According to "A Scandal in Bohemia", Adler was born in New Jersey in 1850. She followed a career in opera as a contralto, performing at La Scala in Milan, Italy, and a term as prima donna in the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, Poland, indicating that she was a talented singer. It was there that she became the lover of Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and King of Bohemia, who was staying in Warsaw for a period. The King describes her as "a well-known adventuress" (a term widely used at the time in ambiguous association with "courtesan") and also says that she had "the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men". The King eventually returned to his court in Prague. Adler, then in her late twenties, retired from the opera stage and moved to London.
On 20 March 1888, the King makes an incognito visit to Holmes in London. He asks the famous detective to secure possession of a previously taken photograph depicting Adler and the King together. The 30-year-old King explains to Holmes that he intends to marry Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia; the marriage would be threatened if his prior relationship with Adler were to come to light. He also reveals he had hired burglars to attempt to retrieve it twice, had Adler herself waylaid, and her luggage stolen, to no avail.
A disguised Holmes traces her movements, learning of her private life and, notably, stands witness to her marriage to Godfrey Norton, an English lawyer. Holmes disguises himself as an elderly cleric and sets up a faked incident to cause a diversion that is designed to gain him access to Adler's home and to trick her into revealing where the picture is hidden. Adler treats him kindly as the supposed victim of a crime outside her home. At the moment she gives away the location of the photograph, she realises she has been tricked. She tests her theory that it is indeed Holmes, of whom she had been warned, by disguising herself as a young man and wishing him good night as he and Watson return to 221B Baker Street.
Holmes visits Adler's home the next morning with Watson and the King to demand the return of the photograph. He finds Adler gone, along with her new husband and the original photo, which has been replaced with a photograph of her alone as well as a letter to Holmes. The letter explains how she had outwitted him, but also that she is happy with her new husband, who has more honourable feelings than her former lover. Adler adds that she will not compromise the King and has kept the photo only to protect herself against any further action the King might take. In the face of this and the King's statement that it was a "pity that she was not on my level", Holmes then decides that Adler was the wronged party rather than the King and asks, when offered a reward by the King, only for the photograph that Adler had left.
In the opening paragraph of the short story, Watson calls her "the late Irene Adler", suggesting her death sometime between early 1888 (the story's setting) and mid 1891 (the publication of "A Scandal in Bohemia").
Irene Adler appears only in "A Scandal in Bohemia". Her name is briefly mentioned in "A Case of Identity", "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and "His Last Bow". Additionally, in "The Five Orange Pips."
Adler earns Holmes' unbounded admiration. When the King of Bohemia says, "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?" Holmes replies scathingly that Adler is indeed on a much different level from the King.
The beginning of "A Scandal in Bohemia" describes the high regard in which Holmes held Adler:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
This "memory" is kept alive by a photograph of Irene Adler, which had been deliberately left behind when she and her new husband took flight with the embarrassing photograph of her with the King. Holmes had then asked for and received this photo from the King, as payment for his work on the case.
In his fictional biographies of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, William S. Baring-Gould puts forth an argument that Adler and Holmes meet again after the latter's supposed death at Reichenbach Falls. They perform on stage together incognito, and become lovers. According to Baring-Gould, Holmes and Adler's union produces one son, Nero Wolfe, who would follow in his father's footsteps as a detective.
Irene Adler appears as an opera singer in The Canary Trainer, where she encounters Holmes during his three-year 'death' while he is working as a violinist in the Paris Opera House, and asks him to help her protect her friend and unofficial protege, Christine Daaé, from the 'Opera Ghost'.
A series of mystery novels written by Carole Nelson Douglas features Irene Adler as the protagonist and sleuth, chronicling her life shortly before (in the novel Good Night, Mr. Holmes) and after her notable encounter with Sherlock Holmes and which feature Holmes as a supporting character. The series includes Godfrey Norton as Irene's supportive barrister husband; Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, a vicar's daughter and former governess who is Irene's best friend and biographer; and Nell's love interest Quentin Stanhope. Historical characters such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Alva Vanderbilt and Consuelo Vanderbilt, and journalist Nellie Bly, among others, also make appearances. In the books, Douglas strongly implies that Irene's mother was Lola Montez and her father possibly Ludwig I of Bavaria. Douglas provides Irene with a back story as a pint-size child vaudeville performer who was trained as an opera singer before going to work as a Pinkerton detective.
In a series of novels by John Lescroart, it is stated that Adler and Holmes had a son, Auguste Lupa, and it is implied that he later changes his name to Nero Wolfe.
In the 2009 novel The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King, it is stated that Irene Adler, who is deceased when the book begins, once had an affair with main character Sherlock Holmes and gave birth to a son, Damian Adler, an artist now known as The Addler.
In a recent collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches entitled Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years, the story "A Bonnie Bag of Bones", and several stories that follow, reveal that "the woman" is reunited with Sherlock Holmes. This series of tales provides great insights into the relationship of Adler and Holmes.
In the 1946 film Dressed to Kill, Adler is mentioned early in the film when Holmes and Watson discuss the events of "A Scandal in Bohemia".
In the 1976 film Sherlock Holmes in New York, Adler (Charlotte Rampling) helps Holmes and Watson to solve a bank robbery organised by Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, after he takes her son hostage to prevent Holmes from investigating the case. Holmes and Watson later rescue the boy, with a final conversation between Holmes and Adler at the conclusion of the case implying that Holmes may be the boy's father.
She is portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes. In that film, she is a skilled professional thief, as well as a divorcée. In the film, Adler is no longer married to Godfrey Norton and needs Holmes' help for the case.It is known that she knew Holmes prior to the events of the film. In this aspect the film considerably departs from Doyle's original, where Holmes never met Adler again after the one occasion where she outwitted (and greatly impressed) him; the film conversely implies that the two of them met many times and later had an intermittent, hotly consummated love affair. She and Holmes are depicted as having a deep and mutual infatuation, even while she is employed by Moriarty.
McAdams reprised the role in the 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in which Professor Moriarty poisons her, apparently killing her — deeming her position compromised by her love for Holmes.
Irene Adler was portrayed by Inga Swenson in the Broadway musical, Baker Street which also starred Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes. According to the liner notes of the original cast album, the story makes extensive use of the story "A Scandal in Bohemia". The play opened at the Broadway Theatre, New York City, on February 16, 1965 and ran for 313 performances. The show's book was by Jerome Coopersmith and the music and lyrics were by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel; the production was directed by Harold Prince.
Irene Adler is featured in Soviet director Igor Maslennikov's made-for-TV 5-part film series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. She appears in the fourth part, based upon The Sign of the Four (main storyline) and A Scandal in Bohemia (flashback), in which Holmes and Watson, while waiting for the new information on his current case, remember their encounter with Irene Adler (played by Larisa Soloveva).
In the 1984 Granada Television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett, the first episode is "A Scandal in Bohemia", with Adler being played by Gayle Hunnicutt.
In the 1984 made-for-TV film The Masks of Death, a widowed Irene Adler, played by Anne Baxter, is a guest at Graf Udo Von Felseck (Anton Diffring)'s country house where Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (John Mills) are investigating the supposed disappearance of a visiting prince. Although Holmes initially considers her a suspect, she proves her innocence and becomes an ally.
On radio, Sarah Badel portrayed Irene Adler in the 7 November 1990 BBC Radio broadcast of "A Scandal in Bohemia" opposite Clive Merrison's Holmes.
Irene Adler later appeared in the 1992 TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, where she was played by Morgan Fairchild opposite Christopher Lee as Holmes.
Liliana Komorowska portrayed Adler as a Polish opera singer in The Hallmark Channel's 2001 made-for-TV film The Royal Scandal opposite Matt Frewer's Holmes.
In an episode of the PBS Kids show Wishbone, actress Sally Nystuen Vahle portrays Irene Adler for the adaptation of "A Scandal in Bohemia" entitled "A Dogged Espose".
In "The 10 Li'l Grifters Job", the season 4 episode 2 of Leverage, the character Sophie portrays Irene Adler at the Murder Mystery Masquerade.
In 2007's BBC Television production Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Irene Adler (portrayed by Anna Chancellor) is the main villain of the piece and one of Sherlock Holmes' archenemies instead of a potential love interest.
In "A Scandal in Belgravia", the first episode of the 2012 second series of the BBC Sherlock, Irene was portrayed by Lara Pulver opposite Benedict Cumberbatch. A dominatrix who serves high-end clients, she is initially sought to recover incriminating photos she possesses of a liaison between her and a female member of the Royal Family, along with various other incriminating documents kept in a password-protected phone. Unlike Doyle's original tale, in which she is American, in this version she is English. At the episode's conclusion, she is presumed killed by those she failed to provide with the information, but is secretly saved by Sherlock. She makes a cameo appearance as a figment of Sherlock's imagination in the episode "The Sign of Three", and sends Sherlock a card when he was shot in "His Last Vow" (seen only in the deleted scenes). In "The Lying Detective", Holmes receives a text that, from the text alert, John identifies as having come from Irene. Sherlock admits that Irene is alive, but states that he doesn't text back. John suggests that he do so in memory of his own pain at losing the woman he loved.
In the television series House, Wilson tells a story about a patient named Irene Adler, with whom House was obsessed and fell in love.
In the CBS series, Elementary, Adler is initially an unseen character, mentioned first in the sixth episode as a former love interest of Holmes. It is later explained that she apparently died at the hands of a serial killer known as "M". It was this event that fuelled Sherlock's descent into drugs and set in motion the premise of the show. In the twelfth episode of the series, Sherlock confronts M, revealed to be Sebastian Moran, and is told that Irene was not killed by Moran, but by his employer: Moriarty. In the episode "Risk Management" it is explained that Irene was an American art restorer living in London. In the end Holmes discovers she is still alive, having been kept in a dilapidated house by Moriarty. As a plot twist, Adler and Moriarty are revealed to be one and the same (Moriarty having been gender-swapped to Jamie Moriarty). Natalie Dormer played Adler in the final three episodes of the season.
In the 2013 Russian drama Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler takes a major role in the series and is portrayed by Lyanka Gryu.
The character of Nicole Wallace, played by Olivia d'Abo in a recurring role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, is very clearly based on Adler (as Wallace's nemesis, Robert Goren—a main character on the show—is often compared to Holmes).
In the 2014 Japanese puppetry television show, Sherlock Holmes, broadcast on NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai, Japan Broadcasting Corporation), Irene Adler is a school nurse of a fictional boarding school Beeton School. At first she has an affair with Headmaster Ormstein but takes up with another man Godfrey Norton who teaches art and sees through the plot of Holmes and Watson in "The Adventure of the Headmaster with Trouble" based on "A Scandal in Bohemia". She is voiced by Rie Miyazawa.