About ten years ago I started work on a play about Adah Isaacs Mencken, a woman whose life was so remarkable she scarcely needed to enhance it (as she so fancifully did whenever she talked to the press). The play’s now in development for a production by a well-known downtown company later this year, so I was most excited when my agent told me one of her other writers (actually a husband-wife writing team) was releasing a book on the subject. Called A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Mencken, 1835-1868, America’s Original Superstar, this definitive new biography was written by Michael and Barbara Foster, with tomorrow as its pub date.
Mencken was one of the few public figures to boldly swim against the tide of Victorianism (though even she was a creature of her times). She is kind of bridge figure between Lola Montez (to be profiled here in a couple of weeks) and Lotta Crabtree: the diva of her times, an early sex symbol, an important poet, a Bohemian, a wild west saloon star and a thousand things more. Theatrical from the cradle to the crave, there is an elusive quicksilver aspect to her identity. Of Creole New Orleans stock (hence part African American) she was at various times in her life also a Jew, a Confederate sympathizer, a dutiful Victorian wife, and a practical example of the Doctrine of Free Love. She was married five times. At least two of her husbands were famous: James Heenan, the champion bare-knuckle boxer of his day; and Robert Newell, better known as Orpheus C. Kerr, who along with Mark Twain and Artemus Ward (another of my pet subjects) was one of the fathers of American humor (she was friends with Twain and Ward, and just about every other literary figure of the time as well). Her lovers included Cuban poet Juan Clemente Zenea, Alexander Dumas, and Algernon Swinburne (to name just a few of the famous ones). She attempted suicide twice and died at the pitifully young age of 33 of consumption, with Longfellow at her bedside (a weird twist, since her mentor and intimate had been Whitman). On stage, she was most famous for her so-called Protean (male drag) roles, especially the lead character in an adaptation of Byron’s Mazeppa, which required her to do dangerous onstage stunts on horseback (a skill she acquired in her circus days). You can see perhaps why this material has been of interest to me.
I say the new book is definitive because it goes beyond the previous two efforts on the subject with which I am familiar: the cautious and rather soporific Enchanting Rebel: The Secret Life of Adan Isaacs Mencken by Alan Lesser (1947), and the much more pleasurable Mazeppa, the Lives, Loves, and Legends of Adah Isaacs Menken: A Biographical Quest by Wolf Mankowitz (1982). These two books magically fell into my hands I can’t remember how — which is the best way to discover something….makes it seem fated. But there are others, perhaps a half dozen, including one that was published just a few months ago. I’ll be reading these as I develop my play, so perhaps I should withhold final judgment on the book in question ’til then. (I’ll then cheerfully ignore all the books as I rewrite history for the sake of entertainment). What I especially like about A Dangerous Woman is the way the authors weave throughout little details and references to her by contemporaries that gives us a sense of the scale of her fame, an aspect that was missing from the previous books. Some highly interesting photographs are featured, including some scandalous semi-nude portraits that were done when she was in need of money; and a posthumous “spirit photograph”, a common scam of the Spiritualist era.
As with many figures of the 19th century (showfolk in particular), there are many gaps, and more murk, concerning hard and fast details. The authors succumb to the temptation of filling in the gaps with what unkind people might call “unsupported suppositions”. As a playwright and critic by training (as opposed to an academic research slave), I don’t begrudge the Fosters this tactic one iota. In fact I delight in engaging in it all the time. What others call an “unsupported supposition” I might call a “logical conclusion”, especially where a single such assertion seems to answer many head-scratchers at once. I do think, however, that you always want to stress the “logical” as opposed to the “conclusion”, for so often the real answer is “we just don’t know”, and you must constantly remind the reader of that truth. The authors would be well-served to tag more disclaimers to these murky bits, and not to present the truth of them as foregone, however logical they may be. That Adah was Jewish from birth, and was actively bi-sexual, at least in the modern sense are two among many of these. Both these theories make eminent sense. But the facts of the matter may be differently interpreted.
Anyway, judge for yourself. I promise you won’t be bored, that’s for sure. Check it out here.