Adah Isaacs Menken was a writer, lecturer, and actress whose infamous private life brought widespread attention to her acting career. Born near New Orleans, most likely of African American, white, and Creole heritage, Adah Isaacs married affluent businessman Alexander Isaac Menken when she was around 21 and adopted his faith, Judaism. By the time she married, she had already given readings of Shakespeare and had published poems.
In 1856, Menken began a successful and lucrative acting career in New Orleans. Her performances garnered her international fame, particularly her role in Byron’s Mazeppa. Menken—who left her first husband, remarried several times, wore short hair, and smoked cigarettes—was considered scandalous by Victorian society for her romantic affairs and rebellious nature. She published her writing widely and befriended writers internationally.
While she was well known for her dramatic roles, Menken longed for literary recognition. She collected 31 of her poems in a self-designed publication, Infelicia (1868). Menken’s poetry is 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. Many poems are written in free verse and show the influence of Walt Whitman.
A keenly intelligent scholar, Menken spoke French and Spanish fluently. She died of tuberculosis in her early 30s in Paris, shortly before her book publication.