Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable? Part 17: Victorian BareBack Riding

(This is the 17th installment of a series of blog entries. Be sure to start with  Part 1.)

(Be sure in particular to at least read Part 15 of the series, The Great Menken,  before you read this blog entry—this one is a direct continuation of the “story” in that entry.)

You might say Victorian BareBack rider Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868) was the ultimate cross between Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Sally Rand.

Like Liz, she had numerous husbands … five by most accounts. (A pretty extensive record for a young woman who first married at 21 and died at 33.) Besides a “voluptuous figure,” they were also both known for their startling eyes… Liz’s dubbed “violet eyes to die for,” Adah’s a deep, dark blue said to be “glorious,” “intoxicating,” and even “not wholly human.”

Like Marilyn, she was wildly popular, particularly based on sexy roles and sexy pinup pics—and died young. Marilyn was 36 when she committed suicide in 1962. Adah was 33 when she died almost a century earlier in 1868, likely of TB and/or peritonitis.  Also like Marilyn she was at one time married to a famous sports figure, and at another time to a writer. Marilyn had been married to baseball great Joe DiMaggio and highly-respected author Arthur Miller. Menken had been married to the top bare-fisted heavyweight boxer of the day, Joe Heenan, and later to Robert Henry Newell, author and editor of the New York Mercury newspaper.

But unlike either Liz or Marilyn … and in spite of it being in the supposedly repressed, prudish Victorian era, she appeared not just in cheesecake photos (like Marilyn’s nude calendar posings), but live, in the flesh, looking, to all intents and purposes, totally naked. To the acclaim of huge crowds across the US and Europe. As Charles Henry Webb, poet and humorist, said in his Californian weekly newspaper of the time, “The Menken is unrivaled in her particular line—but it isn’t a clothes-line.” Or as Sally Rand is reputed to have said in the 1930s, “I haven’t been out of work since the day I took my pants off.”

Adah got started in theater around the age of 20, even playing classic characters like Lady Macbeth, but according to most reports was not all that good an actress. There was, however, one thing she was great at … self-promotion. And in 1860…

…she appealed to her business manager Jimmie Murdock to help her become recognized as a great actress. Murdock dissuaded Menken from that goal, as he knew she had little acting talent.He offered her the “breeches role” (that of a man) of the noble Tartar in the melodrama Mazeppa, based on a poem by Lord Byron.At the climax of this hit, the Tartar was stripped of his clothing, tied to his horse, and sent off to his death.The audiences were thrilled with the scene, although the production used a dummy strapped to a horse, which was led away by a handler giving sugar cubes.

Menken wanted to perform the stunt herself. Dressed in nude tights and riding a horse on stage, she appeared to be naked and caused a sensation. Not only was she a woman playing the part of a man, and playing with conventions of gender, she heightened the sensationalism by appearing to be nude. New York audiences were shocked but still attended and made the play popular. [Wiki: Menken]

Over the next few years, although appearing in other plays at times, she milked Mazeppa and the role of the Tartar for all it was worth, all the way to Europe. And she made it her own. In her version, the climactic scene was no longer just a “horse led away by a handler.” She actually trained herself to ride tied to a horse, had a four-story “mountain” with a narrow pathway going up it built for big theater stages, and at the crisis moment of the play the horse dashed pell-mell with the evidently-nude Menken on its back up the mountain, disappearing behind a backdrop. (She did get injured a few times, and at least one woman was killed trying to imitate her stunt in later years.)

And Adah knew how to take the fame from the live performances and multiply it.

Fortunately, the camera and reproducible photos had been invented. North and South the [Civil War] boys in uniform tacked up Adah’s 3 by 5 inch shots on tent poles, along with those of her husband John Heenan, world heavyweight boxing champ.

The original power couple, Adah and John landed in court, to become the original sex scandal spread across the front pages of tabloid two-penny newspapers. To the background of cannon fire, the world of celebrity was being invented.

War and the love goddess are brother and sister in arms. Just as Betty Grable was the siren of World War II, Marilyn Monroe the darling of the Korean War era, Adah Menken, who toured by rail the war-threatened Union, captured the libido of her divided nation.

Crowds overwhelmed the theaters she played, advanced seating was attempted, preachers railed against Adah’s nudity, and the media of the day — newspapers, the telegraph, photography — spread her image, and stories of her love life, far and wide. [From thewrap.com]

And she was just as well-known for all her off-stage shenanigans as her onstage performances, including her multiple marriages … and numerous friendships, dalliances, and outright affairs with very famous people.  Mark Twain, for instance, didn’t just write about her. He knew her personally. As did his friends and fellow authors Artemus Ward and Bret Harte. His friends implied strongly that he was really smitten with her.

Charles Dickens was said to have had a crush on her. Pictures are still extant showing her in France in1866 draped all over French author Alexandre Dumas (Count of Montecristo, The Three Musketeers) with whom she was allegedly having an affair. Dumas was about 64 at the time. Reports indicate his son, Alexandre Jr., became enraged at the foolish old man trying to carry on an affair with a woman less than half his age, and put an end to it. Although it probably wasn’t easy to do so … Alex Sr. had been a lifelong dirty old man, reputed to have had at least 40 confirmed adulterous affairs—( I read somewhere that he himself claimed it was more like 300)—including with the woman who had given birth to Alex Jr.

The pics above were in the collection of the “modest” photos from the Dumas/Menken photo shoots. Reports from the time indicate that there may have been more… ahem… candid … ones that were taken, and “leaked” to outside sources and reproduced… “which the local pornographers eagerly hawked on the sidewalks” of Paris. [examiner.com]

Arthur Conan Doyle even introduced a character modeled on Adah in his first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand magazine, A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891.  He’d only been about seven years old when she had taken Great Britain by storm. But her fame long outlasted her premature death in 1868. (As Sir Elton wrote of Marilyn just about a century later, “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.”)

Arthur was an impressionable youth in Edinburgh when Adah, known as The Royal Menken, rivaled Queen Victoria. She reigned over Britain’s erotic imagination. Mazeppa and its several imitators packed the theaters, and Adah’s love life was the theme of newspaper and cafe chatter. But the mature Conan Doyle had more reason to be fascinated by her: He was deeply into Spiritualism, really his religion. He was especially impressed by Daniel Home, a Scottish-American medium whose amazing séances were done without any discernible trickery, and whose favorite spirit to call up and interact with was Adah Menken. [thegreatbare.com]

While overseas, she also had an affair with the English poet Swinburne. Back in the USA she was also friends with Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow is said to have perhaps even been at her bedside when she died in France in 1868—in any event, he wrote a posthumous poem about her.

(I could do lots more “famous name dropping” from her résumé of male conquests, but this gives you a good idea.)

And then there was her friendship with the occasionally cross-dressing much older female author who went by the pen name George Sand. “George,” born in 1804, was from an earlier generation, as you can tell from her pic with Adah below. But she also had lots of famous special “men friends” and lovers. Including an extended affair with composer Frédéric Chopin.

Adah was not at all averse to cross-dressing herself.

And, in fact, wasn’t averse to playing the male part not just on stage.

One night, to win a bet, she dressed in a sporting gent’s attire, and chomping a cigar, she toured the brothels of the Barbary Coast. Afterward, Adah boasted that she could make out better than the girls she had seen. [thegreatbare.com]

Her final comment about herself, written to a friend shortly before her death, was “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.”

Yes, for some reason modern standard history books have totally ignored Adah. But actually I wasn’t correct saying I’d never heard her name before until recently.  As a matter of fact, I’m now pretty sure I did, clear back in the 1950s! I just thought it was the name of a fictional character at the time. You see, I was a big fan of the new TV show Bonanza that premiered in 1959 when I was 13:

That same year episode 10, “The Magnificent Adah,” opened with The Menken and her touring company arriving at Virginia (nobody bothered with “City”) to perform her showpiece, the thrilling and dangerous Mazeppa. Intrigued by the poster of a supposedly naked woman strapped to a runaway horse, Joe (personable, clever) and Hoss (big, simple) sneak out to the theater. They fear they will be reprimanded by their older, serious brother Adam or the patriarch Ben. Both, however, are also in attendance. During the show, Hoss is confused, and Joe explains that the male hero, Mazeppa, a tribal leader fighting against Russian Czarist tyranny, is being played by the woman on the poster. After the show, at the saloon, where a circle of men has gathered around Adah, Hoss is dying to know if she really was naked, because he is sure she’s a woman.

Adam explains that in the drama, Adah cross-dresses, or undresses, and she wears flesh-colored tights. Ben enters and heads straight for Adah.

She was played by the beautiful, busty Ruth Roman.

Not a bad choice. Here’s Roman.

Here’s Adah.

Adah was a Jewish/Black/Creole blend from New Orleans, dark and fiery. Ruth was of Russian/Polish background, from Boston. For reasons best known to studio casting, she starred in numerous big-screen and TV Westerns. Back to the saloon: Adah, who knows Ben, suddenly asks him to accompany her to her hotel. She has seen her ex-husband, the famous bare-knuckle boxer “John Regan.” This is John Heenan, and by the time Adah actually toured the West, in the midst of the Civil War, Heenan was reduced to giving sparring exhibitions. In his prime, in 1860, John had fought the British champ Tom Sayers to a draw for the world heavyweight championship. The illegal fight held outside of London drew an immense crowd that included Charles Dickens and a special reporter for Queen Victoria. Prize fighting then was more like Extreme Fighting today–no holds barred.

The long, bloody battle was finally ended by a police raid and was declared a draw. On John’s return home, English mistress in tow, he rejected Adah and claimed they had never married. This ignited a front-page scandal. In the Bonanza episode, Ben says John beat Adah and is now trying to mooch money from her. Ben falls for Adah, he wants to marry and protect her, and the boys try to break up the romance but she tells them off. The scoundrel John beats up Little Joe and nearly blinds him. Ben goes to fight him but the boys intervene and Hoss fights the boxing champ. The big guy gets the worst of it until he turns to wrestling. Hoss then demolishes John and leaves him lying on the floor. Surprisingly, Adah rushes in and embraces her old love. The dejected Cartwrights leave, and bewildered Adam wonders how the glamorous star Adah Menken can love such a heel. There are as many kinds of love as there are women, explains Ben. In fact, for years afterward Adah remained broken-hearted by John Heenan’s infidelity. [thegreatbare.com]

There have been many more “moving pictures” made either loosely or directly based on the life of The Menken since the earliest days of the cinema shortly after 1900. Including this one:

In 1960, Paramount released the western comedy Heller in Pink Tights starring Sophia Loren… Director George Cukor freely admitted that Loren’s character was based on Menken. [thegreatbare.com]

Back to the Big Question

So let’s consider morality among the “general population” in the Victorian Age—just how “dedicated” to purity and modesty was the average person of the time—particularly the males? To look at the enthusiasm for the chaste Jenny Lind, whose story is popular in history books to this day, it looks like “Victorian Prudery” was alive and well and that virtually every “decent American” bought into that paradigm. Yes, God could have looked down smiling on the populace of the time and said, “Well done, young American nation. You are showing the world what biblical morality is all about. I shall bless your nation with great prosperity because of this so that you may be a shining beacon to the world.” Yes, from the evidence of the “average history book” one might be tempted to think we’ve found that Golden Age we were looking for. “If only” modern Americans could go back to the pure moral value system of the Victorian Age!

But dig a little deeper into the ephemera of the time, and it would appear that we have perhaps been sold a fairy tale rather than real life. Yes, there is no doubt that there were many…well, at least some…husbands of the time who wouldn’t even consider looking with lust at a modestly dressed Victorian female besides their own beloved wife—out of Christian values and morals at best, or basic chivalry and decency at least.

And yes, there were no doubt many people, Christian ministers and others, who spoke out against the kind of “entertainment” offered by Adah Menken–and others like her … there is little doubt that she was only the “poster girl” for a whole movement of risqué entertainment. The evidence of much of it has slipped into that dustbin of history and gone largely unnoticed by most modern folks. But dig a little in that dustbin and you’d no doubt unearth many more pieces of ephemera that wouldn’t line up with the common image of life in the Victorian period.

It sure seems from the evidence that a significant proportion of even the middle class Victorian male populace was not only willing to look with lust at a woman other than their own wives. They were willing to go right out in public, maybe even taking their wives along to the theater, in hopes of getting a titillating glimpse of an almost completely undressed woman. And the wives? They may have tsk-tsked, but many went along—and became obsessed with voyeurism about the life and scandals of that same undressed woman. Much like many women today will snap up the mags and tabloids at the checkout lanes at the supermarket, savoring the latest gossip about the love lives of the big-bosomed women like Angelina Jolie that they know their husbands lust after.

There truly is nothing new under the sun. And we still haven’t found an American Golden Age.

When you consider the year 1861, what looms large in your mind? For me it would be that our country was just beginning that awful war that would pit brother against brother and almost tear the “United States” apart. But that’s because we have hindsight. What loomed large to many people of that the time?

Performing at her peril in the Gold Rush fields of California (peril because hot appreciative miners tossed gold nuggets at her head), Menken soon found herself in demand in Europe – and threw London for a loop, where the show was even a greater success. Prior to this, she virtually owned an 1861 crumbling America – a typical touring headline being: THE NAKED LADY (her new nickname) CAPTURES OUR CITY…and, in smaller type underneath, Fort Sumter Fired Upon. [Examiner.com]

Strange and surprising footnotes to The Great Menken’s story

Lest you are left with the impression that Adah Isaacs Menken was just an airheaded “sexpot,” totally carnal and without any interest in intellectual or spiritual matters, there really was another facet to Adah. Here’s one piece of evidence of that:

Following her death, T. Allston Brown [American theater critic, newspaper editor, talent agent and manager, and theater historian] paid a final tribute to her: “Miss Menken possessed a character of mind peculiar from the many. She was a lady of extraordinary intellectual endowments and of high literary attainments. Her writings are redolent of bright and beautiful thoughts, and while very young she produced many poems and tales. It was the study of her life to make all within the circle of her acquaintance happy and contented. In her habits she was social and genial, of an equable, amiable and pleasant disposition. Only those who knew her intimately could properly appreciate her noble qualities. Her memory will long be affectionately cherished by a large circle of sorrowing friends, who have known and fully appreciated her many excellent traits of character.” [from “the vault at Pfaff’s“]

And here’s another:

Her first marriage, to a Jew named Alexander Isaacs Menken in 1856, lasted only a few years but confirmed her own Jewish identity. Adah Menken’s true religious origins are controversial. Born in Louisiana in 1835 to Auguste and Marie Theodore, some historians believe that she was raised a Catholic, an assertion that Menken herself denied. In response to a journalist who called her a convert, Menken replied, “I was born in [Judaism], and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing.”

In 1857, Adah and Alexander moved from New Orleans to Cincinnati, then the center of Reform Judaism in America. Adah learned to read Hebrew fluently and studied classical Jewish texts. It was at this time that Adah’s other artistic and intellectual talents emerged. An aspiring writer, she contributed poems and essays on Judaism to Isaac Mayer Wise’s weekly newspaper, The Israelite. Menken saw herself as a latter-day Deborah, advocating for Jewish communities around the world. She urged the Jews of Turkey to rebel against oppression and place their faith in the coming of a messiah who would lead them to restore Jerusalem. She publicly protested the Mortara Affair, the kidnapping by Italian Catholic officials of a young Jewish boy whom the officials claimed the Jewish community had stolen. She also spoke out forcefully when Lionel Nathan was denied his seat in the English Parliament. And long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax did so, Menken refused to appear on stage during the High Holy Days even at the very height of her public success. [Koufax and Greenberg were famous Jewish baseball players. Greenberg, in 1934, and Koufax, in 1965, each refused to play in crucial ball games on Yom Kippur.] [From the Jewish Virtual Library]

And this reminded me that indeed there is a bit of another parallel with Elizabeth Taylor … who was not born Jewish, but converted to Judaism—and stayed with the faith long after she was no longer married to a Jewish husband. Liz’s funeral was presided over by Rabbi Jerry Cutler.

Taylor, the irreverent and dazzling actress was raised a Christian scientist, but converted to Judaism at age 27. Though some say the decision was motivated by marriage to her third husband, Mike Todd—born Avrom Goldbogen, the grandson of a Polish rabbi, according to Time Magazine—Taylor famously denied it, insisting she had always been interested in Judaism. In her book, Elizabeth Takes Off, Taylor tried to set the record straight, and according to Wikipedia wrote: “[Conversion to Judaism] had absolutely nothing to do with my past marriage to Mike [Todd] or my upcoming marriage to Eddie Fisher, both of whom were Jewish. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time.”

Divas do things on their own terms. When she finally decided to convert, Taylor did so at Temple Israel of Hollywood, under the tutelage of then-rabbi Max Nussbaum. According to Time, who reported on Taylor’s conversion in April 1959, Rabbi Nussbaum developed a special curriculum for the actress that included: the Bible, and the books—A History of the Jews, by Abram Leon Sachar, What Is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer, and Basic Judaism, by Milton Steinberg. Afterwards, “[T]hey discussed the ancient traditions and modern problems of the people of Israel,” Time reported.

At her conversion ceremony, Taylor was given the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel Taylor (Elisheba being the Hebrew version of Elizabeth and Rachel being the actress’s biblical heroine). [From the Jewish Journal ]

In 1959 she bought $100,000 in Israeli bonds—which got her films banned in the United Arab Republic.

She narrated the first film produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a documentary about the Holocaust that won a 1981 Academy Award.  And then there was this—

In 1977, JTA reported that Taylor had offered herself as a hostage for the [Jewish] Air France hijack victims being held captive by terrorists at Entebbe, Uganda, before Israelis rescued them. That offer, made personally to Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, was graciously declined, but Dinitz told Taylor, “The Jewish people will always remember it.” [forward.com]

And, finally, regarding Adah herself, there is this. This is a private letter from her to an admirer.

“Your letter and poems came just today, when kind and beautiful things were so much needed in my heart. That letter and your thrilling poems have fulfilled their mission: I am lifted out of my sad, lonely self, and reach my heart up to the affinity of the true, which is always the beautiful.

“I am not in the condition to tell you all the impressions your poems have made upon me. I have today fallen into the bitterness of a sad, reflective and desolate mood. You know I am alone, and that I work, and without sympathy; and that the unshrined ghosts of wasted hours and of lost loves are always tugging at my heart.

“I know your soul! It has met mine somewhere in the starry highway of thought. You must often meet me, for I am a vagabond of fancy without name or aim. I was born a dweller in tents; a reveler in the ‘tented habitation of war ‘; consequently, dear poet, my views of life and things are rather disreputable in the eyes of the ‘just’. I am always in bad odor with people who don’t know me, and startle those who do. Alas!

“I am a fair classical scholar, not a bad linguist, can paint a respectable portrait of a good head and face, can write a little and have made successes in sculpture; but for all these blind instincts for art, I am still a vagabond, of no use to anyone in the world—and never shall be. People always find me out and then find fault with God because I have gifts denied to them. I cannot help that. The body and the soul don’t fit each other; they are always in a ‘scramble.’ I have long since ceased to contend with the world; it bores me horribly; nothing but hard work saves me from myself.

Perhaps after all, The Menken was more akin to the tormented Marilyn Monroe than anyone else.

Strange footnotes indeed!

But since we haven’t found our Golden Age, continue on for the next Blast from the (even farther) Past in this ongoing series, The Not-So-Civil-War.

Oh… and P.S. If you were fascinated by the plot of the old Bonanza episode, you can see the whole thing on Youtube.

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One Response to Are You Prepared for … the Unthinkable? Part 17: Victorian BareBack Riding

  1. Bill Luesenheide says:

    I will never watch Bonanza again through the same eyes! My innocence is lost! LOL!

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