about the historical figure Mazeppa into play form as a vehicle for the American beauty? Menken knew this idea was nonsense; however, she smiled in a superior way to add to the reporters’ confusion. At the end of the interview, Menken drove the reporters wild. She announced, “I must regretfully leave you. The wild steed must be tamed daily.”…
In London it was the same story. Menken was the lioness of the day and “Mazeppa” was a success, though a “”success de scandale” . The city was plastered with posters showing Mazeppa wearing a loincloth about the size of a hankerchief, and on opening night, October 3, 1864, thousands tried to force their way into Astley’s Amphitheatre, causing a riot. One critic wrote, “we should hesitate about taking a sister just now to Astley’s.” Some reviewers objected to the nude postures of Menken, although as usual she wore flesh colored tights and draper, not a hankerchief loincloth. Meanwhile a new piece of doggerel was circulating in London: Lady Godiva’s far outdone/And Peeping Tom’s an arrant duffer/ Menken outstrips them both in one/At Astley’s now- the Opera Buffer
The Menken became a familiar sight in London, riding a black stalion in Rotten Row while puffing away at a cigar, strolling down Regent Street in dresses so extreme that bystanders stopped and gaped, and receiving her subjects at the Westminister Palace Hotel, directly across from the Abbey, where she had an immense apartment. Those who thronged to her salon included Algeron Charles Swinburne, Charles Reade, Chales Dickens and the two Rosettis. And in the next apartment was the handsome American banker, James Paul Barkley, whom she had met on shipboard and who became closer than a friend.
…I look along the columned years,
And see Life’s riven fane,
Just where it fell, amid the jeers
Of scornful lips, whose mocking sneers,
For ever hiss within mine ears
To break the sleep of pain.
I can but own my life is vain
A desert void of peace;
I missed the goal I sought to gain,
I missed the measure of the strain
That lulls Fame’s fever in the brain,
And bids Earth’s tumult cease….
When “Mazeppa” at last closed, two years later, Menken and barkley sailed for New York and were married there. What happened then we shall never know, but only three days later, Barkley went the way of Alexander Isaac Menken, John C. Heenan, and Robert H. Newell, and Adah sailed back to Europe alone.
The actress went to Paris, where she announced she would live for the rest of her life. There, in her apartment at the Hotel de Suez, Boulevard de Strasbourg, a son by Barkley was born. He was christened Louis Dudevant Victor Emmanuel, and George Sand ( Mme Dudevant ) was his godmother. Adah made her debut in paris at the Theatre de la Gaité, starring in “Les Pirates de la Savane”. She was accorded the greatest triumph yet given an American actress, and the drama played to crowded houses for one hundred consecutive nights. At last Menken had rid herself of the chore of playing nothing except “Mazeppa” .
…Myself! alas for theme so poor
A theme but rich in Fear;
I stand a wreck on Error’s shore,
A spectre not within the door,
A houseless shadow evermore,
An exile lingering here.
It was at this time that she had her highly publicized affair with Dumas pére. One incident made the two the laughingstock of Paris. They had their picture taken together. The photograph shows Dumas, a potbellied old man, leering like on of Aubrey Beardsley’s satyrs, while little Adah cuddles lovingly against him. Touched-up versions of this photograph, in which the top of the actresses’s dress were made to look as if it were slipping off, blossomed forth in show windows along the boulevards. The publicity aside, Menken was serious about her poetry, and in France it was informed by the influence of Baudelaire and Rimbaud creating an unusual amalgam of influences not readily understood by the conservative Dickens; free form Bohemia married to the mysticism of a William Blake that presaged the beat poetry of Ginsberg.
Busy though she was, Menken found time later that same year to return to London to promote an affair with Swinburne, which went nowhere. Early in 1868 Menken busied herself editing her poems for publication. She called her book “Infelicia” and dedicated it to Dickens. The slim green volume is one of free verse, given to describing her failure to find the perfect lover. Praised by the critical Swinburne and William and Dante Rossetti as ” the unformed rhapsodies are touches of genius” , she did not live to enjoy this triumph- one that she undoubtedly would have considered the greatest of all. The volume appeared one week after her death from tuberculosis in Paris. Thomas Buchanan Read, the American poet, was with her toward the end, and even Longfellow, with his impeccable reputation , spent an hour at her bedside. But, according to Edwin James, Adah’s agent, she was befriended at this time “neither by Dumas, nor Swinburne, nor any of the thousands of leeches who drank her champagne in life.”
Now I gloss my face with laughter, and sail my voice on with the tide.
Decked in jewels and lace, I laugh beneath the gas-light’s glare, and quaff the purple wine.
But the minor-keyed soul is standing naked and hungry upon one of heaven’s high hills of light.
Standing and waiting for the blood of the feast!
Starving for one poor word!
Waiting for God to launch out some beacon on the boundless shores of this Night.
Shivering for the uprising of some soft wing under which I may creep, lizard-like, to warmth and rest.
Waiting! Starving and shivering.
Still I trim my white bosom with crimson roses; for none shall see the thorns.
I bind my aching brow with a jeweled crown, that none shall see the iron one beneath.
My silver-sandaled feet keep impatient time to the music, because I cannot be calm.
I laugh at earth’s passion-fever of Love; yet I know that God is near to the soul on the hill, and hears the ceaseless ebb and flow of a hopeless love, through all my laughter.
But if I can cheat my heart with the old comfort, that love can be forgotten, is it not better?
After all, living is but to play a part! (Menken, “Myself”)
In part, she was a rendering of contradictions other people struggled to avoid; a utopian who did not like what she saw, but was wildly attracted to it anyway. She was an articulation of promise commonly known as the American Dream. Her appropriation of different identities seemed to be to intensify a sense of alienation, to emphasize the gap between herself and the roles she played.
In 1860, Adah assuaged her heartache by writing her most gut wrenching poetry. Erica Jong, in a review she wrote of Sylvia Plath’s Correspondence in November 1975, pointed out that “Sylvia Plath’s poetry was the first poetry by a woman to fully express the female rage.” Interestingly, Menken raged more than a century before Plath. Moods of despair alternated with defiant ones.Opinions about Menken’s poetry have always been polarized. Those who like her strong emotional content tend to find her sensitive and talented, while those bothered by her scarlet reputation tend to dismiss her writings as at best overly sentimental. Eiselein’s introduction nicely summarizes this dichotomy, but suggests she was “truly exceptional” as the only female poet before the twentieth century whose poetry reflected Whitman’s influence. Eiselein’s brief scholarly analysis of Menken’s writings talks about how her “daring eroticism,” “gothic morbidity,” and rich, “prosodic technique” make her poetry “quite unlike anything else in nineteenth-century women’s poetry.” Eiselein does a superb job of summarizing the three major emphases of Menken’s writing career: the early sentimental period, the middle period devoted to fervid expression of her Jewish faith (her most frequently anthologized poems to this day), and her last period, when she wrote free verse in the style of Whitman. Her poetry is characterized by what Eiselein calls melancholy and despair in all three of those periods. Those who have taken the time to read Menken’s poetry carefully will certainly agree with Eiselein’s assertion that her poems are “absolutely fascinating.”
How can I live so deep into the depths with all this wealth of love?
Oh, unspeakable, passionate fire of love!
Cold blood heedeth ye not.
Cold eyes know ye not.
But in this wild soul of seething passion we have warmed together.
I feel thy lava tide dashing recklessly through every blue course!
Grand, beauteous Love!
Let us live alone, far from the world of battle and pain, where we can forget this grief that has plunged me into the depths.
We will revel in ourselves.
Come, Eros, thou creator of this divine passion, come and lay my weary head on your bosom.
Draw me close up to your white breast and lull me to sleep.
Smooth back the damp, tangled mass from my pale brow.
I am so weary of battle—
Take this heavy shield.
I am so weary of toil—
Loosen my garments.
Now, wrap me close in your bosom to rest.
Let your breath warm my cold face.
This is life—this is love!
Oh, kiss me till I sleep—till I sleep—I sleep.
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!
Ere the last tremble of the conscious death-agony shall have shuddered, I will show it to ye with the long black hair clinging to the glazed eyes, and the great mouth opened in search of voice, and the strong throat all hot and reeking with blood, that will thrill me with wild unspeakable joy as it courses down my bare body and dabbles my cold feet!
My sensuous soul will quake with the burden of so much bliss.
Oh, what wild passionate kisses will I draw up from that bleeding mouth!
I will strangle this pallid throat of mine on the sweet blood!
I will revel in my passion.
At midnight I will feast on it in the darkness.
For it was that which thrilled its crimson tides of reckless passion through the blue veins of my life, and made them leap up in the wild sweetness of Love and agony of Revenge!
I am starving for this feast.
Oh forget not that I am Judith!
And I know where sleeps Holofernes.