The second woman was made an honorary fireman in Virginia City. Like Doc Holliday and Sheriff Henry Plummer, and the buffalo, she had tuberculosis, and like Calamity Jane, she loved travel, and men, and exaggeration. Like me, she wanted to be a writer, but other things got in the way.
Adah Isaacs Menken was the highest earning actress of her day. Her origins were obscure, but her real name was likely Ada C. MeCord, born in 1835, in New Orleans, of Auguste Théodore and Magdaleine Jean Louis Janneaux, both mixed race Louisiana Creoles. Ada was raised as a Catholic, fluent in French and Spanish, and danced in the ballet of the local French Opera House as a young girl. After a performance in Havana, where she was crowned ‘Queen of the Plaza,’ Ada left dance on the stage, for the stage, first in Texas. She married a musician named G.W. Kneass. This lasted less than a year. In 1856 she married another musician Alexander Isaac Menken, who took her home to Cincinnati. Here, she converted to Judaism, and changed her name, adding an ‘h’ to her first name. She published poetry and articles on Judaism in The Israelite in Cincinnati, and in the Jewish Messenger of New York. Although divorced by Menken, she never abandoned her adopted religion. In 1859, she married a popular Irish-American prizefighter named John C. Heenan, by whom she had a son, who died soon after birth. She met Charles Blondin, famed for having crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and the two had an affair on a vaudeville tour across the country. Adah had suggested she would marry him if they could perform a couple's act above the falls but Blondin refused, saying that he would be ‘distracted by her beauty.’ In 1862, Adah married Robert Henry Newell, a New York humorist who had published most of her poetry. In 1866 she married a gambler, James Paul Barkley, whom she left while pregnant. She went to France without him, and gave birth to Louis Dudevant Victor Emanuel Barkley; the baby's godmother was the author George Sand. Louis also died in infancy.
Adah’s career path had a similar trajectory. Early reviews remarked on her ‘reckless energy.’ She cultivated a bohemian and at times androgynous appearance. Her first New York play, The French Spy, was highly disregarded. The New York Times described her as ‘the worst actress on Broadway,’ and the Observer was only slight more complimentary. She is delightfully unhampered by the shackles of talent.
Her business manager, Jimmie Murdock, knew she had little acting ability, but offered her the ‘breeches role’ (that of a man) of the noble Tartar in the melodrama Mazeppa, based on a poem by Lord Byron. At the climax, the Tartar was stripped of his clothing, tied to his horse, and sent off to his death. The audiences were thrilled with the scene, although the production used a dummy strapped to a horse, which was led away by a handler giving sugar cubes. Menken changed the stunt. Dressed in nude tights and riding a horse on stage, she caused the sensation that would bring her success. She went on to play the role in San Francisco and Paris and London. Here, she responded to critics of her costume by remarking that it was ‘more modest than ballet or burlesque.’ Nonetheless, the controversy made it into the pages of Punch.
‘Here's half the town - if bills be true -
To Astley's nightly thronging,
To see the Menken throw aside
All to her sex belonging,
Stripping off woman's modesty,
With woman's outward trappings -
A barebacked jade on barebacked steed,
In Cartlich's old strappings!’
Adah attracted a crowd of male admirers, including Charles Dickens, the humorist Tom Hood, and the dramatist Charles Reade. She had affairs with the English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Alexandre Dumas, the French novelist more than twice her age.
In 1867, as she reentered England, her tuberculosis entered her abdomen. She was forced to stop performing, and her fame and fortune evaporated into pain and poverty. She returned to Paris, where she died the following year, at the age of 33. I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go.
Her only book, Infelicia, a collection of 31 confessional free verse poems, heavily influenced by her Judaism and her association with Walt Whitman, was published several days after her burial in Montparnasse cemetery. Most were about a woman’s struggle to find a place in the world.
My own true love was struggling with whatever had entered her eyes. The semitrailer that passed, while she was rubbing them, just about blew us off the road.
The big sky had filled with cotton cloud billows, and the prairie was rising into hills of sage and conifer. We had driven past the Lure Me Inn, at Ennis, and the Water of the Gods Hot Springs, in Norris, and the biggest American flag I had ever seen. Just outside of Harrison was another indication of where we were. We eat beef in Montana. I teased Robyn about her pronunciation. Mon-taw-na.
“It sounds more beautiful when I say it.” She said. There's two theories to arguin’ with a woman. Neither one works.
We arrived at the Lewis and Clark Caverns towards the end of the afternoon, just before they closed, and just in time for the last tour. Our guide was a bulky girl, with so many multiple piercings along the margin of her left ear, she must have needed to sleep on her right side. I asked her how she liked being a park guide.
“It’s hard to get a good job in Montana.” She said. But she was good at what she was doing, and ushered us through the constricted apertures and large caves of the monument.
“It starts off small but it doesn’t last.” She said.
“Like me, when we were first married.” I said, before a well-placed elbow found my ribs. We followed a steep descent into molten minerals, moulded into extraterrestrial intraterrestial organic organ pipes and pillars, icicles and waterfalls and coral gardens and cathedral candelabras, wedding cakes and treacle and skeletal skyscrapers. Our echoes entered the largest cavern at the bottom, moments before we did. It was magnificent.
“We call this the Paradise Room.” She said. “You can see why.”
The sky was still black and angry when we emerged, but the storm had let everything go when we were underground, and our tires were like rattlesnakes, hissing all the way down the mountain.
The wagon landed on the open plains again. Just on dusk, we arrived at a junction. If you come to a fork in the road, take it. We would do even better. We were heading to three of them.