Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Angelina Jolie, Lindsay Lohan--just about every glamorous and scandalous movie star who has made a career by making headlines owes a debt to a woman whose "bad girl" behavior just may leave all of them in the dust.
She appeared as the nude star of stage shows, dated powerful men, and blazed through five husbands, including the world bareknuckle heavyweight boxing champion and another who was a leading intellectual. She set fashion trends, inspired famous writers to create fictional characters based on her real life, was rumored to be bisexual, and shocked the popular culture into following her every move. What is more, she lived 150 years ago.
Adah Menken was the first media celebrity. She was known around the world as "The Naked Lady" because her stage show featured her nude (in a sheer body stocking). Her star power inspired poets like Walt Whitman and writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used Menken as the basis for the classic Sherlock Holmes supporting character of Irene Adler. Menken's popularity was fueled by a new advent of the period, mass circulation newspapers. Their reporters could not wait to write about her latest adventure, according to biographers Michael and Barbara Foster, who call her the originator of the modem celebrity femme fatale.
"Menken was an original who pioneered in several areas we now take for granted," note the Fosters, authors of A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menken, 1835-1868, America's Original Superstar. "Menken invented 'stardom' in the modern, media-driven sense, making use of the newly invented newspaper, the telegraph, photography, railroads, and steamships to become the first global superstar--number one on Broadway, the rage of gold rush San Francisco, and the toast of Victorian London and Pads.
"Onstage, she risked her life every evening in the Civil War sensation 'Mazeppa,' in which apparently stripped naked, she rode up a four-story stage mountain lied to a stallion. The mix of sexuality and danger made her the Civil War siren, the highest paid actress b the world, and probably caused her death at 33. A shooting star,' her example would be followed by the likes of Jean Harlow, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and a...