Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interview: Michael and Barbara Foster Discuss a Dangerous Woman Book

Yahoo! Voices Interview: Michael and Barbara Foster Discuss a Dangerous Woman Book

Long before the world began admiring Marilyn Monroe, whose legacy is currently being chronicled in the new critically acclaimed drama My Week with Marilyn, America produced the first international celebrity, Adah Menken. The pin-up girl, who had a flair for scandal and supporting unpopular causes, is reportedly the first actress to embrace theatrical and film nudity. During her reign as the most famous, highly paid actress in the world throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Menken also became the darling of American Civil War soldiers.

Historian, novelist and biographer Michael Foster has professionally reunited with his wife, Barbara, an associate professor of women's studies at the City University of New York, for their third book together, chronicling Menken's life. Since many Americans are fascinated by the celebrity lifestyle, but few know of the first true celebrity, Michael and Barbara kindly took the time to discuss Menke and their work, A Dangerous Woman: The Life, Loves and Scandals of Adah Isaacs Menke.

Not only did the Fosters talk about what inspiration they had for writing the book, they also spoke about how Menke drew attention for her personal and professional scandals.Many may question how Menke became an international superstar without the countless tabloids and television entertainment shows and websites that many people routinely look at today. The biographers answer that question, and spread their knowledge of Menke's life, detailing how she performed in plays and became friends with numerous poets to garner fame.

Your new biography, A Dangerous Woman, chronicles the life of the first controversial actress and pin-up girl, Adah Menken. What was your inspiration in writing the book?

Michael Foster (MF): Well, we had decided, the two of us, that we wanted to do some biographies of heroic women. But really heroic, in the sense that they risked their lives. The first one we did was of Alexandra David-Neel, who made an incredible journey over in Tibet and the Himalayas. It's on the Huffington Post right now. So that book came out. David-Neel lived to be 100 years old, and then we wanted someone who didn't live quite as long (laughs), because it took a long time to do the book.

Then we found out about Adah Menken, who literally risked her life every single time she performed. That impressed us. Then her popularity was immense at the time.

Barbara Foster (BF): She was also the first superstar, which is amazing. It interested us, because there's so much fuss these days about superstars. When you come to think about it, she was the first one to use the media, she used photography to put herself front and center. That's a very exciting thing.

MF: She was also very involved with the Civil War. Not only that, but also with the invention of what we now call media. It simply didn't exist before then. The reason Menken could become popular across the United States, across the Atlantic, was the new media that came in and was revolutionary, the telegraph; the cheap, popular newspaper; and the photography. All of this came in at once, in an age that is similar to ours, where the media has had a tremendous revolution

Speaking of the Civil War, Adah reached out to both sides during the war, as she entertained wounded Union troops and admired the Confederate generals by posting photos of them on her dressing room walls. Do you feel this added to her controversy?

MF: Yeah, sure. I don't think she did it as a publicity stunt, though she did a lot of publicity stunts. She had some people behind her, some of the men, who were the first PR types. They didn't exist, press agents, until then, because they didn't have the press and photography until then.

But she herself was torn. She was born in New Orleans, part Jewish, part black, part Irish, and who knows what else. If you read about the Civil War, you begin to understand that not only was it families who were torn apart in the south, but also individuals were torn apart. It just wasn't that untypical at the time.

To continue reading this interview, please click here.

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