The Most Happy Bordello

The historic bordello district was slightly south of where I currently reside, the city still has certain residues of days gone by, if one knows where to look.

"Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul" (Karen Abbott)Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul sounds like an interesting overview of the period.

The Most Happy Bordello -
One doesn't hear much nowadays about bordellos, also known as cathouses, brothels, houses of ill repute or simple whorehouses. When I was an adolescent in Chicago, in the early 1950s, the trip to such a place was a rite de passage for nearly every male youth of unambiguous appetites. In my day the chief such institutions, operating on assembly-line principles, were to be found outside the city, one in Kankakee, the other in Braidwood. Students at the University of Illinois relieved the tedium of their sound liberal arts or business educations by visiting establishments in Danville, birthplace of Dick Van Dyke and Bobby Short.
...But the great cathouse era of Chicago was in the first decade or so of the 20th century. This era and those cathouses have now been described with scrupulous concern for historical accuracy and in clear, lively prose by Karen Abbott in “Sin in the Second City.” Lavish in her details, nicely detached in her point of view, Ms. Abbott has written an immensely readable book. “Sin in the Second City” offers much in the way of reflection for those interested in the unending puzzle that goes by the name of human nature.

Ms. Abbott's account of fleshly sin and the response to it in the city of Chicago in the early 20th century centers on a bordello known as the Everleigh Club, which even now is talked about in Chicago by men interested in the sporting life. The club was the creation of two sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh, who themselves had earlier worked the hard trade of harlotry in Omaha and elsewhere.

The Everleigh Club opened on Feb. 1, 1900, and closed on the morning of Oct. 25, 1911. In between times, the sisters accrued assets, by Ms. Abbott's estimate, worth more than $20 million in today's dollars, while their establishment acquired world-wide fame as one of the wonders of the city of Chicago, which, in the words of First Ward Alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, “ain't no sissy town.”

The Everleigh Club was a cathouse with a vast difference -- it was more like the Ritz, with, of course, added attractions. Sumptuous food was served (entrées on the buffet included guinea fowl, pheasant and broiled squab), music both serious and popular played while a basso continuo was supplied by the popping of champagne corks, and the downstairs décor included a gold piano that set the sisters back no fewer than 15 grand.

Unlike their consoeurs in the Levee, as the whorehouse district on Chicago's South Side was called, the sisters Everleigh enforced a high standard of luxury, carefully culled their clientele and monitored the behavior of staff. They also treated their girls -- known as courtesans, and sometimes as the butterflies -- with fairness and an utter absence of cruelty, which was far from the case in other houses in the Levee. Girls working at the Everleigh Club made more than a hundred dollars a week, a fine wage at the time. To give some notion of the general tone of the place: While customers were upstairs frolicking with the girls, downstairs their suits were being pressed.

Although Ms. Abbott does not describe what went on in the girls' rooms chez Everleigh, she informs us that corporate accounts were available to good customers, and she chronicles the gaudier scandals. These include one of the Marshalls Field, of the famous department-store family, being shot in the Levee; and, later, Herbert Swift, of the great meatpacking family, dying of unknown causes after supposedly departing the Everleigh Club with one of its girls. The heavyweight champion Jack Johnson served time in jail under the Mann Act for transporting an Everleigh butterfly named Belle Schreiber across state lines.

The characters of Minna and Ada Everleigh and their thoughtful way of going about their business are intricately delineated by Ms. Abbott, who, I think it fair to say, views them affectionately and with measured admiration. But her book is ultimately a saga of a clash between the forces of vice and those of reform in the city of Chicago. In this battle, reform has right but absolutely no humor on its side -- right, that is, if one assumes that human weakness is easily eradicated through the changing of institutions.

The methods proposed for dealing with the extensive prostitution in Chicago early in the last century were, first, to segregate it in a particular part of town, and, second, to root it out and eliminate it altogether. Ministers, ambitious young lawyers set on forging political careers, anti-smoking campaigners, temperance workers, the B'nai Br'ith, vegetarians, and others on the side of sweetness and light naturally enough went for complete elimination.

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When a blue-ribbon commission on vice published a report called “The Social Evil in Chicago,” which also argued for getting rid of prostitution completely, it was roundly greeted as “a contribution to the cause of morality and decency,” according to the local press. But not by the young journalist Walter Lippmann, who noted that those who composed the report were naïve in thinking that “sex must be confined to procreation by a healthy, intelligent and strictly monogamous couple.” The commission, Lippmann wrote, ignored “the sexual impulse in discussing a sexual problem . . . yet who that has read the report itself and put himself in any imaginative understanding of conditions can escape seeing that prostitution today is organic to our industrial life, our marriage sanctions, and our social customs?”

Sin in the Second City” provides a fine account of how the sides lined up in Chicago for the battle over prostitution reform. On one side were the hack politicians who made a lot of money from prostitution by way of graft, on the other were the “visiting firemen,” as the Everleigh sisters referred to the street ministers and other forces of reform; squirming nicely in between were mayors and state legislators. The outcome of the battle was that prostitution was briefly curbed, then, after a decent interval of a few years, it was back to business as usual. The Everleigh sisters, who moved on to private life in New York, were the victims of this ultimately empty hullabaloo because of the enormous fame of their establishment.

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This page contains a single entry by swanksalot published on July 7, 2007 10:11 PM.

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