The most sensational actress of the 1860s

Adahmenken19Adah Isaacs Menken (at right, in her teens) was never considered a great actress.

But she sure was a colorful one, hanging out with Walt Whitman, Ada Clare, and other bohemians at Pfaff’s saloon on Broadway and Bleecker Street and earning notoriety in a tawdry play that required her to appear naked on a horse.

She spun many tales about her origins, but Adah may have been born Ada Berthe Theodore to mixed-race parents in New Orleans in 1835, according to Rebel Souls, Justin Martin’s wonderful book chronicling New York’s 19th century bohemian crowd.

To support her family, she became a New Orleans chorus girl, then joined a traveling circus.

After a few marriages, some theater work, and a conversion to Judaism, she arrived in Manhattan, taking roles at the Chatham Theater and working at the Canterbury Concert Saloon on Broadway in today’s Noho.


She was fearless, sensual, acrobatic, and gorgeous—all of which helped her land her big break: the lead in Mazeppa (above), a play based on a Byron poem about a 17th century Cossack.

Menken would play the title role, requiring her to wear a body stocking for a pivotal nude scene during which she was strapped to the side of a horse.

Adahmenken1855“The audience was shocked—scandalized—horrified—and delighted!” states one source.

A huge hit, Mazeppa toured the nation before landing on Broadway in 1866 at Wood’s Theater at 514 Broadway.

Adah never abandoned her literary aspirations, publishing a book of poems in 1868 dedicated to Charles Dickens.

“Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken’s deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet,” states

She maintained her friendship with Whitman and the Pfaff’s crowd and also became close to Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne.


Adah was a sensation during her life, but she died young, succumbing to tuberculosis and peritonitis in Paris in 1868.

[Bottom photo by Napoleon Sarony]

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4 Responses to “The most sensational actress of the 1860s”

  1. Bella Stander Says:

    Great post, as always. Now I understand the lyric in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from GYPSY: “Once I was a schleppa/ now I”m Miss Mazeppa/ with my revolution in dance.”

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you, and any verse that rhymes Mazeppa with schleppa is brilliant.

  3. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    There are folks in Arkansas who claim this woman was born here in 1835. Her heritage most likely included a Father who was Indian (Native-American) and her Mother was French. Naturally, to spice up her resume’, a variety of tales have been told including name changes, so no one truly knows. Ahhhh, Adah’s mystery entices…

    The woman seems to have transformed herself into whatever job opening was available or popular at the time. She wed and divorced several times during an era when the mere suggestion of such action was a scandal. Adah was savvy – the scandal paid off! Along the way, she birthed a son who died – was declared a bigamist – performed in blackface – and occasionally portrayed a man on stage in a sort of ‘Victor – Victoria’ type of production.

    At one time she toured the Vaudeville curcuit sharing billing with her then paramour, The Great Blondini, (the gentleman who crossed Niagra Falls on a tightrope.)

    The role of ‘Mezeppa’ (which was orig. played by a man) seems to have been a perfect fit (a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ statement) as Adah performed in a flesh-colored bodysuit described as: ‘pink tights’. This daring wardrobe proved to be a magnet in drawing big crowds to her performances. This role of Mezeppa became so popular, even Currier & Ives did prints of a ‘nekkid person (male / female) being bound onto the back of a hearty steed.’ Adah was popular across the United States and eventually traveled to Europe. There she became the object-of-great-affection for Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Alexandre Dumas and possibly even Charles Dickens, when he was not out on the lecture circuit himself.

    Her health failed while she was still young and poverty soon followed. Quickly, Adah published a book of poetry to stir some income. Alas, she died 8 days prior to the book’s release at the age of just 37. Everyone’s darling Adah fills a grave in Paris, France.

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