Subject Matters

Subject Matters

The Roaring Twenties brothel owner Pearl “Polly” Adler and the minister Henry Ward Beecher, “one of the founding fathers of modern American Christianity,” have a few things in common. One is their biographer, New Havener Debby Applegate, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2006 Beecher biography. After more than a decade of research, she’s back with Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, published by Doubleday on November 2.

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In Applegate’s eyes, her two prime subjects share other traits as well. Both were well-connected touchstones of their times, allowing her to “tell a big American story,” using them as “focal points.” And both were likeable—a necessity for a long-haul research project. “Both Polly and Henry—around here we just call them by their first names—they’re broad-minded characters,” Applegate notes, sitting in front of a rainy day fire in the living room of her New Haven home. “They are people with senses of humor, especially self-deprecating senses of humor.” And they enjoyed the people and the culture around them, making both “great cultural figures.”

Applegate discovered Adler while rummaging in the stacks at Yale. She had homed in on the 1920s and came across Adler’s 1953 memoir, A House Is Not a Home. In it, she read a “whitewashed” and not entirely accurate but nevertheless compelling story, ghostwritten by the writer and editor Virginia Faulkner. Applegate had found her subject.

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Born in Russia around 1900, Adler was sent by her family to the United States alone at the age of 13 to find her way and, hopefully, pave theirs. She attempted at first to earn a living honestly, working in several factories, but the hours were long and the pay meager.

A pimp named Nick Montana “was the first to spot Polly’s leadership potential,” Applegate writes. He set her up in an apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, and thus began her career as a madam. She saw it at first as “a temporary expedient, a means to an end,” and dreaded the day her family would find out how she was earning all the money she sent their way. “In the end,” Applegate writes, “Polly’s desire for respectability paled next to her longing to live the good life, American style.”

Adler worked her way up from an ordinary clientele to the biggest names of the day, including gangsters, jazz musicians and entertainers. Her life story intersects with “pals” including “Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, Desi Arnaz…” But not all was glamorous. Adler was beaten in her own apartment by drugged-up gangsters, arrested countless times, forced to pay bribes that cleaned out her bank account, hunted by the FBI and once spent 25 days in prison. Even after her memoir became a bestseller, she often couldn’t shake the hypocritical moralizing of those who would praise her in private and scorn her in public.

Researching Adler’s life required detective work, both literally and figuratively. Given the name of the woman who had cared for Adler’s last remaining sibling, Sam, in his old age, Applegate took up a private investigator’s offer to find her. It took him just one day, but the connection bore some of the juiciest fruit of Applegate’s labors. Sam Adler had left his caregiver the portion of his sister’s memorabilia that he hadn’t, in his ambivalence about her profession, thrown away. The collection included a scrapbook of personal photographs, many of them taken at the Happy Hollow amusement park in Hot Springs, Arkansas—”the gangsters’ retreat” where “you could do every kind of sin,” Applegate says.

A demolition contractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, whose profession had made him an amateur collector of historical items, was the source of another treasure trove. On a research discussion board, he floated a question about the value of some papers he’d found. They belonged to Faulkner, Adler’s ghost writer. Applegate met him and negotiated a set of photocopies, which included correspondence between the two women and notes on the manuscript—among them, a list of people who couldn’t be named in the book that included “almost every major living gangster of the early to mid-20th century.”

Research finds like these were the “dopamine hits” Applegate craved to keep going. “My addiction is the research,” she says. “I love research… I love following the hunches, I love the adrenaline rush of finding things, I love the puzzle-figuring, everything about research… The writing is the punishing part.” Even as she drafted and then revised the 469-page biography—she says she wishes she could have made it shorter—she conducted new research.

How to write with honesty about an era Applegate calls “dirty” and “rough” without overstepping readers’ boundaries of decency was a challenge. “I tried to keep the epithets to a minimum,” she says, “because otherwise it’s just like shrapnel that hits people for no reason. But I was not going to change it too much.” A “warning” in the opening pages explains that the author has “employed the language of Polly Adler’s milieu… as a way to steep the reader in her world, not as an endorsement of that worldview.”

In the book’s final pages, Applegate notes that the gangsters of the Jazz Age became its most celebrated archetypes, while “there is no corresponding myth of the female outlaw who uses sex as her weapon against the world.” She concludes that Adler and the many women who worked in the era’s sex trade have mostly receded into history’s dark corners due to “the conspiracy of silence around sexual power” as well as the fact that they were “dealers in illusion.” Their full story may never be told, but in Madam, Applegate tells what she’s learned, giving Adler and her compatriots the serious attention they’ve long been denied.

Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age
by Debby Applegate
Where to Buy: RJ Julia | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Debby Applegate, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-5, from the Polly Adler Collection, provided courtesy of Eleanor Vera. Image 2 features Polly Adler (left) in her first fur coat strolling the boardwalk of Atlantic City in 1924. Image 3 features Adler (right) partying with some of her “working girls” in the 1930s. Image 4 features Adler’s business card “in the Café Society years.” Image 5 features Adler in front of the Pickwick Bookshop in Los Angeles with her memoir on display in 1953.

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