The Manhattan ‘Madam’ Who Hobnobbed With the City’s Elite

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Polly Adler exiting a constabulary  van aft  being arrested successful  1936. The much  palmy  Polly’s brothel became, the much  hounded she was — by the police, by Tammany Hall, by the Broadway mob.
Credit...NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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  • Nov. 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age
By Debby Applegate

Pearl to Polly, shtetl kid to savvy New Yorker, Brooklyn corset mill miss to Manhattan’s astir notorious brothel owner: “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Debby Applegate, tells a fast-paced communicative of radical, willful transformation.

Pearl Adler, talented with neither tallness nor looks, grew up successful the Russian Pale not acold from Pinsk to a peripatetic tailor who considered himself a spot of a dandy. Years later, aft Pearl’s commencement records were mislaid to occurrence and war, her parents would conjecture that she had been calved successful 1900, making her, successful her father’s words, a kid of the 20th century. With pogroms mounting, helium packed her disconnected astatine 13 for the aureate onshore of the United States, accompanied by a relative already heading there. Mid-journey, the relative begged off, but Pearl had the wherewithal to proceed connected alone.

Her begetter had arranged for her to unrecorded with a household successful Massachusetts, but erstwhile acclimatized, she made her flight to relatives successful Brownsville, N.Y. Already attracted to the seediness and pleasures of Coney Island, she was easy lured by the underworld, and by 1920 was surviving with a showgirl arsenic her roommate connected Manhattan’s Riverside Drive (“Allrightnik’s Row” successful the city’s Yiddish slang, indicating you had made it). That aforesaid twelvemonth Prohibition went into effect, and the enactment was on.

Within a fewer months, Pearl, present renamed Polly by her caller friends, had opened her archetypal brothel, conveniently located crossed from Columbia University. Speakeasies sprouted “like mushrooms”: “Manic, uninhibited revelry echoed everywhere, from the Bronx to Greenwich Village.” Predictably, everyone was trying to get a portion of the action, including the vice squad, which ran a shakedown concern that had Polly’s slope relationship rising and falling similar out-of-control humor pressure. (Although 1 mightiness accidental her family, who would soon beryllium arriving successful America, did overmuch the same; they were each excessively blessed to instrumentality her wealth adjacent arsenic they barred her from their Seder.)

The much palmy Polly became, the much hounded she was — by the police, by Tammany Hall, by the Broadway mob. Her brothel was distinguished by bully hygiene and well-selected “girls.” (When the Depression hit, Polly was capable to crook distant up to 40 young women for each 1 she hired — an acceptance complaint analogous to that of the Ivy League these days.) But arsenic the concern evolved, her brothel besides offered little tangible services: It took connected the quality of a literate salon, with portion from the champion bootleggers, nutrient from her backstage cooks and bully institution from Polly. It became the after-hours spot not lone for gangsters, lowlifes and politicians, but besides for the Algonquin Round Table and for writers astatine The New Yorker. (Dorothy Parker and Polly would chat portion the men availed themselves of the services.) Here, an often unexplored exploitation haunts Applegate’s narrative: Polly, who has claimed the American imagination and sits sipping drinks with the celebrated Parker, is besides the 1 who procured these young, mostly working-class women.

Having celebrated friends besides meant that Polly became the taxable of gossip columns, jokes and banter, which added to her renown. But not everything was truthful peachy; her gangster friends were conscionable arsenic apt to fleece oregon bushed her arsenic they were to commercialized laughs and navigator up schemes with her. Of course, misogyny was hardly the sole purview of the underworld; the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who utilized Polly’s services extensively, balked erstwhile an up-and-coming bandleader fell successful emotion with her. Winchell objected that the bandleader, who could person had immoderate pistillate helium desired, was dating a “broken-down aged whore and an disfigured 1 astatine that.”

Replete with accounts of Polly’s galore tribunal battles, paper headlines, mobster dealings and nine gossip, “Madam” is simply a breathless communicative told done bonzer research. Indeed, the galloping gait of Applegate’s publication sometimes makes the scholar privation to propulsion retired a achromatic emblem and question successful surrender — begging for her to dilatory down. The mob violence, governmental corruption, societal approbation and multitude of johns that Polly confronts astatine her ever-changing brothel locations are some awesome and unrelenting. And portion Polly seems to beryllium successful the heavy of the action, those who situation her often besides outshine her. In the book’s past pages, Applegate makes a forthright lawsuit for wherefore Polly is worthy of a biography by noting this injustice: It was not Polly but “her antheral transgression colleagues who became 20th-century taste icons.” “Sex workers successful wide … are dealers successful illusion,” she writes, and Americans bash not similar to spot the curtain pulled backmost to uncover the mechanisms, fto unsocial the banality, of their dreams.

Now, Applegate suggests, with the advent of societal movements astir enactment and power, we mightiness yet beryllium ready. But elsewhere, she stakes Polly’s assertion for fame connected her proximity to men who made past (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), wittily narrated it (Robert Benchley), created its soundtrack (Duke Ellington) oregon violently upended it (Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond). Yet the takeaway for this scholar astatine slightest is that Polly deserves our attraction due to the fact that her beingness shows however women who privation to transcend their presumption indispensable go adept practitioners of chameleonism. That is besides what makes Polly connected immoderate level a frustrating taxable for a biography. As Applegate concedes, Polly “hid acold much of her communicative than she shared, adjacent from herself.” In different words, the precise trait that made Polly Adler past and win is besides what makes her defiantly elusive. Applegate, equipped with formidable skills, whitethorn beryllium the biographer who tin travel closest to revealing her.

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