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."
Isaacs Menken at age19|
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.|
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."
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
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...
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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