Wild West Women: Adah Isaacs Menken


Adah Isaacs Menken found her own brand of reward in the mining towns of early 1860s Nevada. Adah was as an actress, though she was also billed as a poetess, a danseuse, a male impersonator, as well as an equestrienne. She was all of these things, but what set her apart was that she performed these talents in a near state of undress. And she did them on a horse that was billed as “a wild, untamed stallion of Tartary.”

One reporter stated that Menken was the most undressed actress, of the time, that was tolerated on the American stage. Mark Twain called her a “shape artist.”

All of this semi-nude notoriety stemmed from Adah’s performance in a play called Mazeppa. In this production she presented Ivan Mazeppa, a Tartar prince. Reviews well noted that she did not look like Ivan, referring to her feminine figure. But that didn’t stop Adah from giving a star performance clad in a single garment described, by one reporter, as a maillot or tights and as a tunic or chiton by another. In spite of what her costume was called either one served the purpose of presenting Adah as Ivan, a Polish nobleman who as punishment for his misdeeds is “condemned to be bound by hempen lashings to a fiery, untamed steed.”

Some reviewers of this performance considered Menken’s costume very risqué while others felt they’d been cheated. Mark Twain, though he’d made his earlier description of the actress as a “shape artist,” raved about her performance.

Adah Menken also performed in other productions such as the melodramas French Spy that was described as racy.