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  • Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

    ADAH ISACCS MENKEN:
    THE LADY ON THE HORSE

    by Archie P. McDonald
    Archie McDonald Ph.D.
    Gary Borders, publisher of the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, came across a reference in a publication from New York to the nation's "first sex symbol," a lady who rode naked upon a horse. Gary asked for the "rest of the story." One of the yields of long life is a memory chocked with random information. I recalled the lady but not the name; a query to good friend Ab Abernethy, who asked his wife Hazel, yielded the lady's name: Adah Isaacs Menken.

    All three of us remembered articles written by the late Lucille Fain about Menken and her "bare all" performance. We also are indebted to Pamela Palmer and Thurman Wilkins, who wrote more recent articles about this "Lady Godiva."
    Adah Isaacs Menken Age19
    Adah Isaacs Menken at age19
    Wikimedia Commons
    For a lady who revealed so much of herself physically, Menken left various trails about her past. Consensus has decided that Menken was born near Chartrain, Louisiana, in 1835, but at least one historian thinks this miracle occurred in Nacogdoches. She is identified ethnically as Creole, Jewish, Spanish, quadroon, and various combinations. She was married seven times--or was it only four husbands?--but a marriage registration in Livingston, Texas, argues for the first occurring there, to Alexander Isaac Menken. Her birth name was Adah, but sometimes she was called Adele, even Delores.

    What seems certain is that nature blessed Menken with the figure of a goddess but limited talent for her official profession, the theatre. The image of Jayne Mansfield comes to mind.

    Menken began performing with a circus -- riding a horse, a skill significant for her later fame -- first acted in a theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana, and was on the stage in New York by 1859. I remember a song from "Showboat" that applies: "Life Upon The Wicked Stage Is Nothing For A Girl."
    Adah Isaacs Menken
    Adah Isaacs Menken
    Wikimedia Commons

    Menken acted in various plays, marriages, and love affairs, and scandals left her with a tarnished reputation. Apparently reasoning the name the same as the game, she exploited her notoriety by accepting a part in "Mazeppa," a play based on a poem by Lord Byron.

    In the part, her costume apparently consisted only of a cloak that often parted to reveal Menken wearing a flesh-colored body suit, but in the theatre lights, it looked as if she wore only her birthday suit. The finale featured an apparently naked Menken, lashed astride a horse that galloped about the stage.

    Well. I tell you, Menken owned that town for a while, then took her show on the road. She attracted large crowds in American cities and in London, and also considerable condemnation from enforcers of Victorian morality. Naturally, that was good for business, too.

    I wish this story had a happier ending. While still the rage, Menken moved on to Paris and Vienna to more triumph. But back in London, those who came to see the "naked lady of Nacogdoches" ride her horse apparently had seen enough, and her show closed. She died alone in August 1868, in Paris, of tuberculosis complicated by peritonitis.

    Was Menken ever in Nacogdoches? No one knows. But just the other day there was this girl on a horse...


    Archie P. McDonald
    All Things Historical
    December 8, 2002 column, modified October 21, 2012
    A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
    This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.
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