If I was to make my living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution, considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint. I had to look at it simply as a part of life, which exists today as it existed yesterday…The operation of any business is contingent on the law of supply and demand, and if there were no customers, there certainly would be no whorehouses. Prostitution exists because men are willing to pay for sexual gratification, and whatever men are willing to pay for, someone will provide. – Polly Adler
One thing that must strike anyone who has read extensively on the history of prostitution is the way that mainstream writers are so often tolerant, sympathetic or even enthusiastic about whores of the past (even into recent times), yet so judgmental of those who have worked in the last few decades. In “Courtesan Denial” I stated that “I suspect that they are lawheads engaged in a process of doublethink designed to protect their minds from having to deal with the fact that the EXACT SAME profession which was legal and respected in many preindustrial cultures is illegal and demonized in ours.” But in the past 19 months I’ve come to realize that theory is inadequate for the simple reason that even past whores whose work was illegal in their own day are often glamorized; the dividing line seems to be not the Industrial Revolution or the advent of large-scale prohibitionism about a century ago, but rather the appearance of second-wave feminism. Harlots who lived before the advent of the feminist saviors are given a free pass (like Dante’s “virtuous pagans” of pre-Christian times), but their modern sisters should “know better” and are thus condemned as infidels for rejecting the anti-sex work Gospel. Of course, that doesn’t explain why so many people celebrate the fun times of violating alcohol Prohibition while demonizing modern drug use, but a theory has to start somewhere.
Case in point, Pearl “Polly” Adler (April 16th, 1900 – June 11th, 1962), a Russian Jew who was sent to New York ahead of her parents (Morris and Gertrude Adler) and eight younger siblings in 1914. When the First World War interrupted her family’s plans to join her, young Polly was forced to support herself by working in a sweatshop that made corsets; though she tried to attend school at the same time, it just didn’t work out that way. At the age of 17 she was raped by a foreman she was dating, and after an abortion decided that since she was “ruined” anyhow she might as well profit by it. She made good contacts in the Broadway theater crowd and soon moved in with an actress and part-time working girl; in 1920 that roommate introduced Polly to her first client, a bootlegger named Tony, who kept her in an apartment on Riverside Drive. Before long she was providing space and management for other girls, and thanks to her wit, charm, intelligence and business acumen she was soon clearing $100/week ($1100 in 2012 money).
That modest initial success grew by leaps and bounds; by 1924 she was known as the “Queen of Tarts” and opened her best-remembered brothel, the Majestic, at 215 West 75th Street. The building featured hidden stairways and secret doors so clients could escape in case of a police raid, which was necessary because it was more than just a place where men went to have sex; it was a club where patrons of both sexes came to drink, play cards or games, and enjoy conversation, and Adler made as much money selling bootleg gin as she did collecting her cut from the girls. The place was lavishly decorated and the walls were lined with books, many recommended by members of the Algonquin Round Table (including Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker), who became regulars soon after it opened. Other regulars included actor John Garfield, boxer Jack Dempsey, mayor Jimmy Walker and gangster Lucky Luciano. Her place was so well-known that she could not escape being shut down eventually, but she bribed her way out of trouble and simply moved the operation elsewhere…eleven times by the end of the decade. It is very likely that bribes and kickbacks to cops and politicians constituted her largest operating expense.
After the stock market crashed in October of 1929, Adler’s fortunes began a slow decline. In 1930 she was subpoenaed to testify before the Seabury Commission, a probe of a huge conspiracy by cops, prosecutors and judges to frame innocent people (often for prostitution) so they could be robbed of their life savings under threat of imprisonment. Because she knew that testifying would probably not be a good idea for her she fled to Miami, where she remained until she grew homesick and tried to sneak back into town in May of 1931; informants sold her out immediately and she was hauled before the Commission the next day. Not that it did the investigators any good; Adler claimed (perhaps conveniently) a poor memory, and provided almost no information of worth. And though the Commission ended with the fall of many of her political connections, it actually made her business easier because she no longer had to pay out so much in graft – a godsend in the deepest part of the Great Depression.
Still, getting re-established wasn’t easy, and gangster Dutch Schultz became Adler’s business partner (bankrolling the venture in return for half the profit). The two were friends, and Schultz often hid from his rivals or the police at her brothel. This caused her considerable stress, because she was terrified that she or her girls (of whom she was extremely protective) would be killed by assassins trying to “hit” Schultz. Still, the period proved fairly lucrative for her, and she once again attracted a celebrity clientele (including then-rising star Milton Berle). She was only arrested twice in the next five years, but the second time – at 5 a.m. on March 5, 1935 – actually stuck. The police had carried out an expensive, protracted, modern-style investigation as part of mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s campaign against “incorporated filth”, and she was charged with “maintaining an objectionable apartment” (at 30 East 55th Street) and “possessing a motion picture machine with objectionable pictures”. Public sympathy was with her; a New York Daily News editorial thundered, “It is this crusading against personal and private habits and instincts — the sex instinct, the deep rooted human fondness for gambling — which is futile and sickening, just as the prohibition of liquor was.” But the evidence was steep and so, in an early example of plea-bargaining, she pled guilty to the bawdy house charge on May 6th in exchange for dismissal of the more serious obscenity rap. She paid a $500 fine and was sentenced to 30 days, of which she served 24; she spent the time scrubbing floors on the order of a warden who declared she must be taught the value of “honest work”.
Polly was back in business by the end of July, but things were never the same again; clients’ tastes were becoming more utilitarian, and upscale, full-service brothels like hers were declining in popularity. She was arrested for the 17th time on January 15th, 1943; that was the last straw for her. A year later she left New York (for only the second time in 30 years) and moved permanently to Los Angeles, where she fulfilled her lifelong dream of an education and obtained a university degree in 1949. She then set to work on her memoirs, which were ghostwritten by the novelist Virginia Faulkner and published in 1953. The book, A House Is Not a Home, became a bestseller and was made into a movie starring Shelley Winters which was released in 1964; unfortunately Polly did not live to see it, since she died of cancer in 1962.
But while the book is terribly honest and shows both good and bad aspects of “the Life” equally, the censors wouldn’t allow anything positive to be said about whores and so the finished film bears only a vague resemblance to it. What remains is essentially a 98-minute morality play on the evils of harlotry, populated by fallen women who are victimized by men’s lust and so get addicted to drugs and/or commit suicide while “Polly” stands helplessly by; though it appeared over a decade before the advent of neofeminism, the anti-sex crowd couldn’t have written a better screed. Oh, well, at least the people illegally drinking were depicted as enjoying themselves, even if the girls violating a still-current prohibitionist law were not.