Monday, November 23, 2009

She has been called the First Jewish Superstar.

She was a poet, a writer,a painter, an activist in Jewish causes.

Her name was Adah Isaacs Menken.

She was born in 1836 and died in Paris at the age of 33 suffering from tuberculosis and peritonitis a rabbi at her side

Married to Menken in Texas the couple moved to Cincinnati to be closer to the center of the fledgling Reform Movement of Judaism. She wrote extensively of the plight of Jews in The Ottoman Empire of Turkey.

After the death of her infant she tired of domestic life and she and Menken were divorced.

She became an entertainer and eventually gravitated to San Francisco where she was discovered by a theatre owner and cast in the lead of the popular play Mazeppa.

A key scene involved the lead character being captured by brigands and stripped naked then breaking away on a fiery steed and galloping across the stage onto a ramp built in the center of the auditorium. Usually a dummy was used but Menken conceived the idea of riding the horse herself dressed in a skin colored body suit.

When the stunt became known, the righteous people of San Francisco were outraged but on opening night all the "cool people" were there. The women in their carriages dressed to the nines and the men in their top hats and flowing capes. The play was a sell out for months. Adah was the darling of the artsy set and is reputed to have had affairs with several including the author Brett Harte.

She took the play to New York and toured the country her many affairs no secret. News of her naughty behavior preceded her fanned by her advance man who was instructed to place as many pictures of her in Main Street storefronts as he could.

After the furor in the U. S. she moved on to London and the U.K. using the same Madonalike tactics and then on to Paris where she befriended George Sands and her group and was rumored to have had an affair with Alexander Dumas.

I mentioned her sad early death but her birth remained shrouded in a variety of tales she spread.

The fact established much later in 1938 by a researcher was that she was born in New Orleans. Her mother was a Creole (of mixed race) and her father was a free African American known to be an intellectual.

It was said that she converted from a Catholic birth but she maintained she was born the first Jewish Superstar.