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May 26th, 2011
Bartee Haile: Civil War sex symbol got her start in Texas

This Week in Texas History: A column

Adah Menken, the original self-made celebrity, stepped onto the stage for the last time in Paris, France on May 30, 1868.

While most historians and researchers concur “The Naked Lady” came into this world in 1835, they cannot agree on where she was born, to whom or even her real name.

The Handbook of Texas, the authority on all things Texan, believes she was christened Ada C. McCord by ordinary parents in Memphis, Tennessee. But the most popular opinion, at least for the present, is that she was born Adah Bertha Theodore to a Creole mother and a free black father in New Orleans.

Wherever Adah came from, we know for a fact that in October 1855 she was in the southeast Texas town of Liberty entertaining the inhabitants with readings from Shakespeare. It is also true she published a few poems and essays in area publications before marrying Alexander Isaac Menken, a musician from Cincinnati, in an April 1856 ceremony at Livingston.

The following year, the newlywed made her theatrical debut in Shreveport in a play called The Lady of Lyon. Sometime later, while visiting her in-laws, she converted to their religion and remained a practicing Jew for the rest of her life.

By 1859 Adah was in New York, where she appeared in her first Broadway production. Critics were less than kind. The New York Times reviewer branded her “the worst actress on Broadway” and another columnist wrote, “She is delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent.”

Back in Cincinnati, the Menkens hit the ceiling over their daughter-in-law’s career choice. After all, no decent woman in the Victorian Age made a spectacle of herself, and that was what actresses did for a living. They pressured their son into ending the marriage, which he was more than ready to do since his wife had taken to smoking cigarettes and wearing pants in public.

Adah kept her ex-husband’s name and stayed in Manhattan to chase her acting dream. She met and soon married the Irish prize fighter Johnnie “The Benicia Boy” Heenan. While Adah may have loved husband number two, she loved even more the limelight the popular bare-knuckle champion brought with him.

In early 1860, Heenan left Adah with child and no money when he went off to London to fight the English champion. While he was away, the story broke in the New York papers that the actress was not the boxer’s lawfully wedded wife.

Former spouse Menken declared Adah never bothered to divorce him, an oversight that made her a bigamist. Heenan came home to a scandalous storm that threatened to tarnish his wholesome image. In a heartless act of self-preservation, the pugilist lied through his remaining teeth insisting, “The woman calling herself my wife is an impostor.”

Blacklisted on Broadway, Adah nearly starved to death. To make her misery complete, her baby boy died shortly after birth.

It was at this low point in Adah’s life that manager Jimmie Murdock landed her the leading role in Mazeppa, a play based on the Lord Byron poem due to open in Albany in June 1861. Not only would his client be the first woman to play the part, Murdock had an ingenious plan to capitalize on the scandal she could not live down.

In the dramatic climax of Mazeppa, the hero is stripped, lashed to a wild horse and gallops bareback across the stage. In previous versions a dummy stood in for the live actor, but not this time. Adah would take the thrilling ride in flesh-colored tights.

Overnight Adah was “The Naked Lady,” the sex symbol of the Civil War. She fielded drooling reporters’ questions in Mae West-fashion, while lounging on a tiger skin and sipping champagne. And she always gave them a provocative pearl of wisdom such as, “Good women are rarely clever and clever women are rarely good.”

After milking Mazeppa for all it was worth on the East Coast and in San Francisco, Adah took her tour to London and Paris. The reception was every bit as enthusiastic and financially rewarding, and she glided effortlessly through aristocratic and literary circles collecting admirers and casual lovers like postage stamps.

Upon her triumphant return to New York in April 1866, Adah commanded the highest salary ever paid to a performer of either sex. The actress that had been banned from Broadway never saw an empty seat at her sold-out shows despite a cholera epidemic.

But Adah had burned the candle at both ends for far too long. She had run through a fortune and two more husbands and, worst of all, wrecked her health.

Catching a boat back to Europe in August 1866, Adah had to be carried to her stateroom. But faint hopes of a rejuvenating comeback quickly faded for yesterday’s star.

Adah Menken was 33 years old the day she died in a cheap hotel in Paris. With eternity knocking at the door, she wrote, “I am lost to art and life. Yet have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who lived to one hundred? It is fair then that I go where old people go.”

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549. And come on by for a visit!

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