Home History Who Was Polly Adler, the Celebrity Madame of the Roaring ’20s?

Who Was Polly Adler, the Celebrity Madame of the Roaring ’20s?

by Enochadmin

“I used to be decided,” Polly Adler declared, “to be the very best goddam madam in all America.” A questionable purpose, maybe, however one which Adler unquestionably attained. From the Roaring Twenties via World Struggle II, the Russian-born entrepreneur ran a sequence of high-end Manhattan brothels with a charismatic pizzazz that made her a legend and earned her reams of reward from her institution’s many well-known prospects.

“She was a petite, gregarious woman with nice allure, whom all people liked,” mentioned bandleader Duke Ellington.

“The world knew Polly as a madam,” mentioned comic Milton Berle, “however her pals knew her as an clever girl, enjoyable to be with, and cook dinner.”

Gangster Charles “Fortunate” Luciano hailed Adler for serving to to protect conventional, old school intercourse. “I didn’t go for any of that leather-based and whip crap,” Luciano mentioned. “I appreciated handsome women who may screw good and that’s what Polly all the time despatched me.”

In fact, some prospects complained. Joe DiMaggio grumbled about Polly’s trademark silk sheets, claiming they have been so clean he couldn’t keep correct traction whereas in motion.

Working whorehouses is an unsavory occupation unlawful in most jurisdictions, however Adler rode the red-light path from poverty to Manhattan’s highest social, literary, and theatrical worlds.

Adler made the leap from dance corridor hostess to madam when a pimp pal mentioned she may use his pad as a setting for a bordello.

“Polly was younger, hip and humorous,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Debby Applegate wrote in Madam, her very good latest biography. “There was status in patronizing Polly’s: her sky-high costs and exclusivity have been proof {that a} man had connections and loads of dough to burn.”

She was born in Yanow, Russia, in 1900, eldest youngster of a Jewish tailor, and grew up amid brutal anti-Semitic pogroms. In 1913, her father despatched her to accompany a cousin with a ticket to America. However the cousin received scared and refused to board the ship, so Polly sailed alone, arriving with solely the garments she’d stuffed right into a potato sack.

Heading to Springfield, Massachusetts, Adler roomed with a household pal who’d agreed to look after her. She excelled in class, however her guardian demanded she pay her manner, so she dropped out and went to work making envelopes. She hated the job and fled to a relative’s dwelling in Brooklyn, laboring in a corset manufacturing unit for $5 every week. The foreman invited her on a date, then raped her. She received pregnant and spent her life financial savings on an abortion. “I had misplaced my virginity, my popularity and my job,” she wrote.

Retaining it Actual. Adler, decked out for the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney heavyweight battle in Chicago, usually defined that she needed to change into a madam “as a result of I wasn’t fairly sufficient to be a hustler.”
(From the Polly Adler assortment courtesy of Eleanor Vera)

She was 18 when she moved to Manhattan in 1919 to spend her nights in Broadway dance halls catering to males prepared to spend cash on dancing women. For the remainder of her life, she was coy about turning tips, self-deprecatingly dismissing the topic.

“I needed to be a madam,” she’d say. “I used to be by no means fairly sufficient to be a hustler.”

She turned a madam in 1920, as Prohibition was kicking off a decade-long nationwide bacchanal. A pimp supplied her an association involving an residence close to Columbia College the place he entertained his mistress.

When he wasn’t utilizing the place, he mentioned, Adler may run it as a whorehouse.

“I jumped at his supply,” she recalled.

To employees the joint, she recruited Broadway girlfriends after which trolled dance halls and speakeasies in search of males in search of time.

“It wasn’t lengthy earlier than three women have been coming in a number of nights every week to entertain acquaintances I had made alongside the Nice White Means.”

Success stored her shifting her operation to bigger, fancier flats. She employed lovely girls, together with Ziegfeld Follies showgirls desirous to earn additional dough. Her large break got here in 1923, when gangster “Smiling George” McManus—proprietor of Manhattan’s well-known high-stakes floating crap sport—started bringing winners to Polly’s to have a good time. “Whoever received the crap sport paid the invoice,” she wrote. Quickly her pad, with its bar and bedrooms, had change into a hangout for mobsters—“a kind of mixture membership and speakeasy,” she joked, “with a harem conveniently useful.”

Gangsters ran showbiz throughout Prohibition, enlivening their speakeasies by hiring jazz bands and comedians, and people entertainers started falling by Polly’s place. So did writers—playwright George S. Kaufman, humorist Robert Benchley, and Benchley’s pal Dorothy Parker, who performed backgammon with Polly whereas her male colleagues cavorted with Adler’s workers. Polly turned so well-known that columnist Walter Winchell quoted the road she uttered in her Russian accent at any time when a buyer paid his invoice: “It’s all-vays a enterprise doing pleasure mit you.”

Adler loved the notoriety; it was good for enterprise. “I wished my title to be a byword and the expression ‘going to Polly’s’ a euphemism for the world’s hottest indoor sport,” she mentioned. Selling an unlawful service is difficult however Adler discovered a manner. She’d ostentatiously parade her hottest women into championship boxing matches and stylish speakeasies, then discreetly hand round enterprise playing cards exhibiting solely an image of a parrot and a telephone quantity.


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In August 1924, searching for to draw previous Manhattan cash, Polly introduced a bevy of beauties upstate to Saratoga Springs, the place patricians gathered for the thoroughbred racing season. The angle labored. “Ultimately I’d made contact with the clientele I’d been in search of,” Adler recalled.

Years later, considered one of her blueblood prospects, John Hay “Jock” Whitney—inheritor to considered one of America’s largest fortunes and a future ambassador to England—urged Polly to improve her operation from its newest location on seedy West 54th Road to the opulent East Facet. Whitney even helped her discover a sublime 12-room set of digs on Madison Avenue. The residence featured a eating room seating 50 and a wood-paneled library that Dorothy Parker stocked with good books, many written by prospects. 

Polly prospered for an additional decade, investing her income in shares. However she wearied of the grind. Working lengthy days and longer nights for 25 years, she’d been robbed, slugged by drunks, arrested a dozen instances, and denounced in headlines as “New York’s Vice Queen.” In 1945, she determined it was time to retire.

She moved to Los Angeles, purchased a two-bedroom bungalow, adopted poodles, and cultivated roses. She earned a highschool diploma then enrolled in Los Angeles Metropolis Faculty, ultimately incomes a level in English and on the best way writing an autobiography. A Home is Not a Residence, revealed in 1953, reached #2 on The New York Occasions bestseller listing, slightly below Norman Vincent Peale’s The Energy of Constructive Pondering. The paperback version bought two million copies; Shelley Winters starred in a tepid film model. In 1955—seven years earlier than her demise—Adler traveled to Europe and Israel to advertise French and Hebrew editions of Home. Interviewed in Paris, she proved she nonetheless had a genius for salesmanship. Every time cops raided whorehouses in California, she bragged, they discovered her memoir on many a hooker’s nightstand: “It’s type of like a Gideon Bible to lots of the women.”

This text appeared within the Autumn 2022 challenge of American Historical past journal.

this text first appeared in American historical past journal

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