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gETtING
screwEd
ex orkers and the aw
lisonass
FE
ForeEdge
An imprint of University Press of New England
www.upne.com
©  Alison Bass
All rights reserved
For permission to reproduce any of the material in this book,
contact Permissions, University Press of New England,
One Court Street, Suite , Lebanon NH ;
or visit www.upne.com
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bass, Alison.
Getting screwed: sex workers and the law / Alison Bass.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
---- (cloth: alk. paper)
 ---- (ebook)
. Prostitution. . Prostitution Law and legislation. I. Title.
. 
. — dc 
&
1
he adonna- hore ivide
M
aggie Hall, a golden- haired twenty- year- old from Ireland, stepped
off a ship in New York City in , eager to conquer a new world.
Hall was well educated, outgoing, and beautiful, with pretty blue
eyes and a contagious laugh. But like many female immigrants without
family or friends in New York, she had trouble finding decent employ-
ment, so she ended up working as a barmaid in a Manhattan saloon.
There, she met a good-
l
ooking bounder by the name of William Burdan,
the scion of a wealthy family who had never worked a day in his life.¹
Hall married Burdan, who insisted she change her first name to Molly
(Maggie was apparently too common a name for him), and they took up
married life in Burdan’s Manhattan apartment. Within months, how-
ever, his father found out about the secret marriage, and furious that his
son had married an Irish barmaid, he discontinued Burdan’s allowance.
The young man refused to find a job
h
e spent most of his time gam-
bling and drinking with friends
and he wouldn’t hear of his wife’s
going back to work in a saloon. As their finances worsened, they moved
from apartment to apartment and finally landed in a cheap walk-
u
p with
no money to pay for food or rent. Burdan talked his wife into selling sex
to other men, mostly other gentlemen of his milieu. He claimed that it
was the only way that they could survive. Molly Burdan was heartbroken
but did what her husband asked.²
In s New York, the Victorian double standard was firmly en-
trenched. While there was no dearth of entertainment
st
riptease
shows and brothels flourished alongside saloons, theaters, and expensive
restaurants
t
hese venues catered almost exclusively to men, according
  
to Timothy Gilfoyle in City of Eros. Both single and married men par-
ticipated in what Gilfoyle calls “a sporting male culture,³ while their
wives and girlfriends stayed home. In the Victorian ethos, middle-
a
nd
upper-
c
lass women were not supposed to enjoy sex; they were cast as
Madonnas: pure, sexless creatures whom Victorian men could worship
on a pedestal. Since this meant that some men’s sexual desires could
not be satisfied within the confines of marriage, these men turned to a
class of women considered the polar opposite of Madonna: the Whore.
Yet while it was acceptable for men of that era to frequent brothels, any
woman who had sex outside marriage was deemed a whore.
At the same time, almost all the jobs available to women as the In-
dustrial Revolution gathered steam in the nineteenth century were low-
p
aying positions as servants, store clerks, barmaids, or garment-
fac
tory
workers. Respectable (meaning middle-
a
nd upper-
c
lass) married women
were not supposed to work, but according to Gilfoyle and others, many
working-
c
lass women, both married and single, supplemented their in-
come by selling sex.
“Many did not view [prostitution] as a full-
t
ime occupation,” Gil-
foyle writes. A groundbreaking study of prostitutes by a well-
k
nown
physician of the time, Dr. William Sanger, which was released in ,
revealed that probably  to  percent of all young women between the
ages of fifteen and thirty who were living in New York City prosti-
tuted themselves at some point. They cited “destitution” as the primary
reason.
Other researchers also found that the careers of many prostitutes in
the nineteenth century were short-
lived. Many worked largely for eco-
nomic reasons from their late teens to their early to mid-
t
wenties, and
then they got married or otherwise merged back into the communi-
ties from which they had come. In fact, according to William Acton,
another researcher of this period, the relative affluence of prostitutes
“meant that they consistently enjoyed better health than other working
women and were no more likely to fall victim to alcoholism, insanity,
suicide,” or other problems.
During the colonial era, prostitution largely existed on the fringe of so-
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
ciety (in taverns by the docks) and was mostly controlled by women work-
ing independently. Indeed, Gilfoyle argues that before , “Women had
greater control and influence over prostitution than in any other period
of American history. By the s, prostitution had grown into a thriv-
ing commercial enterprise in New York City, with six hundred brothels
scattered around Broadway and Soho. Those who ultimately benefited
from this system, Gilfoyle says, were the ward politicians from Tammany
Hall and the police, who extracted bribes to look the other way. “Prosti-
tution became a significant revenue source for the local political bosses,
he writes.
Gilfoyle and others set this trend squarely in the context of the Vic-
torian era’s sharpening gender divide. “Men wanted control over au-
tonomous and sexually independent women,” he writes. “Violent gangs
allied to the political machine used extortion, force and outright terror
to ensure male hegemony over the profits of prostitution.¹⁰
Indeed, Gilfoyle and others contend, such institutionalized violence is
what gave rise for the first time to pimps. The women who ran brothels
were forced to hire men for protection against gangs paid by Tammany
Hall, and streetwalkers required pimps to protect them against physical
assaults from both clients and police.
Even though prostitution offered women the chance to make a better
living, it was a dangerous trade. According to the  study by Sanger,
approximately  percent of the prostitutes he surveyed said they had
contracted syphilis or gonorrhea at least once. Many prostitutes also
had to contend with violent clients. As Nickie Roberts writes in Whores
in History: “A violent pimp was often the least of the whore’s worries;
every prostitute was, on the other hand, afraid of the possibility of being
attacked
e
ven murdered
b
y a client. The whore-
s
tigma ensured that
the protection and safety of prostitutes was low on the police agenda, and
few prostitute-
k
illers were actually caught.¹¹
Underage prostitution was also rampant in s New York. Numer-
ous brothels promoted the availability of nubile young virgins amid a
general atmosphere of “youthful carnality.¹²
Even then, Sanger found that less than one-
fth of girls selling sex in
  
New York said they had been seduced or forced into prostitution. Many
came from broken homes, where there were too many mouths to feed
and no male breadwinner; others were newly arrived immigrants trying
to survive in a cold, hard city.¹³
Against this backdrop, Molly Burdan was growing increasingly tired
of the carnal demands her husband and his friends were imposing on
her. In , she left William Burdan and traveled west. She spent time
in Chicago, Virginia City, Nevada, the Dakota Territory, and San Fran-
cisco, becoming a sought-
a
fter prostitute everywhere she went. “The
price for her favors was high and she had acquired an expensive ward-
robe, which included furs and exquisite jewelry,” writes Anne Seagraves
in Soiled Doves.¹⁴ In , when Burdan was thirty, she read about the
rich gold strike in Coeur dAlene, a lake district in northern Idaho. She
took the train to Thompson Falls, Montana, and there purchased a horse
and joined a pack train on its way to Murray, Idaho. But the pack train of
people, some on horseback, some on foot dragging a toboggan with all
their worldly goods, was hit by a blizzard. Riding on horseback, Burdan
noticed that a woman, who was carrying a small child, had stumbled in
the snow and fallen. Burdan got off her horse, put both the woman and
the child up on the saddle, and then remounted, according to newspaper
accounts. But neither of them was dressed for the blizzard, and Burdan
could see they were freezing. So when the pack train came to a battered
hut off the side of the path, she dismounted, and they took shelter in the
hut, all three huddling in Molly Burdan’s furs. The rest of the people in
the pack continued onward, never expecting to see the three stragglers
again.¹⁵
The next day the entire town was surprised to see Burdan and her
wards galloping down the street. She ordered a cabin and food for the
mother and child, saying that she would foot the bill. As for herself,
she announced that she wanted “cabin number one.” In Murray, and
throughout the west, Seagraves writes, “cabin number one was reserved
for the madam of the red light district.¹⁶ When an Irishman named
Patrick O’Rourke asked the fur-
c
lad lady on her horse what her name
was, she replied, “Molly Burdan.” But he misunderstood and responded
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
in his heavy Irish brogue, “Well for the life of me, I’d never of thought it.
Molly bDam.” This was the beginning of the legend of Molly bDam,
who became known throughout the West for her kindness and gener-
osity toward those less fortunate than herself. ¹⁷ Burdan’s considerable
charms are on display in an undated photo of her, draped coquettishly in
furs, which hangs in the Spragpole Museum in Murray, Idaho.
A few years before Molly Burdan arrived in Idaho, another young
woman, by the name of Veronica Baldwin, ventured west to embark on
what she too hoped would be an exciting new chapter in her life. An
émigré from Britain, she had no idea that the unforgiving chauvinism
of the era would relegate her, just like Molly Burdan before her, to cabin
number one. Veronica’s wealthy older cousin, Elias J. Baldwin, had in-
vited her to come and work as a schoolteacher on the Santa Anita ranch
he owned in the foothills outside Los Angeles. By , “Lucky” Bald-
win, who had made his fortune buying and selling gold-
mining interests
in the West, owned more than , acres in Los Angeles County,
including the Santa Anita ranch, where he bred racehorses.
Veronica Baldwin, a willowy, dark-
h
aired woman with striking hazel
eyes, burst into the news on January , , when she shot Elias Baldwin
through the left arm as he left the private dining room of the Baldwin
Hotel (which he owned) in San Francisco. According to the San Fran-
cisco Call of January , , Veronica Baldwin, then twenty-
t
hree, said,
“He ruined me in body and mind. That is why I shot him.” She told
reporters that Baldwin had sexually assaulted her and then dismissed
her from her job for improper conduct. According to news accounts, she
said, “I did not try to kill him. I hit him just where I wanted to, for I am
a good shot and never miss anything I aim at.¹⁸
In the end, Lucky Baldwin declined to testify against his cousin, and
she was acquitted. She immediately left for what was then the Washing-
ton Territory, according to news reports of the time. Three years later,
she reappeared in California, threatening to sue her cousin for the sup-
port of a child whom she insisted he had fathered. According to Lucky
Baldwin, a  book about the multimillionaire, “that threat was also
hushed quickly and again the girl vanished, only to reappear in the news
  
a third time when she was found to be violently insane and committed
to the state asylum at Napa by Judge Lucien Shaw.” Horace Bell, a San
Francisco lawyer turned investigative reporter, raged about the case in
the Porcupine, a muckraking sheet he had founded. “Our hellish statutes
protected [Baldwin] and enabled him to send his victim to an insane
asylum,” Bell wrote.¹⁹
As Carl Glasscock, the author of Lucky Baldwin, notes, Elias Baldwin,
who married four times during his long life, almost always to women
much younger than himself, was sued by a number of other young
women for staining their virtue and breaking promises to marry them.
“Lucky Baldwin’s reputation as a Lothario was growing even faster than
his reputation as a turf-
man, a multi- millionaire and a great landed pro-
prietor and promoter,” Glasscock writes.²⁰
Around the time that Veronica Baldwin was involuntarily dispatched
to the state asylum in Napa, Molly bDam was pursuing a happier ex-
istence in Murray, Idaho. According to newspaper reports, Molly was
good to the girls in her brothel and the locals were good to her. She was
always feeding hungry families, and those who were down on their luck
knew that Molly bDam would provide them with warm clothing and
shelter. Although she lived in luxury, Molly never hesitated to ride on
her horse over treacherous mountain trails to nurse a sick prospector.²¹
Women: A Rare Commodity
In the mining economies of the West during the latter part of the nine-
teenth century, women were a rare and precious commodity. In ,
only  percent of the residents of Virginia City, Nevada, were female,
according to Barbara Brents, a professor of sociology at the University
of Nevada, Las Vegas, and coauthor of The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and
Sin in the New American Heartland.²² Prostitution, gambling, and drink-
ing were mainstays of the local economy, and by , which marked
the height of Virginia Citys prosperity, prostitution was the most com-
monly listed occupation for women. Prostitutes worked out of dance
halls, saloons, or one-
r
oom shacks known as cribs. Many prostitutes,
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
particularly those who were no longer young or pretty enough to work
in the high-
c
lass brothels or saloons and had fallen to the bottom of the
food chain
w
orking out of cribs
l
ived in squalid quarters. An 
newspaper account describes the crib of a Denver, Colorado, prostitute
who had killed herself:
The walls and ceiling were absolutely black with smoke and dirt, except-
ing where old, stained newspapers had been pasted on them . . . to ex-
clude rain and melting snow. Around the walls were disposed innumera-
ble unwashed and battered tin cooking utensils, shelves, for the most part
laden with dust, old clothing, which emitted a powerful effluvium, hung
from nails here and there, or tumble down chairs, a table of very rheu-
matic tendency, on which broken cups, plates and remains of food were
scattered all over its surface. An empty whiskey bottle and pewter spoon
or two. In one corner and taking up half the space of the den was the
bedstead strongly suggestive of a bountiful crop of vermin, and on that
imsy bed lay the corpse of the suicide, clad in dirty ratted apparel, and
with as horrid a look on her begrimed, pallid features as the surroundings
presented. No one of her neighbors in wretchedness had had the sense to
open either of the two little windows in the room to admit pure air, hence
the atmosphere was sickeningly impure and almost asphyxiating. “My
God,” exclaimed Coroner McHatton, used as he is to similar scenes and
smells in his official capacity. “Isn’t this awful?²³
While some prostitutes led very difficult lives and suffered greatly,
others turned the economics of commercial sex to their advantage. In the
smaller mining towns, some single working-
c
lass women ran saloons as
independent prostitute-
pr
oprietors. In Butte, Montana, some prostitutes
were the widows of miners, and they worked out of cribs during the
day while their children were in school.²⁴ According to historians, there
was a certain respect for the place of prostitutes in mining economies.
They were not the same as “good proper wives,” but they held a certain
status.²⁵
Julia “Jule” Bulette, for example, was one of the first unattached white
women to arrive in Virginia City, Nevada, after the Comstock Lode
silver strike in . Bulette, described in various accounts as beautiful,
  
slim, and full of good humor,²⁶ had left an abusive husband behind in
New Orleans, and she became a favorite of the Comstock miners. She
owned her own cottage in Virginia City, and like Molly bDam, she
became known for feeding the poor and nursing sick and injured men
back to health. Because of Bulette’s donations to the Virginia City fire
department, local firefighters made her an honorary member of the
Virginia Engine Number , and on July , , Bulette rode the fire
truck as Queen of the Independence Day Parade.²⁷ Yet six years later,
Bulette, then thirty-
ve, was murdered, and all her valuables were stolen.
A French drifter was arrested and hanged for the crime, although he
maintained his innocence to the end.²⁸
Molly bDam also died young but not by violent means. In , small-
pox swept into Murray. Residents of the small mining town barricaded
themselves behind closed doors in a futile attempt to keep the scourge at
bay, and bodies began piling up everywhere. Molly Burdan took charge,
calling a town meeting and berating the town’s residents for their cow-
ardice. With the help of her girls and a few other volunteers, she cleared
out the hotels and turned them into makeshift hospitals for the sick,
and Burdan and her girls became nurses. “It has been said that Molly
worked tirelessly. She was everywhere, nursing patients until she could
no longer stand. She barely ate and didn’t take time to even change her
clothes,” Seagraves writes. “The town survived
b
ut Molly was never
to be the same.²⁹
In October , she developed a constant fever and hacking cough,
and on January , , Molly Burdan died of what was then called con-
sumption and is now known as tuberculosis. On the day of her funeral,
more than a thousand people came from the surrounding area to bid
farewell to a prostitute whom they admired and loved. Today, in the few
remaining saloons of Murray, Idaho, a song written in her honor, The
Legend of Molly b’Dam, is still sung.³⁰
A few years after Molly died, Veronica Baldwin was discharged from
the Napa state asylum. In the s, she turned up in Denver, Colorado,
with the means to open an upscale brothel on Market Street. “It was said
that Lucky Baldwin provided her with the money she needed,” writes
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
Seagraves in Soiled Doves.It was also said that the lady displayed no
evidence of insanity.³¹
The years, however, had left their mark on Veronica Baldwin: “Al-
though Veronica was still young, lines were etched upon her comely face,
her hair was prematurely gray, and she walked with a slow measured
step. She was no longer the same person that California newspapers once
described as ‘the most beautiful girl on the Pacific Coast.
³²
I
n her upscale Market Street brothel, Veronica Baldwin, dressed in
royal purple with a touch of white lace, served her customers imported
delicacies (including fresh oysters in season) and fine French wine in
crystal glasses. Her clients were wealthy businessmen, mining owners,
real estate investors, and politicians, and they came by invitation only.
According to several accounts, Veronica hired only beautiful, educated
women who were experienced in matters of sex. One evening in , a
pretty young woman turned up on her doorstep in the company of a “no-
torious procuress,” the Rocky Mountain News reported. When Veronica
Baldwin found out that the girl was a virgin and had no idea what she
was getting into, she convinced her to go home to her family and then
notified local police, who placed the girl in a “respectable dwelling” for
the night, according to the Rocky Mountain News. The paper concluded
its April  story with the news that “[the girl]was sent away to her rela-
tives, the police department bearing the cost of transportation.³³
What this and other news reports of the time indicate is that Veronica
Baldwin, like many successful madams and prostitutes of the nineteenth
century, had a close and mutually beneficial relationship with local law
enforcement. They paid the police and local politicians handsome bribes
to look the other way, and in return, the police protected their establish-
ments from drunken gangs and abolitionists who wanted to eliminate
prostitution once and for all.
In the s, William Sanger and other medical professionals (backed
up by the American Medical Society), together with law enforcement,
had pushed to legalize and regulate prostitution in the United States
for public health reasons. As Sanger argued, regulating prostitution
would enable the authorities to test and treat prostitutes for venereal
  
disease and clamp down on child prostitution. But several bills in the
New York legislature failed because of opposition by suragettes such
as Susan B. Anthony. Anthony and others who were campaigning for
equal rights believed, as some feminists do now, that prostitution victim-
ized all women and that it was a “social evil” that had to be eradicated.
Suragettes joined forces with Christian social purity reformers, and
in the face of their concerted opposition, only a few cities in the United
States, including New Orleans, San Francisco, and St. Louis, passed
ordinances to legalize and regulate prostitution, limiting it to specific
red-
light districts.
By the s, these abolitionist groups began to gain the upper hand.
Religious groups had long promulgated a view of marriage to a “good
woman as a respected social arrangement (because it was the primary
means through which erotic expression was linked to reproduction).
Sex outside marriage threatened that social order, and sex for money
was shunned because it completely divorced sexual intercourse from the
goal of reproduction.³⁴ Protestant groups were particularly vocal in their
condemnation of prostitution because their religious tenets urged sexual
satisfaction within the marriage and viewed infidelity more harshly than
did Catholicism. And in fact, it was an alliance of evangelical Protestants
and newly empowered suragettes who led the campaign to outlaw alco-
hol and prostitution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These reformist groups wielded a potent weapon: the panic over “white
slavery” that was sweeping the nation, fueled by salacious and largely
erroneous newspaper accounts of the hordes of young white women,
both foreign-
and native- born, who were being forced into sexual slavery.
Even the great literature of the day, such as Stephen Crane’s  book,
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, portrayed young white women as innocent
victims seduced or forced into prostitution by evil pimps and madams.³⁵
The image of the white slave, however, was largely myth. Several
studies at the time showed that most young women selling sex were
doing so to earn better wages than they could in domestic service or
factory work. For example, the sociologist Kathleen Davis’s  study
of  prostitutes showed that many of them also worked at low-
p
aying
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
jobs (as store clerks, servants, or factory workers). Many of the women
who had chosen to sell sex came from broken or low-
i
ncome homes and
needed the money.³⁶
Even so, the hype over white slavery had its intended effect, as far
as the reformists were concerned. It led to a series of state and federal
laws that made it increasingly difficult for brothels and other forms of
prostitution to operate as openly as they had before. In Colorado, gangs
encouraged by antiprostitution and prohibition crusaders burned down
a number of red-
l
ight districts in mining towns such as Colorado City
and Cripple Creek in the early years of the twentieth century.³⁷ In New
York, laws pushed through by an alliance of purity reformers, settlement-
house workers, and wealthy industrialists imposed fines on owners of
apartments and buildings who rented to brothels and prostitutes.³⁸ In
, the federal government passed the White Slave Traffic Act, bet-
ter known as the Mann Act (named after Congressman James Robert
Mann), which prohibited the transport of women from state to state for
immoral purposes.”
A Military Clampdown
As World War I approached, the clampdown intensified. Federal au-
thorities, fearful that American soldiers would be laid low by disease-
c
arrying prostitutes, began pressuring state officials to close down red-
l
ight districts throughout the country. By , most red-
l
ight districts
in the United States, including the famous Barbary Coast in San Fran-
cisco, the Levee district in Chicago, and Storyville in New Orleans, had
been shuttered. Denver’s red-
l
ight district was also closed, and Veronica
Baldwin’s brothel with it. Baldwin moved into one of the citys most
fashionable neighborhoods and continued to live a “quiet dignified life,
according to news reports of the time.³⁹
Prostitution, of course, didn’t disappear. It simply moved under-
ground. After decades of visibility in theaters and concert halls and on
the streets, prostitution became a clandestine activity. “Call girls” oper-
ated out of private apartments, and as prostitutes found themselves more
  
vulnerable to abuse from police and clients, pimps became a permanent
xture, providing women with protection, emotional support, and legal
assistance.⁴⁰
Once Prohibition became the law of the land, in , prostitutes also
began to operate out of the illegal speakeasies that were popping up in
basements and private clubs all over the United States. Prohibition and
the speakeasies had the paradoxical effect of breaking down the taboos
against men and women drinking and dancing together in public. As
Gilfoyle notes, the “sporting male culture” was replaced by more hetero-
sexual forms of entertainment.
At the same time, attitudes toward enjoyment of sex in and outside
marriage began to change
sex was increasingly seen as a basic expres-
sion of love within marriage
a
nd premarital sex became more common.
The increasing availability of birth control contributed to this profound
shift in American attitudes. As a result, visits to prostitutes declined.
In his seminal  report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Albert
Kinsey reports that the frequency of American men’s sexual intercourse
with prostitutes declined by as much as one-
h
alf to two-
t
hirds between
 and .⁴¹
The Prohibition-
e
ra speakeasies, of course, were largely run by
organized-
c
rime groups, which imported bootlegged alcohol and paid
cops to look the other way. Organized-
c
rime syndicates also controlled
prostitution after World War I. As Nickie Roberts, author of Whores in
History, puts it, “After the First World War, [organized-
c
rime] syndi-
cates dominated the sex market in

c
ities, securing their positions in
alliances with local elites
the police and politicians who had earlier
made fortunes out of the segregated red-
l
ight districts.
.
.
.
I
n all of this
there was only one major victim: the whore.⁴²
This reality is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the story of Polly
Adler, a Jewish émigré from Russia who was sent to the United States at
the age of thirteen by her tailor-
fa
ther in . He intended to follow with
the rest of the family, but World War I intervened. Once war broke out,
her father could no longer get money to America to pay for her upkeep
(she had been living with friends of friends in Holyoke, Massachusetts),
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
so she was pulled out of school and put to work in a paper factory at the
age of fourteen. After two years of grueling labor, she fled to New York,
where she found a job in a corset factory and roomed with a cousin in
Brooklyn. By the time the United States entered World War I, in ,
the corset factory had closed, and Polly Adler was working in a factory
that made shirts for soldiers. At the age of seventeen, she was raped by
the factorys foreman, who beat and impregnated her. In her memoir,
A House Is Not a Home, Adler described how she obtained a back-
a
lley
abortion and how the experience changed her. “I had lost heart, I no
longer had hope,” she wrote.⁴³ The foreman continued to harass her, so
Adler was forced to find a job at another factory, where she worked until
January . In her memoir, she recalled those months as a time of “un-
relieved drabness, of hurry and worry and clawing uncertainty.
. . . I
t was
a bitter, hope-
qu
enching, miserable sort of existence for a girl of .⁴⁴
By then, like many young working girls of the time, Adler had dis-
covered the dance halls, where she would go every Sunday afternoon
and dance her worries away. Through a connection, she was introduced
to a beautiful young actress from a wealthy family whom she identifies
in her memoir as Joan. Joan offered Adler a place to stay in her familys
nine-
r
oom apartment on Riverside Drive, and under Joan’s wing, Adler
began making friends with “celebrities, directors, writers and composers,
all smoking opium.” But having seen what drugs were doing to Joan,
who had become addicted to cocaine and heroin and was sabotaging her
acting career, Adler had no inclination to join in. In , Tony, a boot-
legger friend of hers who was having an affair with a married woman,
asked Adler to take an apartment (he’d pay the rent) so he could meet his
mistress on the sly. Still unemployed, Adler agreed. In time, Tony asked
her to find him “a new girl,” and that was the beginning of Polly Adler’s
career as one of New Yorks best-
k
nown madams.
In the early years of Adler’s business, much of her clientele consisted
of gangsters and hoodlums, “most of whom died with their boots on.⁴⁵
But in the mid-
s, she moved her operation to a spacious apartment
on Seventh Avenue and began entertaining young men from Harvard,
Yale, and other Ivy League schools. In time, she says she was able to re-
  
strict her clients to “the upper brackets” of New Yorks social, financial,
literary, and theatrical worlds. In , when her house was raided by
police, the customers bailed her and her girls out almost as soon as they
were booked, and the case was quickly dismissed. Many of the prosti-
tutes who worked for Adler were struggling actresses, singers or dancers,
showgirls between jobs. “Not one of them had any intention of staying
in the business,” she writes. One of her “smartest” girls got married;
another was a student of journalism at Columbia University who left the
business when she graduated and became a well-
k
nown novelist. One
can’t help wondering who that well-
k
nown novelist was. Adler never
tells; in her memoir she writes, “I have kept [her] secret, as I have kept
many secrets.⁴⁶
Adler does acknowledge that prostitution was a hard life, in large part
because it was illegal, and she could understand why so many sex work-
ers became addicted to alcohol and drugs. In her memoir, she writes,
Whoring is a slow form of self-
d
estruction.
.
.
.
B
y becoming a prosti-
tute, a girl cuts herself off not merely from her family but also from such
a great part of life. She is isolated not just by social custom but by work-
ing conditions and she has to some extent deprived herself of her rights
as a citizen for she has forfeited the protection of the law. It is not syphi
-
l
is which is the occupational disease of the prostitute, but loneliness.⁴⁷
Adler was speaking from firsthand experience. According to her mem-
oir, she received several marriage offers over the years. The most serious
proposal came from the leader of a popular New York swing band in the
s, with whom she had a long-
r
unning affair. Adler says she loved him
but had qualms about marrying a guy who liked to hit the bottle too
much. She also knew his bands reputation would suffer if he married a
madam. In the end, she turned him down and remained single the rest
of
he
r life.
In , like many other Americans, Adler lost all her savings in the
stock market crash. But paradoxically, her business was better than ever.
“Men wanted to go out and forget their troubles,” she writes. “The at-
mosphere, at times, was more like an insane asylum than a bordello.⁴⁸
The Madonna-Whore Divide 
The good times, however, were short- lived. In , then Governor
Franklin Roosevelt asked the New York courts to investigate corruption
by judges, court magistrates, and local police and named Judge Samuel
Seabury to head the inquiry. The Seabury Commission soon uncovered
massive bribing of New Yorks vice squads, court officers, and judges to
ignore the citys flourishing gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution ac-
tivities. At one point, Adler was warned that she was about to be served
with a subpoena because she had “paid thousands of dollars in bribes to
keep my house running smoothly and my girls and myself out of jail.⁴⁹
She fled town, ending up in Miami for an extended vacation.
Adler eventually returned to New York, got back into the business,
and almost immediately came under the thumb of Dutch Schultz, a no-
torious Jewish gangster of the time. Against her will, she says, Schultz
made her establishment his headquarters. She describes Schultz (whose
real name was Arthur Flegenheimer) as “businesslike, cold and incisive,
colorless and deadly,” and says she never lost her fear of him.⁵⁰ In ,
she tried to leave the “whorehouse business” and invest in a legitimate
concern, such as a factory or restaurant, but her notoriety got in the way.
I exhausted all my contacts, but every door was closed to me, sometimes
with a tactful lie, sometimes with the blunt announcement that people
couldn’t afford to be associated with me,” she writes.⁵¹
In the s, the Great Depression swelled the numbers of women
who turned to prostitution, but the dangers of being harassed, arrested,
and prosecuted for prostitution grew in the years before World War II.
Congress passed a law forbidding prostitution in designated areas where
there were troops, and the military pressured local authorities to clamp
down in an effort to once again combat venereal disease among soldiers.
Ironically, research published in the early s showed that the vast
majority of venereal disease cases among soldiers came from casual sex
between soldiers and girls they had picked up, not from sex with pros-
titutes.⁵² A  study for the U.S. Army, which traced the individual
contacts of infected soldiers, found that  percent of sexually transmit-
ted infections among white soldiers came from “friends,”  percent from
  
pickups,” and only  percent from prostitutes.⁵³ Even so, the militarys
actions resulted in the arrest and detention of thousands of women for
prostitution-
related offenses.⁵⁴
As prostitution became more dangerous, more women engaged in
“treating
a p
ractice in which a man took a woman out or helped her
financially (paid her rent, for instance) in return for sexual favors. Treat-
ing still involved the exchange of sex for money, but it was not as explicit,
says Elizabeth Clement in Love for Sale.⁵⁵
Polly Adler saw the writing on the wall. In , her house was raided
yet again. (She was arrested sixteen times in all but pled guilty only once
and spent thirty days in jail.) The latest raid occurred when Adler was
sick in bed with pleurisy, and she ended up in Bellevue Hospital. This
case, like most of the others brought against her, was dismissed, but her
heart was no longer in it. “Everything was an effort, the ringing of the
business phone was like a dentists drill on an exposed nerve, and though
I would try to be gay and amusing, I usually ended the evening locked in
my room crying into my pillow,” she writes.⁵⁶
In , Adler got out of the business for good and moved to Los An-
geles, where she enrolled in the Los Angeles Valley College to pursue a
lifelong dream: an education. In , she began writing her autobiogra-
phy, A House Is Not a Home. It was published in  and became an un-
expected best seller, selling more than two million copies in two years.⁵⁷
Even then, controversy dogged Adler; there were reports that im-
migration officials were looking into her prostitution-
r
elated activities
in the years before her naturalization as an American citizen in .
Adler handled the news with her usual aplomb. “I know nothing about
it except what newspapermen have told me,” she said to one reporter.
He looked around her sunlit cottage in Burbank, which was filled with
ceramic dancing girls and lovebirds, and asked: “What about this place,
Miss Adler? Is this house a home?” Polly Adler replied, “It certainly is.