Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Angelina Jolie, Lindsay Lohan and just about every glamorous and scandalous movie star who has ever made a career by making headlines owes a debt to a woman whose “bad girl” behavior would have left all of them in the dust.
This woman appeared as the nude star of stage shows, dated powerful men, blazed through five husbands, including the world bareknuckle, heavyweight boxing champ and another who was a leading intellectual. She set fashion trends, inspired famous writers to create fictional characters based on her real life, was rumored to be bisexual and shocked the popular culture into following her every move. What’s more, she lived more than 100 years ago.
Adah Menken was the first media celebrity, who was known around the world as “The Naked Lady” because her stage show featured her nude (in a sheer body stocking). Her star power inspired poets like Walt Whitman and writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used Menken as the basis for the classic Sherlock Holmes supporting character of Irene Adler. Her popularity was fueled by a new advent of the period, mass circulation newspapers. Their reporters couldn’t wait to write about her latest adventure, according to biographers Michael and Barbara Foster, who call her the originator of the modern celebrity femme fatale.
“Menken was an original who pioneered in several areas we now take for granted,” said the Fosters, authors of the newly published A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835 – 1868 (www.thegreatbare.com). “Adah invented ‘stardom’ in the modern, media-driven sense, making use of the newly invented newspaper, the telegraph, photography, railroads and steamships to become the first global superstar — number one on Broadway, the rage of gold rush San Francisco, the toast of Victorian London and Paris. Onstage, Adah risked her life every evening in the Civil War sensation Mazeppa, in which apparently stripped naked she rode up a four-story stage mountain tied to a stallion. The mix of sexuality and danger made her the Civil War siren, the highest paid actress in the world, and caused her death at 33. A ‘shooting star,’ her example would be followed by the likes of Jean Harlow, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and a roster of short-lived superstars.”
Moreover, it wasn’t that Adah did these things to garner attention or as cheap publicity stunts. The Fosters believe that “Swimming Against the Current”–an essay she wrote in defense of Walt Whitman–was an essential part of her personality. There was nothing contrived about her.
“Adah wrote confessional, revealing poetry long before the fashion,” added Barbara. “She strongly defended the Jewish people (in print and interviews), her gay friends such as Whitman, and the underdog in general. In addition to her five husbands, Adah intrigued with several famous lovers, including Alexandre Dumas. She became a fashion icon, often cross-dressing as a man – something Madonna would make headlines for a century later. Adah’s admirers both before and since her tragic death have included Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Billy Rose, Jerome Kern, ‘woman’s director’ George Cukor, Texas Governor Ann Richards, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and film star Michael York.”
Adah has been portrayed in several earlier biographies, numerous articles ranging from the academic to The Rotarian, and often through fictional characters inspired by her true life story.
“Stella Adler played Adah on the stage, while Ruth Roman played her in the TV serial Bonanza. Sophia Loren played an Adah-based character in George Cukor’s only western, Heller In Pink Tights, while most recently Rachel McAdams played Adah as Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes. Adler/Adah is the most intriguing woman in the Holmes stories, who even outwits the master detective,” Michael added.
“The real movie about the real woman cries out to be made,” agreed the Fosters. “It’s a pity Adah isn’t around to play herself!”