The other day I was placidly flicking through the pages of Newsweek, sipping on the first Mint Julep of the season (the first of many I fear). The sun was high, the breeze was calm, the birds were tweeting and I was secretly hoping to randomly stumble into something lurid, depraved and European.
Newsweek rarely disappoints, and there it was, on page 24, an article on prostitution issues on the Franco-German border. Ta-dah! I exclaimed as I voraciously went through the article, devouring it as people do with pop-corn in cinemas around the world.
Elisabeth Braw, who penned the piece, brought to light that in Germany prostitution is legally considered plausible whereas in France, it isn’t. This then leads to considerable amounts of aroused Frenchmen to go off the border, specifically in the pastoral city of Saarbrück, and release their sexual appetite.
“How very European” I thought while finishing up the first Mint Julep of the season, now reduced just to some melted ice cubes and some battered mint leaves. While I was deciding on whether I should have another refreshing drink, I started thinking: How can you translate this kind of bread-and-butter debauchery in the Alps to the glittering lights of a city? How can you move this TYPICALLY European scene of agricultural iniquity to, say, the sparkling lights of Broadway, New York City?
While also pondering on the unaffected ingenuity in which I personally see prostitution (agricultural iniquity? Really?), I started my little research. And, to my absolute pleasure, this is what I found out.
To talk about whoring in America, I cannot help it but to mention the Everleigh sisters in Chicago, who apparently ran the biggest, most successful, most intensely high-class brothel of fin-de-siècle America. But I then decided to just focus on the swinging 20’s, because, well, who doesn’t love the swinging 20’s?Let’s try to set the scene before commencing. To visualise it, ok? Ok
America, 1920’s: The red light districts are forever doomed to extinction and Mafia is taking its tall in every capital city.
This can only mean that the way is open for more clandestine business and higher class bordellos, and while the lower and middle classes might struggle to find their sexual entertainments, all the other criminals (YES. CRIMINALS. I know I am as surprised to write this) are finding that there is way much more money to be made in illegal houses than from half a dozen quasi-legal supervised brothels.
At the same time Hollywood is flourishing from being an orange trees plantation to a sophisticated and rich cinema capital and the New York scene is on a bourgeoning rampage of excess and debauchery. Meanwhile, F. Scott Fitzgerald is playing at being the precursor of American nihilism. In this opulent scene of loose moral, women mainly control the sex industry throughout the States. And when I say, “controlled” I am talking about at least one Madam-led sex temple in the grandest cities of the continent: New, powerful entrepreneurs of the oldest of professions.
Ms. Davis opened her first sporting-house in the Belmore district of Los Angeles in 1913 and called it a private club, grossing between 1500$ and 2500$ per night in her first effort as a Madam. The thing is, at the time Hollywood wasn’t the Hollywood we all came to know. Just think that the great director Cecil B. DeMille described it as “unknown little village of orange groves and pepper trees”.
But being in the right spot at the right time played her good, subsequently allowing her to open other houses on Sedgemont St., DeLambert avenue, North Fairmont, Redfern Drive, Franklin Avenue, North Estabrook, Princess Road, on La Reina Drive in Santa Monica and in the Mainbocher Hotel. In these houses, she pampered Hollywood most putrid tastes for more than a quarter of a century. Beverly’s favourite establishment was the one on North Estabrook, consequently called “The Estabrook“. When she moved in, the apartment was a triplex in Moorish style, but after some 85.000$ of renovations, the building had a variety of parlours, bedroom suites, dining areas and cocktail lounges.
The front for the operation was a French restaurant on the ground floor, “The Beehive“, famed for its New-York cut steaks, while on the second floor there were the bedrooms, and the third contained the reception parlours, two bars and a private dining rooms where movie stars and producers could celebrate their box-office successes with in-house beauties (at this stage I would really love to make fun little puns on the other variety of ‘steaks’ the madam would serve in her rooms upstairs, but I shall stay within the realms of good taste and move on). An interesting anecdote to show how the madam always had an extremely good eye with money, Ms. Davis charged female customers one third more apparently because “they took up more of the girl’s time”.
Well, I’m sorry to hear, Katharine H.
New York City.
When it comes to talk about success in the whoring trade, the one and only name is Polly Adler: Her business was famed to be at once part of the 500 most powerful corporations of America according to Fortune Magazine.
Started from being what we would call, a freelance, she made the acquaintance of most of New York City’s leading gamblers, professional thieves and sport minded politicians.
In fact, her list of clients could be proudly boasts Al Capone, Bo Weinstein, Frank Costello, Arnie Rothstein and a good deal of other illicit entrepreneurs.
We might also want to mention that her “house” consisted in not just a building, but a series of flats and apartments sprawled through mid-Manhattan on both the east and west side: Starting from a modest apartment in the Silk Stocking District to New York’s grandest brothel in fashionable Central Park West.
Although Polly’s girls never at one time reached the number of those employed by the Everleigh sisters, she did manage enough of the city’s leading whores to help forming a good picture of the kind of girl attracted by the profession: Intelligent but forever chained to the romance and despair that usually pervades the public idea of this sort of jobs, although according to the legend, some of her girls actually made it to the silver screen.
A proud madam who, when it comes to describe the business of sex business, echoes the word of most twentieth century’s madams: “What it comes down is this: the grocer, the butcher, the baker, the merchant, the landlord, the druggist, the liquor dealer, the police man, the doctor, the city father and the politician – these are the people who make money out of prostitution, these are the real reapers of the wages of sin”.
Describing San Francisco in the late 19th century, B.E Lloyd reported that, “licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, profanity, blasphemy and death are here. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass is here, also”.
Thanks to Sally Stanford (born Mable Janice Busby), only licentiousness was that of the finest calibre: In fact, at the peak of her career, newspaper columnist Herb Caen dubbed her residence “The Sally Stanford School of Advanced Social Studies”. But to get to this point there were a series of modest houses, one a bit grander than the other. The culmination of this chain was her crowning jewel, the house at 114 Pine Street, known to the citizens and police of San Francisco as “The Fortress“. Built by millionaire Robert G. Hanford for his third wife, the house was meant to be both grand and of international taste.
To actually get in, the visitor had to be inspected by at least two guardsmen and if his credentials were in order, the patron would have been ideally escorted through a Pompeiian court (an ornate chamber measuring 50 by 138 feet, where a great fountain in the centre sprouted jets of multi coloured water illuminated by spotlights from above) to a main hall in Victorian style. From here, the customer would go through the intricate corridors that led to parlours, bedrooms or a capacious steam room. This floor of the fortress covered more than 6000 feet. But after a long war with the law, the Fortress surrendered and closed in 1955.
However, at this point Ms Stanford was considered to be many times a millionaire. After a prolific career as madam, she then moved and opened an extremely successful restaurant in Sausolito, eventually becoming the city’s mayor in 1976 at the age of 73.
If every Madam had her own way to gain an income, Madam Sherry (born Ruth Barnes) was certainly the patron of illegal alcohol trades between Cuba, Key West and Miami. Powerful of 80.000$ advance from bootlegging fiends, she walked into a builder’s office and ordered him to “Build a Moorish castle”. No compromises for Madam Sherry, it appears.
Two months after the stock market crashed in 1929, Ms Barnes opened her Chez Cherì on Biscayne Avenue at 54th Street. Showing a full respect of tradition and class, she focused on her girls, hiring professionals who previously worked for both Polly Adler in New York and Billy Shibel in Pittsburgh.
But also managing girls from The Cushion House in London, the International in Paris and the Coconut Club in Panama City. To testament her grand style, at a certain point she also decided to hire a maid who previously worked for the legendary Everleigh sisters in Chicago. She wanted her guests to be amused by the decadent opulence of the Byzantine decors and Oriental luxury: Every bedroom’s wall and ceiling were fitted with decorated mirrors. Deep pile carpets matched the silk and brocade draperies in colours of royal purple, golden rod and burnt Siena. Equipping pretty much any vacant space with giant bed-divans and plush pillows. Each of the private bathrooms was fitted with a built in porcelain bidet (a novelty for the time), a radio and a phonograph player.
The castle also had secret corridors that overlooked other bedrooms, where the favoured guests could enjoy the view from the comfort of club chairs, cold drinks in hand. Chez Cherì quickly became the favourite house for all sorts of royalty, politicians and the boys from the syndacate (the nickname for the uprising Miami Mafia). Purportedly, Egypt’s King Farouk reserved the whole house in four different occasions.
The infamous Chez Cherì stayed open until the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Sourced from: Emmett Murphy’s “Great Bordellos of the world”.Quartet Books Ltd. 1984
“Sex Trade Wars” by Elisabeth Braw Newsweek, 04 – 04 – 2014
By Matteo Sarti
Originally published on Lujon Issue 1