a bordello in new york -- 11/29/17
Today's selection -- from Capital of the World by David Wallace. Polly Adler was the most famous madam in the New York of the 1920s:
"In her day and for years afterward, [Polly Adler] was one of the most famous women in America. So famous in fact that, in an era when it was rare for a woman to be in business for herself, neither her name nor her address appeared on her business card. The card bore only her telephone number (Lexington 2-1099) and a drawing of a parrot, a pun on her nickname.
"Polly Adler, at the height of her renown in the 1920s and '30s, seemed to be an intimate of everyone who was anyone in New York City: politicians, socialites, mobsters, and literary lions. But the fame wasn't derived from being a celebrated chanteuse or the head of a company fueled by the booming stock market. Polly Adler was America's most famous madam.
She once tried to explain why people liked her, despite the opprobrium normally associated with her profession: 'I am one of those people who just can't help getting a kick out of life, even when it's a kick in the teeth.' She also delivered the goods, once explaining her success this way: 'My girls give a man his money's worth [unlike] 'whores in everything but name' ... women who marry men for money, to escape their relatives or to gain social standing.'
"But her bordellos, which would later give her best-selling 1953 autobiography its title, A House Is Not a Home, were more than just once-notorious markets for sex. Unlike other famous American brothels, such as the Chicken Ranch, or madams such as Heidi Fleiss, Polly Adler ran a business where the women were certainly an attraction but not always the main course. Despite the New York Daily News's assertion in 1928 that 'her career has made her name synonymous with sin,' Polly's place had always been more than a whorehouse for patrons; it was a clubhouse for many members of what then passed for New York's beautiful people. In fact, 'Going to Polly's?' became one of the most popular catch phrases in New York in the '20s (there is evidence that Adler herself, with her fine-tuned instinct for generating publicity, popularized its use). Many patrons came by for drinks, backgammon, and card games as much as for the girls.
"Despite admittedly spending half her income on bribes and kickbacks, Adler was forced to move her brothel more than a dozen times during her twenty-three-year career as a madam. All her places of business were located in elegant upper East or West Side rented apartments or brownstones, the most famous of which was probably at the Majestic at 215 West Seventy-Fifth Street. Built in 1924, the building (and her apartment) was perfect for a bordello, replete with secret doorways and hidden stairs. Her largest bordello was a brownstone at 63 West Seventieth Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. In addition to rooms for the girls, the place also housed a bar, a library, and an office for Polly.
"All her bordellos were sumptuously decorated, boasting plush carpets, expensive furniture, fine paintings, and walls lined with books. Some people thought it was all a bit tacky, but for many of the members of the famed Algonquin Round Table, the legendary association of (mostly) writers that included many of the most prominent tastemakers of the era, it was just fine. In its time, Polly's place was almost as popular with The Round Table crowd as, well, the Algonquin Hotel itself. George S. Kaufman, a Round Table member who would co-write (with Moss Hart) two of the most enduring plays of the twentieth century (The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It with You), even had a charge account with Polly.
"Bon vivant, actor, humorist (and Round Table member) Robert Benchley was another fan of Polly with a charge account at her place; he and his friend and fellow Round Table member, the iconoclastic poet/writer/critic Dorothy Parker, became close friends of Polly in mid-1924 and would, like many others, often visit her place for a drink or two before beginning a night of parties or after a night at the theater (they also suggested the titles in her book walls in the bordellos). Benchley, in fact, often spent the night there, playing backgammon with Polly in exchange for a girl for that night (who were going for twenty dollars a throw), and Adler claims in her autobiography that he even did some of his magazine writing in the company of prostitutes.
"Benchley also kept a black kimono at her brothel, which was laundered and ironed by Polly's personal maid, Lion, who also pressed his suits, washed his socks and underwear, and served him breakfast in bed. Described by Adler as a person who 'lighted up my life like the sun,' Benchley would also occasionally rent out the bordello for lavish parties for the political and literary crowd. At one party of his, a drunkenly despondent prostitute jumped out an open window; after checking to make sure she was okay, Benchley kept the party rolling. The Benchley/Adler friendship endured. Years later, when both he and Polly had retired to Los Angeles, they would often have drinks together at Chasens restaurant, then Beverly Hill's famed hangout of the stars. ...
"She was never apologetic about her career. 'If I was to make my living as a madam, I could not be concerned with either the rightness or wrongness of prostitution,' she wrote. ... 'Prostitution exists because men are willing to pay for sexual gratification, and whatever men are willing to pay for, someone will provide.'"