Adah Isaacs Menken, also known as Adelaide McCord and Ada Bertha Théodore, actress and poet, was most plausibly born Ada C. McCord on June 15, 1835, to Richard and Catherine E. McCord in Memphis, Tennessee. Adah's life before her stage career is difficult to document because her elaborate stories about her beginnings indicate a variety of names, ethnic backgrounds, birthplaces, and genealogies. Although it has been claimed that she attended Nacogdoches University, the first documented evidence of her presence in Texas appeared in a Liberty Gazette advertisement on October 8, 1855, announcing that Ada Bertha Théodore would be giving readings of Shakespeare. Subsequent issues contained poems and essays attributed to her and datelined Austin City and Washington, Texas. On April 3, 1856, in Livingston, Texas, she married Alexander Isaac Menken, a Jewish theatrical musician from Cincinnati, Ohio. After two years of limited engagements at small theatres in New Orleans, Shreveport, and Nashville, Adah urged her husband to take her to his family in Cincinnati. There she embraced Judaism; she occasionally even claimed to have been born a Jew. She made her theatrical debut in 1857 as Pauline in The Lady of Lyons at Shreveport, Louisiana, and then appeared in Fazio, as Bianca, in New Orleans. In March 1859 she made her New York debut as the Widow Cheerly in The Soldier's Daughter. She published a number of poems in the Cincinnati Israelite. Her husband's family, however, did not appreciate the attention lavished upon Adah in her unorthodox career. The couple secured a rabbinical diploma dissolving their marriage, but Adah continued using Menken as her stage name. On September 3, 1859, Ada married John Carmel Heenan, a noted Irish prizefighter, in New York. A scandal ensued when Alexander Menken revealed to the press that he and Adah were not yet legally divorced. Heenan left Adah pregnant with a son who died in infancy. They divorced in 1862.
Adah continued to write poetry and to play minor roles until June 1861, when she was called upon to star in Mazeppa; or The Wild Horse of Tartary, a melodrama based on a poem by Lord Byron that opened at Albany's Green Street Theatre. Already accustomed to male roles, Adah was game to try strapping herself to a horse for the climax. In flesh-toned tights, under the dimmed stage lights she appeared to be nude. She became an overnight sensation. During the next few years the drama played the major northeastern and midwestern cities, toured the West, then was a great success in Europe. She soon earned the highest pay ever earned by an actress. While she attempted other roles, she always returned to Mazeppa. Meanwhile Adah married and divorced two more husbands, Civil War satirist Robert Henry Newell (pseud. Orpheus C. Kerr), whom she married in 1862 and divorced in 1865, and James Paul Barkley, a gambler she married in 1866 and left almost immediately. By Barkley she had a son, Louis Dudevant Victor Emmanuel, who died in infancy. Always longing for recognition as a poet, Adah associated with many of the literary personages of her time. She admired Walt Whitman, and her posthumously published volume, Infelicia (1868), contained an early collection of free verse. In the West she mingled with the young Samuel Clemens, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller. In Europe she purportedly had affairs with French novelist Alexander Dumas, père, and with English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Adah dedicated her book of verse to Charles Dickens, and George Sand was godmother at the baptism of Adah's son Louis. Adah slipped out of her militant Jewish role after encountering anti-Semitism in Europe. She spent her large earnings from the theater on luxuries and gave generously to friends, struggling actors and artists, and charities, so that she had little left at the end. In the winter of 1867–68 she attempted without much success to revive Mazeppa. Afterward, she returned to Paris and went into rehearsal for a revival of her other mainstay, Les Pirates de la Savane, but complications arose from an injury she had sustained while performing in London. Her last performance was on May 30, 1868. She died on August 10, 1868, and was buried in Paris.