Adah Isaacs Menken – A Victorian Lady Gaga

Today, the actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken (1835 – 1868) has been largely forgotten and when her name crops up at all it is usually in association with Algernon Swinburne, with whom she reportedly had an affair. But in the mid nineteenth century, both in her native USA and in Britain, she was the Lady Gaga of her day—a sensational performer in various erotic guises and at one time the highest paid actress in the world.

Like Lady Gaga, she entered show business early and with some éclat. She also seems to have been obsessed with dressing up in outrageous costumes that reflected her need to regularly re-invent herself. Like Gaga too, she changed her name. She had begun life as plain Ada McCord, a child with Creole blood, but later, each of her three marriages gave her a chance to add exotic elements to her name. By her death she had adopted both the name and the faith of her Jewish husband. Today, in some quarters of the States, her Creole ancestry has made her a black icon of female liberation.

Menken had always expressed an interest in writing poetry and by her early thirties she had amassed enough material for a book. Tragically, in 1868 at the age of just 33, she died suddenly of peritonitis complicated by TB and a few days later, Infelicia was published privately—presumably through the auspices of her husband. Though heavily influenced by the invocatory style of Walt Whitman, Infelicia, reflects a good deal of her genuine literary talent, and it is easy to appreciate the effect it must have had on a generation of female freethinkers from the 1870s onwards.

‘How will it be with him who deceives and betrays women ?
Answer me this, ye men who have brought woe and desolation to the heart of woman; and, by your fond lips, breathing sighs, and vows of truth and constancy,--your deceit and desertion—destroyed her, body and soul !
There are more roads to the heart than by cold steel. You drew her life and soul after you by your pretended love. Perhaps she sacrificed her home, her father and her mother—her God and her religion for you !
Perhaps for you shehas endured pain and penury !
Perhaps she is themother of your child, living and praying for you!...’

From ‘The Autograph on the Soul’.

The collection  went through many editions and was in print up to the early twentieth century.

This extra-illustrated copy dated 1869 is remarkable in many respects. The title page,  bears the inscription ‘Thorkel Clementzen, Reykjavik, Iceland’ and either Mr Clementzen or another owner—possibly the Edward or Jenny Shaw, whose bookplate (designed by the well known watercolourist John Fullwood ) is stuck on the front endpaper-- has added some extra leaves and used them to reproduce the Contents page of the original book in manuscript. At the back are cuttings, including reviews of Infelicia, which praise this ‘brilliant but erratic woman’ as a true poet. There is even a notice of her appearance at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. And to cap it all, a tiny watercolour dated 1890 by Fullwood, illustrating one of her poems, has been tipped in among the new leaves.

Clearly the owner of this little volume was a true fan and the extra-illustrations reflect very strongly the cult of personality that attended Menken during her life and in the immediate years that followed her death. [RMH]

One thought on “Adah Isaacs Menken – A Victorian Lady Gaga

  1. Roger Allen

    "when her name crops up at all it is usually in association with Algernon Swinburne, with whom she reportedly had an affair."

    I think Adah is significant because she failed to have an affair with Swinburne, for all her efforts, actually.
    Creole does not necessarily mean she had black ancestors: it means her ancestors were settled in Louisiana before it became part of the U.S.A. Creole originally meant born in the colonies rather than France and had no racial connotations.


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