Adah Issacs Menken on Working and Waiting

Ada Issacs Menken 2“Good women are rarely clever, and clever women are rarely good.” Ada Issacs Menken

Adah Issacs Menken (1835 to 1869) was a Civil War era actress, sex symbol, and pin-up girl.  She was also a dedicated writer publishing 20 essays, 100 poems, and many newspaper articles. Menken may have been born Adelaide McCord in Chartrain near New Orleans to a black father and a Creole mother, but because she worked hard to hide her background, this cannot be known for sure. She was a scholarly child with a gift for languages. She knew French, Spanish, ancient Greek, some Hebrew, and German. She was a trained dancer, performing as a child at the New Orleans Opera House with her sister.  Called “the talk of two continents,” it is her birth (see the introduction to Eiselein’s Infelicia and Other Writings for a discussion of this research), stormy life of failed marriages and her acting career which has attracted the most attention–especially her performance in Mezeppa, a play she first performed in 1861, based on a poem by Lord Byron, in which dressed as a Russian prince in tights, she is captured by the enemy, stripped “naked,” and tied to a horse which trots up a four-story mountain.Ada Issacs Menken on horse As a result, during the Civil War she was the darling of both Southern and Northern soldiers, her photograph decorating many a tent pole.

However, she really wanted to be a writer. She began publishing poems in her late teens and over the years wrote numerous articles for newspapers. She wrote an article defending the Baron Rothschild’s admission to Parliament (p. 74).   In 1859 after a disastrous marriage to the Benica Boy – John Heenan, the heavy weight prize-fighter of the world, and the death of her newborn, she tried to commit suicide, Unsuccessful, she poured out her passion and sorrow in poetry. In 1860 she successfully published a political article on the election, an unusual feat for a woman at that time.

Adah and Alexander Dumas
Adah and Alexander Dumas

All through her short, notorious acting career she associated with the most noted writers of the period, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, who strongly influenced her poetry, Mark Twain, who gave her rave reviews, Bret Harte, Christina and Dante Rossetti, Alexander Dumas, George Sand, who stood godmother for her son, and Charles Dickens, to whom she dedicated her poetry anthology Infelicia. Although Menken made money in her acting career, she gave most it away to the poor. So much so that when she, at the age of 33, died of tuberculosis, she was buried in a pauper’s grave. Upon her death Augustin Daly wrote: “Menken’s crime was weakness of heart! There never was so weak a woman. And with this feminine feeling came its attendant fault, reckless generosity!” (“Autobiographical Sketch” The New York Times, September 6, 1868, pp. 2-3.)

The following excerpt is from the poem “Working and Waiting.”

All the day long, and through the cold midnight.
Still the hot needle she wearily plies.
Haggard and white as the ghost of a Spurned One,
Sewing white robes for the Chosen One’s eyes—
Lost in her sorrow,
But for the morrow Phantom-like speaking in every stitch—
God protect all of us—
God shelter all of us
From the Curse, born with each sigh for the Rich!

Low burns the lamp. Fly swifter, thou needle—
Swifter, thou asp for the breast of the poor!
Else the pale light will be stolen by Pity,
Ere of the vital part thou hast made sure.
Dying, yet living:
All the world’s giving
Barely the life that runs out with her thread.
God protect all of us—
God shelter all of us
From her last glance, as she follows the Dead!

What if the morning finds her still bearing
All the soul’s load of a merciless lot!
Fate will not lighten a grain of the burden
While the poor bearer by man is forgot
Sewing and sighing!
Sewing and dying!
What to such life is a day or two more?
God protect all of us—
God shelter all of us
From the new day’s lease of woe to the Poor!





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