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How a poor Jewish immigrant made a fortune as a madam — and why we’re still uncomfortable talking about it

On Dec. 10, 1913, a 13-year-old Yidishe meydl arrived alone and almost penniless at Ellis Island. She was to have traveled to America from Eastern Europe with a cousin, who decided to abandon the journey. The new immigrant’s name was Pearl Adler. The oldest of at the time eight siblings, she hailed from Yanow, a shtetl near Pinsk, in what is now Belarus, an area that had seen much antisemitic violence.

Seven years later, Pearl Adler, now Polly Adler, opened her first bordello, across from Columbia University in Manhattan. Before long, she was the most famous madam in New York, her houses of ill-repute frequented by the rich and the notable — the politicians, gangsters, businessmen, celebrities, writers and journalists who ran New York in what was to become known as the Roaring Twenties.

“It is a fact, perhaps a little bit of a scurrilous fact, that in those days Jewish women made up 50 percent of the madams in New York City, while Jews themselves were only 20 percent of the city’s population,” said Debby Applegate, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age.” “That’s partly because they were like Polly. Women were trained to be ballaboostas — to be able to run the business while their husbands studied Torah. They were earners, not learners, as they liked to say.”

“Polly had a really good head for math. She was very responsible. She had a great memory. Plus she was a hardheaded businesswoman who kept scrupulous books and knew how to negotiate and took no guff from anyone.”

Applegate, interviewed on a Zoom call, noted that, like many immigrants, for several years after arriving in America, Adler had been working at a grueling, low-paying job. She had “been abandoned in the United States among people who were essentially strangers,” the author says. “And she had to make some choices, and unfortunately most of her choices were not going to be good choices.”

But there was nonetheless “some logic” to Adler’s decision, Applegate said. “She was making five dollars a week working in a corset factory. And you could make $30 a day, easily, out turning tricks,” as Adler did for a year or two before becoming a madam. “It starts to look almost like a form of self-respect almost to make the choice of not just grinding away as a victim of the system, but that you can take your own fate into your own hands, however that looks.”

For most women, such a decision would be tragic. But, Applegate said that Adler was different.

“She falls into that category of exceedingly bright, ambitious daughters, oldest daughters, who are treated like sons by their fathers. And that gives them a level of confidence, ambition and skill and support, that a lot of girls don’t have, and that a lot of sons don’t always get. It gave her a fundamental character and constitution that allowed her to make a path through a world that was really not in any way set up in her favor,” Applegate said.

“The difference between Polly and a lot of the other women who made those choices was that she was not from a broken home. She was not from an alcoholic family. She had all that constitutional strength from her childhood that allowed her to carry through in a profession that just eats people up and spits them out. Polly very quickly became a parent to some of the people in the sex trades. She had a warmth and ability to keep the house together.”

For all those reasons, Applegate says, Adler was “very quickly pegged by a guy named Nick Montana who’s trying to revolutionize the sex trades, to make them a little more orderly, looking a little more like a talent booker, and he sets her up quickly, right across the street from the Columbia University library. I don’t know how deliberate that was, but I’ve got to figure it was conveniently located, for a good reason. She does very well there, and begins to expand.”

Debby Applegate

Biographer: A native of Oregon, Applegate won her Pulitzer in 2007 for “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.” Courtesy of Doubleday

A native of Oregon, Applegate, 53, won her Pulitzer in 2007 for “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher,” the mid-19th century abolitionist Brooklyn minister who preached Christ’s love, was a champion of women’s suffrage and temperance, and was the defendant in a scandalous 1875 adultery trial (which ended in a hung jury). She became interested in Beecher, an 1834 alumnus of Amherst College, when she was a student at Amherst. He became the subject of her Ph.D. thesis.

“I vowed I was never going to write another book again after that first one,” she said. “I thought this is a stupid way to make a living — it’s not really making a living — but things had gone well, I was feeling flattered, and my editors said, why don’t you think of something maybe in the 1920s. The Twenties are fun, glamorous. You’ve got vice and virtue and everything all mixed up together. You’ve got a ‘Great Gatsby’ world. And I was just weak-minded enough to think, well, I’ll look around, and I was in the stacks of the Yale library, in the section on the 1920s, the history section, and I saw Polly’s book — she has a memoir, ‘A House Is Not a Home,’ that was published in 1953 and became a big best-seller — it was just a slim little red volume, like a magpie.”

“I picked it up because it was red, I think, honestly, and I read it quickly. It was a fast read, it’s a great read, it’s a really terrific book — it’s a whitewash of course, like so many of these kinds of memoirs, like maybe a lot of memoirs, but she had a great cast of characters even in that narrow story.”

“She was a tiny little lady. Tiny, like so many of the immigrants in those years. Not even 5 feet tall. And I just loved her right away.”

One of the major resources Applegate used for her research, she says, were the “Yizkor books that were put out in Israel in the wake of the Holocaust. There was a wonderful one for her shtetl in what is now Belarus. It was filled with fabulous essays with tremendous detail, some of which mentioned her family, and her father in particular. It really gave a texture of the life she had there.”

Polly Adler, circa 1935, tries to cover her face.

In the Spotlight: Polly Adler tries to hide from the cameras, circa 1935r. By Getty Images

Applegate says that timing as well as character was a key to Adler’s success. “She herself would tell you that if her career hadn’t coincided with the beginning of Prohibition, things would have undoubtedly gone very differently. It’s the moment when the bootlegging industry is really exploding. There’s tons of money flowing through the underworld that had not existed before, when the liquor trade was legal. And the mobsters are the guys who make her name. She gets picked up by the Jewish mob, who at that point are dominated by Arnold Rothstein” — the fixer of the 1919 baseball World Series. “He’s not perhaps as famous as Lucky Luciano or Meyer Lansky, although I think more important. And he has a coterie of people around him who are not all Jews, but a lot of them are Jews. Nonetheless, it helps to be Jewish, because Jews dominated the bootlegging trade in New York City and in a lot of cities. They’re the ones who see the value in having her running a place that can be like a little hideout, a hangout that’s private, that’s hidden, that’s kept away from the cops for the most part.”

Adler, she said, “really liked to call her place a speakeasy with a harem. But really it was a full service restaurant and a bar and a gambling house. It was very haimish for the people who came there.”

And so Adler attracted the rich and the famous to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “In those days, the Upper West Side was a very raffish, not entirely respectable place, despite its gorgeous buildings,” Applegate said.

The members of the Algonquin Round Table — writers, critics, humorists, performers, including Dorothy Parker — were regulars, as were the columnist Walter Winchell, the businessman Walter Chrysler and Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker. When Parker would show up with her Algonquin colleagues, she would sit and chat with Adler while the men availed themselves of the house’s services. The theater critic and playwright George S. Kaufman was such a habitué that he established a credit account and paid by the month.

“It was such a stew,” Applegate says. “One of the things that’s hard not to romanticize about New York City in the 1920s is that it was in a way a very lively small town, for those who want to be mixing and mingling in this culture of speakeasies and the nightlife, who want to be part of this sexual revolution.” In a sense, she said, “everyone is slumming. I can put quotation marks around that, because that’s sort of how they felt. And you see all those humorists and these writers and a lot of wealthy men who look around and say, ‘We are clearly in a new era where there seems to be a lot of young women around who would be willing to have sex with me. There’s a lot of booze flowing around in a way that I’ve never participated in.’ Nobody would have gone to a saloon. None of these big writers, none of the big machers that she catered to, would have been going to saloons, working-class saloons, but going to a speakeasy feels glamorous in an underworld-chic kind of way.”

And they all knew, and were reminded regularly, about Polly Adler. “She was in the newspapers all the time after a certain point,” Applegate said. “If you look at the newspapers from that era, including The New York Times, she’s all over the place. Walter Winchell,” who in those days was the most widely read columnist in the country, “brings her up constantly until the day she dies,” in 1962. “Even after she dies he’s still talking about her.”

She also often made the rounds of the clubs the city’s movers and shakers frequented, bringing her harem along for public viewing — a successful method of in-person publicity.

Adler could risk the exposure because one of her major expenses was paying off the corrupt politicians, prosecutors, judges and police to look elsewhere and to get the charges dropped when her premises were raided and when she was arrested, as she was multiple times.

One of the things that first attracted Applegate to Adler’s story, she said, ”is how much its outlines look like a lot of other immigrant stories — born at the turn of the 20th century, coming in the heat of the biggest wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, landing in New York City and eventually making her way across the country and ending up in her retirement out in Los Angeles. Frankly, there are a lot of Jewish immigrants who took that path. Much as we might want to say, look how respectable they are, or look maybe even how rich, a lot of those paths wound through less respectable neighborhoods on their way up there — even some of the wealthiest factory owners and film moguls.”

On the cover of 'Madam,' Polly Adler, dressed in 1920's garb, sits atop a crescent moon.

Swinging on the Moon: Polly Adler, the subject of Debby Applegate’s new biography, ran a bordello favored by the members of the Algonquin Roundtable. Courtesy of Doubleday

After the success of her memoir, Adler went to Israel. “A good portion of her family had settled in Israel. She has become a rich and famous writer. She loves being part of the literati. She really wanted an education — in that sense she was very much like a typical Jewish immigrant. She really exalted learning. A huge disappointment in her life was not being able to do that,” Applegate said. After she retires in the 1940s, “she goes back to school. She gets her junior college degree. But when she goes to Israel with her book now being printed in Hebrew and she’s kind of a hero, nobody in the family she goes to visit — and who she’s also been sending money to — will talk to her about the book. They’re all so embarrassed. And she left quite insulted that nobody wants to hear her talk about the book.”

What does Applegate think the Polly Adler story — about a woman famous in her time and barely known now — says about American life?

“We are a nation of hypocrites,” she said. “Maybe that’s just humanity. But we love fame. Both Polly and Henry Beecher could see that that is the currency of America. It was so exalted here that they could see that fame was a way to get closer to their dreams. The problem is of course that Americans don’t like to look at the machinery behind our dreams.”

She found herself thinking, she says, “how is it that Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein are treated like ‘Great Gatsby’? Why is ‘The Great Gatsby’ considered one of the foundational texts in the 20th century? Why do these figures, these gangsters, become icons? We spend a lot of time watching ‘The Godfather’’ and debating over what it means for America, and somehow Polly, who clearly wanted to have iconic status, who wanted to have her say of what America was too, is ignored?”

For Applegate, the answer is sex. “I think it’s because we are still not comfortable about sex, and especially the idea of women having sex, using sex as a form of power. We may get our mind around sex as a form of pleasure for women, but the idea that women would use sex as a weapon against the world, or as a way to wealth and fame, does not sit well with us.”

We are filled with contradictions, she says. “We will watch women make their name off of their bodies and we will pay to see women make their name and their fortunes off of their bodies,” said Applegate, “But we do not want to talk about it, and we certainly do not want to talk honestly about it.”

Mervyn Rothstein was a writer and editor for 30 years at The New York Times, where his positions included chief theater reporter and theater editor of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. He was a writer for Playbill Magazine for 30 years. And he was a member of the Nominating Committee for Broadway’s Tony Awards.

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