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Craddock: The naked truth about Adah Menken

Fifteen decades ago this weekend the theatrical world was mourning the Aug. 10, 1868, untimely death of 33-year-old actress Adah Isaacs Menken.

Despite rumors, the East Texas beauty did not introduce striptease to the American stage. However, a lot of folks were convinced she did. Adah’s “scandalous” 1862 Broadway performance earned her the sobriquet of the “Naked Lady of Nacogdoches.”

Her maiden name was McCord. She was born June 15, 1835, probably in Memphis, Tennessee.

At some point in her early life, Adah was living in Nacogdoches. She loved to dance and write poetry but most of all wanted to be an actress. In 1856 she married a theatrical musician named Alexander Menken in Livingston, Polk County.

The next year Adah made her theatrical debut in a Shreveport opera house, then followed that with performances in New Orleans. By 1859 she was appearing on stage in New York City.

As her career as an actress and poet took off, she left Alexander but decided to continue using “Menken” as her stage moniker.

That’s when scandal began to surround the young actress. The New Handbook of Texas says that on Sept. 3, 1859, Adah married John Carmel Heenan, a noted Irish prizefighter, in New York.

Problem was, Adah got hitched to Heenan without legally divorcing Husband No. 1, Alexander Menken. Three years later Heenan left Adah for another woman.

Created a sensation

During a period of seven years, Adah took four husbands and reportedly had several other suitors, including a tightrope walker. This unconventional woman took several male stage roles, kept her hair close-cropped and on occasion (gasp!) even smoked cigarettes in public.

Adah gave lectures and tried vaudeville for a while. However, fame finally came in June 1861 when Adah was cast in the title role of “Mazeppa,” a play based on a poem by Lord Byron.

In the play’s climatic scene, Adah donned flesh-colored tights and, with the stage lights dimmed, rode to center stage on a horse. There was a collective gasp from the New York audience, which assumed the young actress was … au naturel!

The women of New York were outraged (No nudes was good nudes, they reasoned). There was talk of having Adah arrested for corrupting public morals — or at least run out of town.

Newspaper critics were shocked by Adah’s performance. Some even called for her to be banned from the public stage. But Americans apparently needed a diversion from the tragedy of the Civil War that had recently begun.

The play was a smashing success and soon was touring the country. Adah flashed her tights in cities large and small over the next several years. When “Mazeppa” played San Francisco, Adah decided to stay awhile. She became a popular addition to the California city’s sizable artistic community, performing in plays, reciting her poetry and taking up painting.

Career cut short

When “Mazeppa” crossed the ocean to tour in Europe, Adah became a star in England, France and other nations. She counted among her friends such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Alexandre Dumas.

Adah briefly became the world’s highest-paid actress, but her career was cut short by tuberculosis. The American actress fell ill in Paris and died two months later.

Scandal continued to follow Adah after her death. A collection of her poems was published only days after her untimely demise. Adah was barely in her grave when several writers who had picked up her new book raised charges of plagiarism.

Adah Isaacs Menken told a friend not long before her death, “When all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life then most women who lived to be a hundred?”

The “Naked Lady of Nacogdoches” had a point.

— Van “Curtain Call” Craddock’s latest book is “East Texas Tales, Book 2,” available at Barron’s and the Gregg County Historical Museum. His column appears Sunday. Email vancraddock@sbcglobal.net .

Today's Bible verse

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God

is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written:

‘The righteous will live by faith.’ “

Romans 1:17

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