|Adah Issacs Menken managed to flout many of the most hardened conventions of her time: she converted to Judaism, she smoked, she wrote and published on topics a "lady" would not discuss in that era, she appeared on stage nearly nude, she divorced five times, she dressed as a man for roles on the stage -- to name some of her transgressions. |
Add to this the strong possibility that she was mixed race and her career raises important questions about the performative nature of both racial and gender identity. What did it take to "pass" over these lines as boldly as Menken did? How was it possible for her to have public success at all when she violated some of the most stubborn taboos of her society?
For a valuable study of Menken and her transgressive life and career, see Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity, by Renée Sentilles. A recent (2011) biography for a general audience is A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves, and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America's Original Superstar, by Michael and Barbara Foster.