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LAce Posted Monday, October 31st, 2005
Lights, Camera, Adoration: from Adah Isaacs Menken to Marilyn Monroe
Barbara Foster

If the camera loves you, if you are loved by the camera, you are a star.
—Marlene Dietrich

Richard Avedon, after completing a series of shots of Marilyn Monroe for the Christmas 1958 issue of Life commented, “She understood photography, and she also understood what makes a great photograph--not the technique but the content. She was more comfortable in front of the camera than away from it. She was completely creative. She was very involved with the meaning of what she was doing in an effort to make it more, to get the most out of it.” In Avedon’s “Fabled Enchantress” series, Marilyn assumed the moods and guises of past sex sirens. Playing the voyeur, Arthur Miller observed his wife’s sensitive and funny impersonations. One hundred years before Monroe posed for Avedon, another superstar, Adah Isaacs Menken, strolled into Napoleon Sarony’s Manhattan photo studio at 630 Broadway. By 1866, the year of the shoot, Menken’s name resonated in New York, California, London and Paris. Both photographers captured their subjects playfulness plus the “it” or universal sex appeal, that je ne sais quois the French marvel at rather than define.

Masters on this level soar beyond technical skill into the realm of magic. Their vision transforms an earthly woman into a goddess elevated far above the public who adore her. The play of light and shadow casts its spell on this platonic love affair between conspirators. A few top glamour photographers developed the Svengali touch, discovering hidden aspects in their sitters’ personality: George Hurrell in Jean Harlow, Irving Penn in Lisa Fonssagrives, Horst in Coco Chanel.

Or, one partner in the relationship can be an antagonistic. Jackie Kennedy treated the papaparazzi who hounded her like potential assassins. Although she sued Ron Galella, the most persistent of this celebrity addicted pack, others lined up to snap away at the most photogenic first lady in American history. After Princess Di’s death, the tabloid press fanned the public’s fury: had the photographers who chased Di’s car caused her death? Or, were they merely “metaphorical killers” feeding the publics’ lust to stargaze? We can reprove stargazing as trivial, voyeuristic or even sociopathological. But ogling stars is a modern pastime publicists are paid to encourage.

Adah Menken’s knack for getting publicity rivalled P.T. Barnum’s. Early on she handed out cartes-de-visites, four by two-and-one-half portrait photos of herself in various poses mounted on cardboard. Menken rode to fame on the back of a wild horse in Mazeppa, a popular melodrama based on Lord Bryon’s poem. She became known as the “Naked Lady” because she appeared to be nude. Actually she wore a body stocking, which Mark Twain compared to a child’s diaper. Bret Harte, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, Richard Burton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti George Sand and Alexandre Dumas perenumbered among Menken’s admirers.

Skeptical after many photographers failed her, Menken hoped that Sarony--known as “the father of artistic photography in America” would live up to his reputation. Sarony took more than one hundred negatives of the volatile superstar given to temper tantrums if displeased. When Sarony produced his final results, she threw her arms around him and exclaimed, “Oh, you dear delightful little man. I am going to kiss you for that.” She did. Sarony trained as a lithographer before he opened his Manhattan business. He polished his drawing skills in poster art, an opportunity to render individual performers and scenes from plays. By 1866, New York enjoyed a post Civil War economic boom, which meant fans now had discretionary income to spend on publicity photos of their favorite stars. Sarony introduced painted backgrounds and interesting accessories into his photos.

While others in the trade settled for lifeless portraits, Sarony placed his models in an exciting variety of poses to create a dramatic effect. His intuition cut to the quintessential features of his subject. The photographer and his models achieved a synergy evident in photos that literally sparkle. Theatrical portraits became Sarony’s specialty, although he also did justice to opera stars, circus performers, society women, figures in the military, business world and government, including Grover Cleveland. When Sarony died, forty thousand negatives were found in his studio. He photographed everybody who was anybody and thousands of aspirers to greatness.

Menken counted among the former and exploited any means at hand to puff herself. However, the scandal which broke after her second husband branded her a bigamist in the New York newspapers devastated her. John Heenan, her third husband, a champion bare knuckle boxer, then denied their marriage ever took place. In 1860 Menken became a pariah, denied work in New York theaters. Menken’s friend Walt Whitman, whose poetry she defended, stood by her. A miscarriage of Heenan’s child drove her to attempt suicide.

Menken went to the brink of the grave but her death did not occur until 1868 in Paris at the height of her fame. In 1861 she made the wild horseback ride in Albany which made managers compete to book her at any price. A New Orleanian, born in 1835, Adah had a multicutural pedigree before the fashion: part black, Irish and Jewish. Short haired, she refused to adhere to the code of behavior Victorians expected of women. In public she crossed dressed and smoked cigars. Her poetry and essays were outspoken on issues of the day, including women’s liberation.

Menken wanted photos but other more reluctant sitters did not escape Sarony’s lens. A large bankroll plus the ingenuity of a second story man assured Sarony would land prestigious celebrities. He payed Sarah Benhardt fifteen hundred dollars and Lily Langtry (the “Jersey Lily”) extorted five thousand. To land the ‘world’s most beautiful woman,” Sarony chiseled his way through Langtry’s dressing room wall to ask: “Excuse me, Madam, I am not a burglar; here’s my card. Have any one of ‘em been here before me?” In the late 1860’s Charles Dickens introduced the practice of demanding a royalty from a photographer. Sarony gave his clients copies of their photos but kept the copyright himself.

Sarony turned each session into a theatrical event in which he functioned alternately as producer, director and stage manager. Although little more than five feet, Sarony gave a tall appearance. The strength of Sarony’s upper body combined with his powerful intellect to project the image of a man in charge of any situation. During the last third of the nineteenth century he succeeded Matthew Brady as America’s best known portrait photographer—“The Napoleon of Photography.”

Sarony paraded on Broadway in an astrakhan cap (sometimes a tasseled fez), a hairy calfskin waistcoat, sealskin cuffs and polished cavalry boots. Charlotte Cushman, the early dramatic actress, called him “that interesting crazy little man.” Conversely, Menken’s notoriety stemmed from her lack of costume. The journalist Horace Greeley had ranted against the “hussy” for daring to expose her nude body to decent people. Greeley ignored Menken’s tights, which at least nodded to modesty. Sarony played no part in “nude” shots of Menken passed around without her permission.

In 1952 a similar situation nearly ruined Marilyn Monroe’s career. Just as Monroe had strardom in her grasp, a blackmailer demanded she pay off for him keep mum about her posing nude for a calendar shot: “Golden Dreams.” Monroe shrewdly called his bluff. Her admission that she needed the fifty dollars for her rent generated widespread sympathy. Monroe insisted the photo belonged to the realm of art not pornography. The calendar was featured in the first issue of Playboy, which presented the nude Marilyn with a halo of innocence around her.

Nude shots of Menken’s head transposed onto naked female bodies lack Sarony’s finesse. These fakes appeared regularly. Yet Menken’s vivacity comes through in one shot where she stands in front of a hanging drape; another small drape hides the lower part of her mid section. A hint of buttocks peeps out. Vampish, she gazes over her shoulder as though she were the femme fatale Theda Bara about to whisper, “Kiss me my fool.” Menken assumed graceful “attitudes” that she copied from antique statuary. Exposed breasts do not tarnish the aura of innocence this love goddess radiates.

The parallels between the dark haired Menken and Monroe are uncanny: both were suspected of having lesbian affairs, married consecutively the leading sports figures of their day followed by an intellectual, reinvented themselves to suit whatever image they desired to purvey, were geniuses at PR, had serious artistic aspirations, great wit, voluptuous figures, adopted Jewish identities, sympathized with the underdog, lived in the fast lane, were addicted to adulation and died nearly friendless at the pinnacle of their careers under mysterious circumstances.

A comment Joe Procter, a public relations man, made about Monroe holds equally true for superstars in general. “Marilyn is not just a star, she is an institution and must constantly be in the center of excitement and activity.” Neither perfectionist found the love they sought in their chosen partners. Providentially, each found her ideal photographer able to transform radiant energy into visual gold.

Avedon, Richard. Fabled Enchantresses. Life (Christmas, 1958,) 1-13.
Basham Ben, The Theatrical Photographs of Napoleon Sarony. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press,1978) 4-10.
Doyle, Arthur ConanThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (New York: Heritage Press, 1930).
Lesser, Allen. Enchanting Rebel . (New York: Beechurst Press, 1947).
Mankowitz, Wolf Mazeppa . (New York: Stein and Day, 1982).
Marshall, David. Celebrity and Power. (Minneapolis, Unversity of Minnesota: 1997).
Menken,Adah Isaacs. “Swimming Against the Current.” New York Sunday Mercury, ( June 10, 1860), n.p.
------------------------. “Women of the World,” New York Sunday Mercury.
(October 7, 1860), 5-9.
Meryman, Ricahrd. Marilyn lets her Hair down about being Famous. Life (August 3, 1962 ) 31-36.
Miller, Arthur. My Wife Marilyn Monroe. Life (Christmas, 1958)14-16.
Pegnato, Lisa. “Produced in Magnificent Style.”Civil War Times Illustrated (February 1986), 38-49.
Rose, Billy syndicated column, n.p., n.d., Billy Rose Theatre Collection, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005 at 10:14 PM
Adah Isaacs Menken

Posted by Cheryl Chambers on Saturday, November 5th, 2005 at 4:55 PM
Very interesting reading. I learned a lot and then did some research online about Menken. Thanks for bringing this woman to my attention.

Posted by Letha Hadady on Saturday, November 26th, 2005 at 11:36 AM
Only once in a century can we enjoy the blessings of a goddess at the level of a Menken or Monroe. This well-researched article compares the 19th century’s best known actress Adah Isaacs Menken and voluptuous Marilyn Monroe--each the gilded coach and Cadillac of her day. The author Professor Barbara Foster says, Both (women) were suspected of having lesbian affairs. They married consecutively the leading sports figures of their day followed by an intellectual. They reinvented themselves to suit whatever image they desired to purvey, were geniuses at PR, had serious artistic aspirations, great wit, and voluptuous figures. They adopted Jewish identities, sympathized with the underdog, lived in the fast lane, were addicted to adulation, and died nearly friendless and under mysterious circumstances when at the pinnacle of their careers. Whew! This brilliant introduction to the life of a little-known giant among actors, a trend-setter despite her desires to have a husband and children, would make a great movie! I think Menken also had an involvement with writer George Sand. Menken’s dark stare looks inward as a goddess contemplates eternity. It is fascinating to learn how such a look develops. It requires the direction of a great photographer. In Menken’s case it was Napoleon Sarony “The Napoleon of Photography” described as “a crazy little man who paraded on Broadway in an astrakhan cap or a tasseled fez, a hairy calfskin waistcoat, sealskin cuffs and polished cavalry boots.” We are fortunate they found eachother and captured the moment for all time.

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