Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Just Lucky, I Guess": Madam Memoirs

A House Is Not a Home by Polly Adler (1953)
Sex Is a Private Affair by Kay Jarrett (1966)
The Lady of the House by Sally Stanford (1966)

This week for the Zombie Summer Reading Program, I dipped into the prostitution section in the Social Science Department at the Los Angeles Public Library (351.764, in case you wondered). It was an educational experience.

For starters, I learned that "Just lucky, I guess" is the punchline to a joke, an answer to the top prostitute FAQ, "How'd a nice girl like you get into this line of work?" For all of the madams here, the real answer is, more or less, accidentally. For Adler, it was a better deal than factory work. Jarrett saw an untapped niche market in Chicago's travel and tourism industry. And Stanford figured that since the legitimate hotel she ran was already assumed to be a brothel, she'd show the city a real brothel.

Adler's book is the best-known of the three, due partly to her notorious dealings with mobsters, partly to her frequent arrests, and partly to the fact that after retiring from the brothel business in the late 1940s, she shocked everyone by enrolling in college. In the book, we learn there are three things Polly Adler really hates: drugs, pimps, and double-crossing cops, and A House Is Not a Home pulls no punches in detailing the unglamorous, violent life of a prostitute, even one working in a relatively classy establishment. Aside from Adler's juicy stories about cozying up to the mob, the best thing about the book are her accounts of the girls who worked in her house. For every girl who gets out and goes legit, there are scores more who fall victim to one of the three banes of Polly's existence. However, Adler lets herself off the hook pretty easy for these lost girls, saying that she never hired a girl who wasn't already "in the life," and that she encouraged them to open savings accounts, "take the cure," and get out young. The book was adapted into a 1964 film starring Shelley Winters, and a new edition was published in 2006.

Jarrett was technically not a madam, as she operated an escort service where the girls did not "live in." She arranged dates over the phone and her apartment served as a meeting place. Instead of prostitutes (and Jarrett is quick to insist that her girls were not prostitutes), the rooms of her apartment were filled with stray dogs she'd adopted. Sex Is a Private Affair is neither as well-written, nor as interesting as A House Is Not a Home. Jarrett tells many stories about her girls, but they tend to be unnecessarily long and rambling. However, the book has two things going for it. First is Jarrett's riveting account of taking in disgraced starlet Lila Leeds (best known for getting busted with reefer alongside Robert Mitchum in 1948) while she was pregnant, and helping to raise her infant son when the baby's father proved uncooperative and Lila proved to heroin-addled. Second is the fact that Jarrett wrote at least some of this book from prison, and she is piiiisssed about it. Jarrett's diatribes about the legal system, freedom of expression, and the criminalization of prostitution are chock-full of passion and bile, and make the book worth a skim.

But I saved the best for last. Sally Stanford's The Lady of the House is hilarious, and a delight to read. The prose is peppered with great lines like "Madaming is the sort of thing that happens to you -- like getting a battlefield commission or becoming Dean of Women at Stanford University," and "I was raised -- most kids are 'reared,' but I was 'raised'-- on a God-awful, fertile-as-the-Sahara, close-to-nowhere farm outside of Baker, Oregon. There was my poor mother, my ineffectual but well-intentioned father, my three brothers, two sisters, and myself -- six light-hearted and raggedy-assed kiddies fighting starvation and poverty in an Oregon gulch. We were so poor we envied everyone we ever heard of."

Rather than writing about her girls, Stanford has a great deal of fun writing about the customers who came to 1144 Pine St., everyone from curious teenagers to the founding delegates of the United Nations. When Stanford got out of the business, she went legit with a vengeance, eventually becoming the mayor of Sausalito, CA at the age of 72. You can read her obituary here. What a broad!

We've received a number of recommendations from readers this week, and the first batch will be up on Friday. If you have an unloved and musty title to recommend, send it to


Anonymous said...

Nice pre-summer reading. Have you ever checked out You might like there strange but true section.

Larry said...

Charles Washburn's 1934 "Come Into My Parlor: A Biography of the Everleigh Sisters of Chicago" is another installment in the genre, though I haven't read it in many years.

mary_m said...

Hey, the Everleigh sisters! Their names came up a bunch in the other books. I'll have to see if the library has a copy of that one.

Anonymous said...

Kay Jarett was my beloved and colorful cousin Francis. She was a beautiful and bold woman. As children, my sister and I visited with her often at her Oak Street apartment and during the winters down in Miami Beach.I still have some of her gowns.

The beauty of her book is that it is all understated and true.