Sunday, October 17, 2010

"A Thing of Beauty and a Boy Forever..."

"Another veteran of Pfaff's beer cellar arrived for an appearance at Maguire's Opera House. New Orleans-born actress Adah Isaacs Menken (real name: Dolores McCord) had just completed a wildly successful two-month engagement in San Francisco. Mark Twain, during his stay in the Bay City, had reviewed two of her shows, Mazeppa and The French Spy, for the Enterprise. The first, based on the Lord Byron poem of the same name, showed off Menken's best assets, her lush, well-rounded figure. Called "the most perfectly developed woman in the world" and "the Great Unadorned," the actress upheld her title by wearing flesh-colored tights and a scanty loincloth, which Twain compared to a diaper. He found her "a finely formed woman down to her knees," but judged her acting to be a little busy: "She pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body, like a dancing-jack...In a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it." As for her performance in The French Spy, Twain considered it "as dumb as an oyster," although he conceded that "she plays the Spy, without words, with more feeling than she does Mazeppa with them."

"It is doubtful that Menken had read Twain's review when she arrived in Virginia City on February 27, 1864, with her full entourage in tow. This included her manager, her road company of actors, several horses, nineteen dogs, her third husband, humorist Robert Henry Newell, alias "Orpheus C. Kerr," and her beautiful blond friend from bohemian New York, Ada Clare, for whom Menken was planning to write a new play. Clare, in company with Menken, had formed the distaff portion of Walt Whitman's drinking circle at Pfaff's beer cellar. Her real name was Jane McElhenney, and she had relocated to New York from Charleston, South Carolina, to trod the boards. She was rather less successful at that undertaking than Menken - critics found her too thin, in both voice and body - but Whitman considered Clare "gay, easy, sunny, free, loose, but not ungood." As for Menken, the Good Gray Poet had been best man at one of her weddings.

"As usual, Menken was a sensation both on stage and off. She toured the Comstock Lode, boiling an egg in the scalding subterranean waters and accepting a two-thousand-dollar silver bar engraved with the vaguely suggestive name of the Menken Shaft and Tunnel Company. She boxed a couple of rounds at the Sazerac saloon with local bon vivant "Joggles" Wright - her second husband had been heavyweight champion John "the Benicia Boy" Heenan - and became an honorary member of Fire Engine Company No. 2, which gave her a red morocco best signifying her membership in the clan.

"Between visits to the various bars, gambling dens, and hurdy-gurdy parlors along C Street, Menken performed The French Spyand Mazeppa. The audience predictably favored her less-clothed performance in the latter show; one wag complained that her penchant for performing male roles in drag ensured that she would remain "a thing of beauty and a boy forever." The Virginia City Union, reviewing her performance, got in a gratuitous if satisfying dig at its rival, reporting that "Mark Twain is writing a bloody tragedy for her...which will excel Mazeppa in many respects. It is to be called 'Pete Hopkins, or the Gory Scalp.'"

-Roy Morris, Jr.
Lighting out for the Territory

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