Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook

By Denise D. Knight | Go to book overview
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ADAH ISAACS MENKEN (1835-1868)

Gary Scharnhorst


BIOGRAPHY

Born Ada Bertha Theodore near New Orleans to a Creole father and a Jewish- Irish mother, the actor and poet Adah Isaacs Menken was best known to nine teenth-centuryaudiences for her performances in Mazeppa, a melodrama loosely based on Byron's verse romance. Despite her impoverished circumstances, Menken received a classical education, and in 1855, she began to publish poetry and appear in local theatricals in east Texas. By 1857, she was an established actor on the New Orleans stage and an occasional contributor of verse to the Cincinnati Israelite. After her New York debut in 1859, she frequented Whitman's circle at Pfaff's. The next year, depressed by a divorce from her first husband and separation from her second, heavyweight boxer John Carmel Heenan, and by the deaths of a son and her mother, Menken contemplated suicide and plumbed the depths of her despair in a series of poems eventually collected in her posthumously published volume Infelicia. She resumed her career in 1861, performing Mazeppa for the first time in Albany on June 3. In 1862 she married humorist Robert Henry Newell ("Orpheus C. Kerr"), and in the summer of 1863 they sailed for San Francisco, where she performed Mazeppa at Maguire's Opera House over a period of four months for upward of half the box office receipts. While in California, she also joined the coterie of writers who produced the literary weekly Golden Era, among them Joaquin Miller, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Artemus Ward. Miller later wrote, "Her fascination lay in her beauty of mind, her soul and sweet sympathy, her sensibility to all that was beautiful in form, color, life, heart, humanity" (quoted in Jacobson199). In his essay "A Full and Reliable Account of the Extraordinary Meteoric Shower of Last Saturday Night," Twain alluded to her western the

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