Madame Polly Adler

Polly Adler: her early days

Polly Adler, a Russian-born flashy flesh-peddling madam, ran several glamorous brothels.  After a series of low-paying jobs in New York’s garment industry, she stumbled into the brothel business.  Although her career spanned 20-years, her peak period of financial success lasted a paltry five years.  She became was the madam of New York’s most infamous bordello during the Twenties and the Depression Era. She attracted patrons of all stripes.  Among them were intellectuals, writers, politicians, businessmen, gangsters, the rich, famous and sometimes the not-so-famous. The main course at Pollys, as it came to be commonly known, was the prostitutes.[1] Her brothels, located on the Upper East and Upper West Sides of Manhattan, were not typical houses of ill-repute. At Pollys, women of elegance – glorious, glamorous and gorgeous – were the feature attraction.  Moreover, the suites were tastefully adorned and lavishly styled with expensive furniture and fine works of art.  The walls boasted Gobelin tapestry and embellished with paintings that complimented the décor.  The floor was laid out in plush carpets and meals served in French dinnerware.  In naked contrast to the prevailing pimp culture, Adler protected her girls, as she preferred to call them, from arrest and tutored them on expressing themselves in voluptuously decadent ways.  Against aggressive clients, she was their pit-bull.[2],[3]

There was a business-like structure to her operation which lured clientele of means.  She treated her products of commerce with utmost respect. The girls were allotted their fair share of the nights’ proceedings. Moreover, they had the freedom to leave or date.  Adler ensured that her stock in trade was aesthetically attractive; her girls behaved with decorum and exuded an incessant aura of genteel etiquette.  She sternly forbade drug use. Unlike a pimp, prostitutes under her keen watch were not exploited.  She ensured that her girls washed after each trick and apply fresh make up and they were regularly checked for evidence of sexually transmitted diseases.  Additionally, the boudoirs were equipped with protective alarms.  Under the protective gaze of Polly the girls were allowed to watch TV and socialize with their mates in their off times.[4]

Polly’s Girls

The Descent of a Madam

Although Adler was amply compensated for her sensual offerings, it came at a painful price. In 1930, she was called to testify before the Seabury Commission investigating incorrigibly corrupt cops and hypocritical judges.[5]  To avoid testifying, she fled to Florida and sequestered herself but so missed the action of New York she returned.  She was back in business intermittently for five more years before doing a 30-day stretch in New York’s House of Detention for Women. By 1943, she was out of the flesh trade and retired to Los Angeles because of her damaging testimony at the Seabury inquiry. It profoundly compromised the image of the New York police force.  Consequently, she was relentlessly persecuted by the cops.  Her place was raided, she was charged for operating a house of ill-repute, convicted and imprisoned.[6]  For being in possession of obscene materials, additional charges were pressed against her.  As the swirling vortex of dark news enshrouded her operation, the Internal Revenue Service began assessing her for back taxes. The stench of her foul trafficking had permeated the social atmosphere of New York and acquired notoriety. It earned her the searing scorn of the local residents. Battered by the gale force platitudes ferociously flung at her by unwelcoming residents, she fled her residence at Fire Island and eventually landed in California.[7]  Besides her sex-trafficking, Adler led an insipid personal life: she seldom dated and had no steady male companions. Hers was a solitary existence.  So enmesh was she in her own debauched weavings that she lived in constant fear of being murdered.  Among her closest associates were her girls and customers.  Arrested about a dozen times, she was never convicted until the 1930s.  Often, she was raided by corrupt vice squad.  Her commercial survival depended on providing substantial portions of her earnings to her underworld safety net.[8]  Her place was thrashed several times by her racketeering patrons and she herself was thumped by hoodlums.

Polly Discovers the Virtue of Toil

Despite her flourishing business, she was saddled with hefty legal bills, having to dole out more than half her income to venal city officials.  She was bilked by her stockbroker who had played fast and loose with her brokerage account.  Also milking her was her lawyer.[9]  The crash of the stock market in 1929 severely eroded her earnings exacerbating her financially woes.  In her memoirs, after her appearance at the Seabury Commission, she admitted to being demoralized, dejected and destitute.  Unable to afford decent food, she eked out a scanty existence. A short one-way trip within New York was unaffordable.  Finding solace in the fantasy of a movie was beyond her financial grasp. In wretched decadence she was living from day to day strolling in Central Park with only a dime…hungry…..living on bread and milk, she wrote.[10],[11] Plagued by financial troubles, her health began to fail.  She was diagnosed with pleurisy – a debilitating inflammatory condition in which the double membrane lining the chest cavity and lungs becomes inflamed resulting in chest pains, shortness of breath, dry cough and ague.[12] Like Iceberg Slim, she too had a moment of epiphany and realized that her life thus far had been characterized by uncertainty: she had achieved nothing and had no laudable goals.  Circumspectly, in a mariner’s metaphor she movingly encapsulated her rudderless life: And suddenly it seemed to me there was no direction to my life at all. I had been tacking back and forth for years over the same water, running before the storm in bad weather and hoving to when it was calm. Yes, and I had been wrecked and in drydock and refitted, I’d even learned the compass and a star or two, but I was just keeping afloat; I wasn’t going anywhere.  I knew that so long as I stayed in my present profession it would be the same portless voyaging, I knew that, even supposing I had the money to do so, if I retired and lived on my “ill-gotten gains” I’d still in a sense be a member of the profession. The only difference would be that instead of being an active madam, I’d be a madam emeritus. It wasn’t enough to dissociate myself from the business, to get away from the whorehouse I’d still be adrift unless I had a destination. Like a mariner taking his bearings, I had to get a fix on myself and the future. If I knew where I was and what port to make for, then I could line out my course and head for land – and not golden land, either, but land to grow things in and build on.[13]

Excerpted from The Eloquence of Effort. https://www.amazon.com/Eloquence-Effort-Beware-Least-Resistance-ebook/dp/B0784XWJBX

All graphic displays are from online sources.

[1]http://www.dorothyparker.com/dot32.htm:  Retrieved July 10, 2010

[2 Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 107

[3] Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart Pp. 50

[4] Polly Adler. 1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart Books. Pp. 82-107

[5] The Seabury Commission: It was headed by Judge Samuel Seabury who investigated corruption in New York magistrate’s courts and police department in the early 1930s. It led to wholesale changes in the method of arrest, bail and litigation of suspects in New York City.

[6]Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 200

[7]Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 181

[8]http://www.dorothyparker.com/dot32.htm Retrieved July 13, 2013

[9]Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 150

[10]Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 151

[11]Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp156

[12]Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 264

[13] Polly Adler.1953. A House is not a Home. Rinehart. Pp. 273

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