By: Michael & Barbara Foster
On December 18, 2010 the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed by an act of Congress and, finally, gays may serve openly in the U.S. military. In June 2011 New York, at the urging of Governor Andrew Cuomo, became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned California’s Proposition 8, ruling voters couldn’t deprive gay couples of the right to marry. The judges emphasized the inviolable “status and human dignity of gays and lesbians” under the U.S. Constitution. We supposed that the issue of legal equality for gays and lesbians was on its way to being settled once and for all. Are we mistaken?
The Republican presidential hopefuls - or rather, hopeless - are generally opposed to gay marriage, with the worst of them being against gays, period. Bill Burton, senior strategist backing President Obama, has mentioned “a hateful politics of the past that aims to demean the relationships of millions of gay Americans.” But how deeply rooted is this archaic but still powerful prejudice? We can cite a fascinating example from Civil War America, and of a celebrated woman who played a heroic part in defending her gay friends.
In New York of 1860, 150 years ago, when aspiring actress Adah Isaacs Menken met the already notorious poet Walt Whitman, being a gay man was entirely hidden from public view. Because Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (first edition 1855) was considered overtly sexual and obscene in the male/female way, the poet was denounced by press and pulpit as “reckless and indecent.” One reverend, who got the point of the poem “City of Orgies,” did suggest Walt was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians." In contrast, Adah was recently married to America’s first sports hero, John Heenan, the bareknuckle boxing champ, who had sailed for England to fight for the world heavyweight title. Adah, appearing to cheering audiences, hardly expected she was on the edge of a front-page scandal that would replay the criticism of Whitman.
Adah Bertha Theodore was born in 1835 in New Orleans, her mother a kept woman of color. Adah’s father was Jewish, a man of means, whose precise identity remains debated. Subjected to several stepfathers, Adah grew up in Texas: petite, pretty, dark hair luxuriant, eyes blue-grey. She learned to ride and shoot and became a stunt performer in a circus. After an affair with the Cuban poet and revolutionary Juan Zenea, Adah married the musician Alex Menken. Came hard times and they moved to Alex’s hometown of Cincinnati. Here Adah played the dutiful wife, but in the summer, 1859 she fled from her alcoholic husband. She supposed she had obtained a divorce from Rabbi Wise, founder of Reform Judaism. She took with her only Alex’s name.
In New York, Adah’s marriage to John Heenan was held quietly at a roadhouse on upper Broadway. Lower down on the avenue at Bleecker Street, Charlie Pfaff ran a smoky beer cellar frequented by the town’s Bohemian crowd. Writers, actors, bad girls, and gay guys could be found there. Adah, lonely, was accompanied to Pfaff’s by Robert Newell, straight-laced editor of the influential Sunday Mercury, who was in love and published her poetry. There she met Walt, 40, lots of graying hair and beard, eyes sparkling, dressed casually in a velveteen jacket over striped vest and pants. Walt looked out for “the swift flash of eyes offering me love.” He especially liked the young roughs, as he called them, bus drivers like punky Peter Doyle with whom he would have a long, intimate relationship. He and Adah became friends at once.
She was the great admirer of “the American philosopher,” as she termed Walt in a major article in the Mercury. Adah’s provocative “Swimming Against the Current” eulogized Whitman as “far ahead of his contemporaries,” who failed to understand him. Heeding “the Divine voice,” he kept on writing “for the cause of liberty and humanity!” Adah, in her understanding of the poet, had little company. Walt was thrilled by praise from “Mrs. Heenan,” whose own verse became nakedly confessional. Newell, biding his time, loathed “that coarse and uncouth creature, Walt Whitman.” Adah’s defense of Walt set her up for the scandal to come.
In August 1860 John Heenan, after winning the world boxing title, returned to New York, cheered by a vast crowd. He brought along his British mistress, and he denounced Adah as a liar and strumpet, claiming they had never married. According to the champ, Adah was "the most dangerous woman in the world" - inspiring the title of the Fosters' biography. To add insult to injury, Alex Menken publicly claimed he had never divorced Adah, and she was a bigamist! The two-penny newspapers ran with both contradictory stories, elbowing out Abe Lincoln's election as President. Adah, now infamous, was shut out of work in the theater. She felt a humiliation akin to that society forced on gay men. On New Year's Eve she attempted suicide and fortunately failed.
Adah Menken would rise to a peak of stardom hitherto unknown: In the heroic role of Lord Byron's Prince Mazeppa, a freedom fighter, she swept gold rush California. Packed audiences of miners tossed bags of gold dust on stage in appreciation. Cub reporter Sam Clemens (later Mark Twain) wrote up Adah’s dangerous, seemingly nude act strapped to a wild stallion that climbed a four-story stage mountain. Sam compared Adah to a constellation in the heavens, "The Great Bare" (inspiring the Fosters' website of that name). Adah became known as The Naked Lady, the talk of Victorian London and the toast of Napoleon III’s Paris. Aside from going through five husbands, including Newell, and famous lovers such as Alexandre Dumas and possibly fellow cross-dresser George Sand, Adah was courted by the youthful King Charles I of Württemberg, Germany. Charles was not only handsome but bright and interested in the arts. Their purposely public romance was the chatter of all Paris, convinced they were lovers. Except that the king was gay and preferred male lovers, and his counselors, worried about that sort of scandal, used the ballyhooed liaison with Adah as cover. Adah went along with the charade, both to help her friend keep his throne and to fend off the advances of the lecherous Emperor Napoleon.
In summer 1867, toward the end of Adah's brief, brilliant but doomed life, she corresponded from Paris with her California friend Charles Warren Stoddard, the first admittedly gay American writer. Adah, sad because of "the ghosts of wasted hours and of lost loves always tugging at my heart," gladly reached out to the young man, who felt isolated in the raw, he-man West. "I already know your soul," she wrote Charles. "It has met mine somewhere on the starry highway of thought." She knew she was a scandal to the so-called just, the Puritanical hypocrites who infected her world and still blather today. Stoddard, destined to write beautifully of the South Seas, was able to identify with The Lepers of Molokai, his best-known work.
Adah Menken felt she had lived "always in bad odor with people who do not know me," that she had startled the world. "Alas!" she communed with Charles. A year later, while crowds packed a theater demanding to see her perform, the Naked Lady passed on to the world of spirit. Her death defying act had taken its toll.
About: Michael & Barbara Foster are the authors of A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken - America's Original Superstar (www.thegreatbare.com). Michael Foster is a historian, novelist and biographer, acclaimed by the New York Times. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Barbara Foster is an associate professor of women’s studies at City University of New York.