TWENTY THREE I stand a wreck on Error’s shore

San Francisco, August 25, 1863

Quite a night, last night. Tom Meacham’s promotional blurb for the new show at his Opera House – a melodrama based on Byron’s Mazeppa – promised that “Miss Menken, stripped by her captors, will ride a fiery steed at a furious gallop onto and across the stage and into the distance”. And she did.

Adah Isaacs Menken – The Huntington Library found, in their copy of Infelicia, a portfolio of images of Adah by the celebrity photographer Napoleon Sarony (image courtesy of The Huntington Library)

In the audience was Sam Clemens or, as he has liked to style himself since February this year, Mark Twain. He confesses to being a great admirer of “Miss Menken” and has sought her opinion on his work – explaining that “she is a literary cuss herself”.

Twain’s observation gives the lie to Adah Isaacs Menken, the body-stockinged star of the show. The headlines of her biography are all about fame, sensation and public fascination. Certainly, she was the highest paid actress in the world and the most scandalous. Short-haired, cigar smoking, cross-dressing at times, former wife of the most famous sportsman in the world – Johnny Heenan, the American bare knuckle boxing champion – she had lovers literally by the score: one, the French tightrope walker Blondin, fled when she asked him to dance with her on his wire over the Falls at Niagara – but Alexander Dumas had to threaten his father with a horsewhip to keep him at a distance.

photograph by Napoleon Sarony (courtesy The Huntington Library)

Her Mazeppa (a man in Byron’s poem) brought riots to New York. In London, thousands stormed the theatre for a glimpse – while the crinolined ladies of Kensington were scandalised by her smoking a cigar as she rode past on a black stallion. In so many ways, her public persona was of a woman who invented and reinvented herself – “Menken was the performance”, according to Renée Sentilles.

But there was another Adah: “I have always believed myself to be possessed of two souls, one that lives on the surface of life, pleasing and pleased; the other as deep and as unfathomable as the ocean; a mystery to me and all who know me.”

photograph by Napoleon Sarony (courtesy Huntington Library)

Certainly, she had fascination beyond her body stocking. She impressed Mark Twain and, in London, she hosted Charles Dickens and Swinburne. In New York, she was the epicentre of the bohemian demi-monde – Pfaff’s Beer Keller, frequented also by Walt Whitman. And at Pfaff’s, she got to know her next husband – Robert Henry Newell, literary editor of the New York Sunday Mercury.

Abraham Lincoln particularly liked the spoof letters published in the Mercury that Newell wrote under the pen name Orpheus C Kerr (viz. office see-ker) satirising the satirisable elements of the Civil War.

Of Lincoln himself, Newell observed: “The President wore his coat and whiskers, and bowed to all salutations like a graceful door-hinge.”

And, lampooning the endemic drinking culture of the army, he portrayed a drunken General (probably Ulysses S Grant): “Chancing at the moment to catch sight of a wine-glass, my boy, he walked toward it in a circle, and hastily filled the outside of it from an empty decanter. Then balancing himself on one foot, and placing his disengaged hand on a pyramid of blanc mange to support himself, he said impressively : ‘Ladles and gentle-lemons, the army will move on the first of May, and …”. Here the general went down under the table like a stately ship foundering at sea, and was heard to ask the waiter to tell his family that he died for his country.”

Above all, Adah wanted to be a poet – a poet alongside the then little known Walt Whitman. “Look at Walter Whitman,” she wrote, “the American philosopher who is centuries ahead of his contemporaries, who, in smiling carelessness, analyzes the elements of which society is composed…. He hears the Divine voice calling him to caution mankind against this or that evil, and wields his pen, exerts his energies, for the cause of liberty and humanity! But he is too far ahead of his contemporaries; they cannot comprehend him yet; he swims against the stream and finds me company.”

Whitman’s biographer, Gay Wilson Allen, writes that the third edition of Leaves of Grass so influenced her style that “she tried to become a disciple and adopt some traits of his versification” – and she appears to be the only woman poet to write in plain verse in the nineteenth century.

Certainly she had a life sufficient to fuel a poetic impulse: I don’t think I mentioned her two children who died at birth; or the beatings she took from her boxer-husband; or the poverty she came from and died in; or a sexuality that, for psychologists, lies in the frigid quadrant; or the constant obfuscation of her roots – an African-American father and a French creole mother.

The Poetry Foundation describes her work as “notable for its modernity: often confessional, her personas are intensely dramatic and self-aware. Her poetry condemns male domination and its effects on creative women, and celebrates Judaism and women’s lives.”

The reference to Judaism highlights yet another layer in Adah’s complexity: she turned to the Jewish faith, and possibly converted, following her marriage to Alexander Isaac Menken (she added an extra ‘s’ to Isaac). She learned Hebrew and wrote several articles for The Israelite, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s newspaper dedicated to promoting Reform Judaism. And a Rabbi attended her at her death in Paris (where she was first interred in the Jewish section of Montparnasse Cemetery).

Though dying (possibly from septicaemia caused by an abscess) in 1868 at the age of 33, she was still able to prepare for publication her first collection of poems – Infelicia (‘Unhappiness’) – which she dedicated to Charles Dickens. Infelicia stayed in print until 1902 and was much admired by Christina Rossetti (though not by Whitman, who had somewhat turned his back).

Her poem Infelix (‘Wretched’), the last in the collection, is a song of regret that cries out to be set to music:

Where is the promise of my years;
Once written on my brow?
Ere errors, agonies and fears
Brought with them all that speaks in tears,
Ere I had sunk beneath my peers;
Where sleeps that promise now?

Naught lingers to redeem those hours,
Still, still to memory sweet!
The flowers that bloomed in sunny bowers
Are withered all; and Evil towers
Supreme above her sister powers
Of Sorrow and Deceit.

I look along the columned years,
And see Life’s riven fane,
Just where it fell, amid the jeers
Of scornful lips, whose mocking sneers,
For ever hiss within mine ears
To break the sleep of pain.

I can but own my life is vain
A desert void of peace;
I missed the goal I sought to gain,
I missed the measure of the strain
That lulls Fame’s fever in the brain,
And bids Earth’s tumult cease.

Myself! alas for theme so poor
A theme but rich in Fear;
I stand a wreck on Error’s shore,
A spectre not within the door,
A houseless shadow evermore,
An exile lingering here.

Postscript : Adah’s life story might have put you in mind of Marilyn Monroe. There are so many easy parallels between them – early, tragic deaths; fame built on a curated persona; bullying and abuse; conversion to the Jewish faith; many lovers; many husbands – both had a famous sportsman and a literary heavyweight (Variety memorably announced Arthur Miller’s marriage to Monroe as “Egghead Weds Hourglass”).

And – this may come as a surprise – Monroe too had a poetic impulse. Arthur Miller described her as “a poet trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes”.

Fragments’ cover image (c) Alfred Eisenstaedt. Cover design by Susan Mitchell

Some drafts of Monroe’s poems can be found in Fragments, a fascinating collection of her writings. I say drafts – really they are scribbled down lines of poetic ideas, not worked through (but nevertheless some are well-formed) and certainly never before published. Monroe’s scribbled poem beginning Life shows perhaps a duality shared with Adah Isaacs Menken:

I am of both of your directions
Somehow remaining hanging downward
the most
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind – I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a painting – ah life they
have cheated you

Source and copyright: Marilyn Munroe Fragments – poems, intimate notes, letters . Edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010)


LibriVox have recorded all the poems from Infelicia – available on YouTube

PDF of Infelicia available at http://french.centenary.edu/infelicia.pdf

PDF of The Orpheus C. Kerr Papers available – here


Sam Clemens first used “Mark Twain” as a signature to a letter dated February 2nd 1863.

“She is a literary cuss herself” – XLIV Governor of the “Third House”, biography by Albert Bigelow Paine (1912)

Jewish Women’s Archive: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/menken-adah-isaacs

Museum of the City of San Francisco – http://www.sfmuseum.org/bio/adah.html

The Vault at Pfaff’s – An Archive of Art and Literature by the Bohemians of Antebellum New York – https://pfaffs.web.lehigh.edu/node/54132

“possessed of two souls” – https://pfaffs.web.lehigh.edu/node/55858

Sentilles, Renee M., Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken’s American Odyssey (1997). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1539623901

HistoryNet on John Heenan – https://www.historynet.com/adah-menken-aka-the-naked-lady-the-original-superstar/

The Walt Whitman Archive – Swimming Against the Current – review by Adah Issacs Menken

Huntington Library whose copy of Infelicia has photographs by Napoleon Sarony folded inside – https://huntington.org/verso/who-was-adah-isaacs-menken

Celebrating and Singing, Bleeding and Pining: Embodiment and Emotion in Walt Whitman and Adah Isaacs Menken – Julie McCown Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature (Vol. 38, No 2, Fall 2019. Tulsa U)


I stand a wreck on Error’s shore (c) 2023 Meirion Harries

3 replies »

  1. Wow–this one is SOO rich! The first person point of view; the photos (especially the nude-isn’t it interesting how the ideal of “beauty” has shifted over the last 150 years?); the parallels to Marilyn Monroe. I’d like to know more about Adah’s death. But the piece is a positive delight, and opens all kinds of doors to 1863….

  2. Wonderful thank you Mei! A discovery for this reader and a delight – please keep them coming! JR