She was “barely five feet tall in her highest heels,” her biographer notes, but this petite bundle of smarts and ambition stood out in a city and a time that was brimming with larger-than-life characters. The city? New York. The time was the anything goes, live-for-the-moment Jazz Age. And the woman was Polly Adler, Manhattan’s best-known and most successful madam.
“There were plenty of other madams” in 1920s New York, Debby Applegate concedes in Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, a rollicking account of a life lived in the fast lane, but none boasted Adler’s “combination of charisma and brains.” She became the “top supplier of party girls” in a city where vice flourished, booze flowed in defiance of Prohibition laws, and only a stock market crash for the ages could rein in the fun. At one point she was earning, in today’s terms, almost $1 million a year.
Adler’s “A-number-1 house of assignation,” as she politely and immodestly termed it, was a mecca for celebrities, Wall Street gamblers, mobsters, corrupt politicians, hard-nosed journalists, and showbiz bigwigs. Moonlighting Broadway chorus girls and aspiring actresses catered to her customers’ carnal needs. Dancer Ruby Keeler and comedienne Martha Raye were among “her girls,” Adler once revealed, as well as the soon-to-be-famous Dorothy Lamour.
Madam is a Horatio Alger-style success story with a walk-on-the-wild-side twist. Adler – her real name was Pearl – came to America at thirteen ahead of her family, only to be cut off from her parents when the outbreak of World War I stranded them in Russia. Applegate shows how she escaped poverty, the controlling Jewish relatives who took her in, and dead-end factory jobs to find, as she put it, “a place in the sun.” Adler’s ghostwritten autobiography, published in the 1950s, allows Applegate to anchor the story in the madam’s own words. But the author carefully connects the dots whenever her subject proves evasive. While Adler glossed over her swift ascent to the ranks of Manhattan’s in-crowd, for instance, Applegate is certain she made her living as a prostitute before becoming the boss.
Adler’s life, in Applegate’s telling, was more grit than glamor: lives wasted or cut short; crooked, abusive cops who blackmailed prostitutes for money or sex; prosecutors easily bribed to drop charges; ruthless gangsters with hair-trigger tempers; friendly reporters willing to withhold the salacious details when Adler and her girls were hauled into court. All she wanted, she claimed many times, was to make enough money to quit and live an honest life. But truth was, she was hooked on the money and living the high life. She met Frank Sinatra when he was launching his career and claimed future president Franklin Roosevelt had been one of her clients. “When could a girl with no education and no social standing have met so many important men,” she told one interviewer as she looked back on her career, “and have them call you by your first name like they did me?”
Applegate immerses readers in the rich vernacular of the times. Picking up “cabbage” and “kale” meant making money, not a trip to the green grocer. “Rounders” were regulars who did the rounds of clubs and speakeasies. “Sports,” then as now, were men and women up for a good time, which explains why establishments such as Adler’s became known as “sporting houses” as well as Jay Gatsby’s penchant for calling everyone “Old Sport.” When silent screen actress Theda Bara starred in a 1915 movie as a woman nicknamed “The Vampire” for her skill at seducing and fleecing men, Applegate mentions in one of countless fascinating asides, the term “vamp” was born.
This is historical narrative at its best – equal parts illuminating and engrossing. Applegate’s research method leaves no stone unturned, and she displays an impressive command of the rich trove of material she has meticulously unearthed. The storytelling is stellar. She has an eye for detail, an ear for anecdote and dialogue, and an unfailing sense of the perfect place to insert the perfect quotation from Adler or one of her famous acquaintances and contemporaries.
Applegate, a historian based in Connecticut, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her previous – and first – book, The Most Famous Man in America, the biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the scandal-tainted nineteenth-century clergyman, reformer, and abolitionist. Adler’s story shifts her focus from the famous to the infamous, as she vividly recreates the illicit nightlife of Jazz Age New York, a city The Saturday Evening Post prudishly – and accurately – dubbed “Gotham and Gomorrah.”
“Every town has its celebrated madams, eternal women to be sentimentalized down the years,” John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, in a passage that serves Applegate as an epigraph. “She combines the brains of a businessman, the toughness of a prize fighter, the warmth of a companion, the humor of a tragedian.”
Manhattan’s “Queen Madam,” as one of her patrons called her, ticked every one of Steinbeck’s boxes. “I was a creation of the times, of an era whose credo was: ‘Anything which is economically right is morally right,’” Adler once asserted. She was being modest. As Applegate demonstrates in this masterful biography, the scandalous, savvy, irrepressible Polly Adler was her own creation.
Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age
By Debby Applegate
Published November 2, 2021
Award-winning true crime author Dean Jobb’s new book, A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue (Algonquin Books), will be released in June 2024. It’s the story of Arthur Barry, who charmed the elite of 1920s New York while planning some of the most brazen jewel thefts in history. Dean writes a true crime column for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Website: deanjobb.com Twitter: @DeanJobb