Like many early 20th century Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States, Polly Adler wanted to make something of herself. Although largely forgotten today, she did make it big in her time — as the leading madam of the Jazz Age.
Anyone who was anyone in the 1920s and 1930s made their way to Adler’s place in Manhattan. Beyond a high-priced house of ill repute, it was an opulent gathering place to mix and mingle while drinking bootleg liquor during Prohibition. It was a salon where entertainers, writers, businessmen, politicians, professional athletes, and mobsters rubbed shoulders, exchanged ideas, and cut deals.
Robert Benchley, Desi Arnaz, Joe DiMaggio, Milton Berle, Lucky Luciano and Walter Winchell were but a few of the household names who frequented the bordello, dropping lots of cash for illicit alcohol, gorgeous girls, or both. Women, including the writer Dorothy Parker, also showed up. Duke Ellington would drop by with members of his band to play a set or two.
In addition, Adler sent women out to service clients. There is circumstantial evidence that one of them was politician Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who later became the US president who shepherded the country through the Depression and World War II.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Debby Applegate brings us back in time to this “speakeasy with a harem” in her new biography of Adler.
Published in November 2021, “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age,” is the story of both Adler and the era in which she operated. In captivating prose, Applegate provides a vivid and detailed account of how the underworld worked, and how it intersected with the oft-corrupt politicians and law enforcement that enabled it to continue to flourish. (As the cost of doing business, Adler herself paid members of the vice squad thousands of dollars in bribes every month.)
“She was a window, a lens, that could open up a much bigger history of the period,” Applegate said of Adler in an interview with The Times of Israel from her home in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Prohibition was an odd period because we have made this everyday activity illegal, and that changes the morality of things… If you want to have a glass of beer you have to get it from a criminal…You start getting this bleeding between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. It turns the world of vice, the underworld, into chic and glamor instead of scummy and dangerous. It’s where the action is, where all the interesting people are. Polly was riding that cultural shift. Suddenly women of the night are like bootleggers, and she slides in,” Applegate said.
Adler was born around 1900 and grew up in the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement in the village of Yanow, located in modern-day Belarus. Education-minded, she had hoped to attend high school in the nearby city of Pinsk, but her parents decided that the family would immigrate to the United States, and that Polly (then known as Pearl) would go first.
She arrived in America alone at age 13, living first with a family from Yanow that had settled in Massachusetts, and later with relatives in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Plans for the rest of the Adler’s family to join her were stymied by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Although her parents and younger brothers would all eventually make it over, Adler was stranded and forced to be independent from the moment she left home.
The ambitious and intelligent Adler quickly realized that her sweatshop jobs would get her nowhere. And she learned quickly about life’s harshness after being raped by a factory foreman, undergoing an illegal abortion, and being thrown out by her relatives.
With nowhere to go, Adler fell into a bohemian circle, and eventually into the regular company of hustlers and gangsters.
“Polly and her pals didn’t even want to be good… When you feel as Polly did, rejected by your family and isolated from them, when you feel like no one cares whether you live or die, you start to find your friends among the pariahs, where you are welcomed. That’s where people say to hell with the rest of the world,” Applegate said.
According to the author, there is no evidence that Adler ever admitted to turning tricks herself. However, Applegate does insinuate in her book that Adler most likely did so in 1919, when she was first out on her own and hungry.
“Madams almost never like to admit that they worked as prostitutes before they were madams, but it’s unlikely that they skip right to management,” Applegate said.
A historian as well as a biographer, Applegate had been unaware of Adler until she came across her blockbuster 1953 memoir titled “A House Is Not A Home” in the Yale library stacks. The thin volume, which sold 2 million copies when it was first published, intrigued Applegate.
“With this book, it felt like I was unearthing stuff that was hidden, and if I didn’t share it, it would not be shared,” she said.
Applegate, 53, was in touch with Adler’s relatives in Israel and the US while conducting many years of research, and discovered that members of the older generations had not been eager to speak about Adler and her memoir.
“By the early 1950s Polly was an author and felt quite respectable… She goes on a tour to Europe and goes to Israel to see her family, whom she had also been sending money to, and she thinks she’s going to arrive like a conquering hero, and they refused to even talk to her about the book. They are too embarrassed and ashamed. She apparently left in quite a huff,” Applegate said.
Adler supported her parents and younger brothers after they arrived in the United States — but it’s not known if they understood where the money came from.
Adler kept her professional and personal lives private when visiting her parents. But according to Applegate, Adler’s father would have known something, especially since his daughter bought stocks and properties under his name and had him sign for them. It was only later, when Adler appeared in newspaper articles related to the Seabury investigations into municipal corruption in the 1930s, that her mother and other relatives started to get wise to her professional activities.
“Her family followed her to California after her retirement, and was happy to take her money. But her mother refused to have her at the Passover Seder. It bothered Polly very deeply right to the very end,” Applegate said.
As glamorous as it was for Adler to host A-list friends and parade through the hottest nightclubs with her prettiest girls (some of whom went on to become famous Hollywood and Broadway actresses and singers), her life as a madam was extremely stressful. Her success was due to her discretion and natural business acumen, but also to her ability to stay one step ahead of the law. Packing up and moving her bordello to a new location at a moment’s notice, paying off law enforcement to avoid arrest and jail time, and getting caught in the middle of feuds between gangsters took its emotional and physical toll.
So why did she keep doing it? Why didn’t she quit after she had enough to buy nice clothes, jewelry, fur coats, a car and an apartment?
“I do think that she gets addicted to the money… She says at one point, ‘As the retired madam I am going to be a pariah, but as Madam Polly who runs the most opulent bordello in New York, society will come to me,'” Applegate said.
“It is hard for us to put ourselves in that mindset now, but when you from all corners see how money and sex and male prerogative interact, you say to yourself, if I could just cut a corner and take the advantage that others are constantly taking, just for a little while, it starts to seem more acceptable,” she said.
By the end of World War II, Adler, who remained single, decided to get out of the business and retire to a quiet life in Los Angeles. She went back to finish high school and earn an associate’s degree. That, and writing her memoir with the help of a ghostwriter, were the proudest moments for Adler, whose opportunity for an education had been snatched away from her as a young teenager.
A heavy smoker, Adler died of cancer in 1962 at age 62. To her last day, she never openly questioned the morality of her activities as a madam.
“But she did say that she could never really be happy, because she knew too much about human nature,” Applegate said.
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