Sunday, March 15, 2015

171. Polly Adler, Queen of Tarts

      “Going to Polly’s?” was a question often asked among the city’s elite in the 1920s, or just as often they said good-bye to one another with the assurance, “I’ll see you at Polly’s.”  So what was Polly’s and who was Polly?

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Jimmy (Beau James) Walker,
a regular at Polly's.
     Polly’s was a luxurious establishment in an elegant building at 215 West 75th Street on Manhattan’s West Side.  There, amid a décor of Persian carpets, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture, gilded mirrors, oil paintings of nudes, and walls lined with books, fun-loving Mayor Jimmy Walker rubbed elbows with boxer Jack Dempsey, gangsters Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz, actors and politicians and judges, and members of the Algonquin Round Table like Dorothy Parker and writer Robert Benchley, who suggested titles for the library.  When a deadline loomed, Benchley even moved in for a desperate session of writing, thankful that the maid would have his underwear laundered and his suit pressed by morning.  (Polly always maintained that “a house is not a home,” but there were obviously exceptions to the rule.)  There was even a Chinese Room where guests played mah-jongg, a bar built to resemble the recently excavated King Tut’s Tomb, and a Gobelin tapestry showing Vulcan and Venus immersed in intimacy.  Late-evening dinner parties were held at Polly’s, gossip was exchanged, business deals struck over a Scotch and soda at the bar.  No question, in the wee hours Polly’s was the place to be.

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Heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey, another
regular, though probably not in this outfit.

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Robert Benchley, yet another regular, looking
much too serious.  Polly adored him.
     Presiding over the establishment was Polly Adler, short and dark-haired with a winning smile, no blueblood or rare beauty but a friend to all, a woman of the world who from her humble origins had come very far indeed.  For Polly was the city’s most notorious and successful madam, and her establishment, for all its clubhouse atmosphere, was a brothel well stocked with young women available for the then going price of twenty dollars.  Some guests came for sex, others for cards and drinks, and some, like Dorothy Parker, for an ambience combining the elegant and the tacky.  But above all they came for Polly, who called herself “one of those people who just can’t help getting a kick out of life – even when it’s a kick in the teeth.”

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Polly Adler circa 1953, when her memoir was published.

     So who was she and where did she come from?  Born in 1900 to the family of a Jewish tailor and his wife in Yanow, Russia, Pearl Adler was the eldest of nine children.  She hoped to attend the Gymnasium in Pinsk to complete the education begun under the tutelage of the village rabbi, but her father decided to send her, age 12, to friends of friends in Massachusetts, as the first of a series of emigrations that would hopefully bring the entire family to the U.S.  Crossing the Atlantic by ship in steerage with her belongings packed in a potato sack, she had her first taste of freedom and loved it.  In Massachusetts she attended school to learn English, but when World War I broke out and severed her connection with her family in far-off Russia, she had to go to work in a paper factory.  Two years later she moved in with cousins in Brooklyn and got a job in a corset factory, then in a factory making shirts; neither job left much time for school.  At age 17 she was raped by her foreman and when, as a result, she became pregnant, she had an abortion, paying only $35 – all she had – to a doctor who charged $150 but took pity on her, took $25, and told her to spend the rest on shoes and stockings.  When she had her first drinks at a party and came home the next morning in rags, her scandalized relatives threw her out.  She then moved to Manhattan and finally got a job working in another corset factory.  She was surviving, but her life was drab, until a new friend, an actress named Joan, invited her to share her nine-room apartment on Riverside Drive.

     Polly moved in in 1920.  Soon she was meeting Joan’s theater friends and getting a glimpse of how the affluent lived.  When her friendship with Joan deteriorated, and a bootlegger acquaintance named Tony asked her to rent an apartment that he would pay for, so he could bring his married girlfriend there for sex, she jumped at the offer and was soon installed in a two-room furnished apartment on Riverside Drive.  Thrilled to have a place of her own, she didn’t think of her situation as subtly shifting her toward a lucrative life of crime.

     Tony’s affair soon ended, and he asked Polly to find him another girlfriend, offering her $50 for the service and $100 for the girl. By now Polly was moving in a fast crowd where plenty of girls were available for a fee, so she had no trouble finding him an obliging blonde.  Soon she was procuring women for Tony’s friends and a clientele of her own, to whom she offered the premises.  A startling new departure for a respectably raised Jewish girl from Russia, but better than working in a shirt factory and getting raped, especially when she was now pulling in $100 a week and living well. 

     Then, one evening in 1922, two policemen came calling and hauled her off to jail  for operating a house of prostitution.  Tony quickly found a bondsman who bailed her out, and a lawyer who got the charges dismissed for lack of evidence, but she now realized that the police had a file on her as a procuress.  Given the choice of continuing on this lucrative path or saving her good name by going back to factory work, she had no trouble deciding: she would stay on Riverside Drive, providing obliging girls to the men who would pay for them.  Becoming more businesslike, she patronized nightclubs and let the headwaiters and their bosses know that her apartment was now a house, but cautioning them to send only clients willing to pay $20 or more per session.  Business boomed; soon she was living high on the hog.  As for the police, she managed them by shaking hands with a hundred-dollar bill in her palm, which facilitated her career marvelously. 

     Having decided to become, not just a madam, but “the best goddam madam in all America,” Polly about it with determination.  She later explained that in doing so she couldn’t be concerned with morality.  “Prostitution exists because men are willing to pay for sexual gratification, and whatever men are willing to pay for, someone will provide.”  From then on she made sure that she was the provider of choice, opening a series of houses at various locations in Manhattan, each one fancier than the one before, so as to attract affluent clients who could pay, and pay handsomely.  The model for her house was the Everleigh club of Chicago, run by two enterprising sisters of that name in the early years of the century, a lavish establishment that in its own time became a legend. 

     During Prohibition Polly raked in a fortune selling booze to her guests, and paid out a fortune in bribes.  She was also learning, picking up from her guests’ talk a helter-skelter of information about music, literature, art, and history; when she used and misused new words, her guests smiled, but many of them came to respect her for her eagerness to learn.  And being able to converse intelligently was good for business, since some of her guests brought prospective business clients to her place, hoping that her hospitality and a few drinks would soften them up and let them clinch a deal.  Executives consulted her on how to entertain visiting big shots, knowing how successfully she could size men up and figure out what would appeal to them.  And the young sons of the rich, whose parents were too busy marrying and divorcing to give them any attention, came to Polly to spill their woes and seek out her advice.

     “Polly’s place” was in fact a series of places, since sooner or later each one was raided, inconveniencing her with a brief stay in the hoosegow, following which the charges were mysteriously dropped.  Opening each time in another location, she had no trouble in attracting young women, since for every one she hired, she turned away thirty or forty.  Her “place” was as popular with the girls as it was with the guests, and she taught the girls table manners and encouraged them to save for the future, read good books, and make something of themselves, warning them that they couldn’t stay in “the life” forever.  Too often, alas, they answered with a bored sigh.

     The most lavish of her places was the Majestic Towers at 215 West 75th Street, which had been built in 1924 with special features to accommodate ladies of the night.  If the premises were raided – usually by some corrupt Vice Squad officer on the take – patrons could escape through hidden back doors and secret staircases leading to the basement or the roof.  Certain apartments were provided with a hidden door in the bedroom itself, permitting customers to decamp via another secret staircase likewise leading to the basement or the roof.

     When the stock market crashed in 1929, Polly feared her business would decline, but on the contrary, customers flocked to her door hoping to forget their troubles for a while.  Real trouble came in the form of the Seabury Commission, formed in 1930 and headed by Judge Samuel Seabury, which launched a massive investigation into municipal corruption; clearly the pressure was on.  Even before Mayor Jimmy, fearing prosecution, deserted Babylon on the Hudson for the fleshpots of the Seine, Polly, warned by an anonymous phone call of the Commission’s interest in why she had been arrested eleven times to date but never prosecuted, decamped to Miami.  There she checked into a hotel under an assumed name and followed the Commission’s doings in the newspapers.  Tired of exile, she sneaked back into the city in May 1931 but was promptly subpoenaed to appear before the Commission.        

     Judge Seabury himself questioned her.  Didn’t Mayor Walker and other politicians celebrate important events at her house?  “No,” she repeatedly answered, seasoning her responses with “I don’t recall.”  The Judge then produced an endorsed paycheck that a Vice Squad officer had given her as payment for some stock, which indeed suggested a too cozy relationship with New York’s Finest.  “It’s not my handwriting,” insisted Polly, but the Judge was not convinced.

     Several of Polly’s police contacts were convicted, though not as a result of her testimony, but in the end the investigation actually helped her business.  “The police no longer were a headache; there was no more kowtowing to double-crossing Vice Squad men, no more hundred-dollar handshakes, no more phony raids to up the month’s quota.  In fact, thanks to Judge Seabury and his not-very-merry men, I was able to operate for three years without breaking a lease.”

     Her luck changed when the reform-minded and frenziedly energetic Fiorella LaGuardia became mayor.  No all-night partier, his idea of fun was to order the arrest of mobsters and take a sledgehammer to a mass of confiscated slot machines.  In May 1935 she was arrested for maintaining an “objectionable apartment” at 30 East 55th Street and possessing an obscene motion picture film; with three of her girls she went to the Women’s Court in mink.  This time she pled guilty to the first charge and served 24 days of a 30-day sentence in the Women’s House of Detention, the West Village’s massive Bastille, where she scrubbed floors and deplored the bad food and harsh treatment administered to the aging prostitutes in nearby cells.

Mayor LaGuardia smashing slot machines.
Trouble for Polly.

     Released, she tried to go straight, appealing to friends and acquaintances for help.  A factory owner in New Jersey refused, fearful lest associating with the “Jewish Jezebel” and “Queen of Tarts” might hurt his credit.  A nightclub owner opined that Polly would be a perfect business partner, if only the police would let her alone.  And a restaurant owner likewise apologized, when she applied to work his hat-check and cigarette concession.  Resigned, she resumed her profession of madam, and the “in crowd” continued to patronize her operation.

     In January 1943, arrested for the seventeenth time, she had had it; even though the charges were once again dismissed for lack of evidence, she quit the trade forever.  Moving to Burbank, California, she at last fulfilled her childhood dream of finishing high school and enrolling in a local college, in witness of which she called herself “Madam Emeritus.”

     But fame came to her again in 1953, when her ghost-written memoir A House Is Not a Home was published and became a bestseller, providing her with income that let her live her last years in comfort.  A film version followed in 1964, with Shelley Winters in the lead.  But Polly never saw it, for at age 62 she died of cancer in Los Angeles on June 9, 1962.

     Polly liked to think she saw things as they are.  Was she a realist or a cynic?  To decide, maybe you’d have to live her life.  “The women who take husbands not out of love but out of greed,” she insisted, “to get their bills paid, to get a fine house and clothes and jewels; the women who marry to get out of a tiresome job, or to get away from disagreeable relatives, or to avoid being called an old maid – these are whores in everything but name.  The only difference between them and my girls is that my girls gave a man his money’s worth.”  And the women who marry less for sex than for companionship, or to have children?  There’s more to the issue than she acknowledges, I think.  But today she is hailed by some as a feminist pioneer, making her way successfully in a man’s world, and she certainly saw many men at their worst.

     Polly never married.  She was attracted to men in her youth, but nothing ever worked out.  And when a man she says she truly loved proposed, she told him he’d be a fool to marry a madam.  Besides, he was drunk too often.  For Polly, a little Jewish working girl who broke free from factory jobs and the drabness of poverty, being a madam trumped marriage. 

     Coming soon:  Aristocracy: Are a few of us better than the rest of us?   And is there an aristocracy in this republic of ours?

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder