Monday, February 28, 2011

Call Me Madam

From the 1920s through 1940s Pearl "Polly" Adler (April 16, 1900 – June 11, 1962) operated the most well-known brothel in New York City. Or perhaps we should says brothels plural as the illegal nature of her business enterprise resulted in her relocating several times as well as interruptions in business when the police raided her establishment.

Polly Adler's memoir, A House is Not a Home, was published in 1953. Bob Benchley comes in for several mentions in the book--

P. 76 – Bob, the writer, was quite another story. Instead of telling you his troubles, he’d urge you to spill yours. Lion worshiped the ground he walked on. You could always tell when he was in the house just from the increased candle power of her smile, and she never would let any of the other maids serve him.

Every so often, Bob would arrive and inquire if I had a room to spare—an empty one. He would say that he was in need of a good night’s sleep before tackling a magazine piece. Sometimes, when he had a deadline to meet, he’d stay right there to do his writing. He claimed his best articles were written in my homey atmosphere. “The Waldorf just isn’t in it with you when it comes to service, Polly,” he’d tell me. “Lion never fails to have my suit pressed and my shirt and socks and drawers laundered. what a valet! By golly, she even has a light hand with a razor. And then that terrific smile at breakfast—why, it lights up a room like the sun!” Certainly Bob lightened up my life like the sun, and sunny was the word for his whole nature. Of all the friends I made during my years as a madam, I think his was the friendship I valued most. I have never known a finer man.

Bob always was egging me on to tell some of the funny experiences I’d had in the business, and one of his favorite stories concerned…

P. 177-179 -- Bob my writer friend, has asked me to arrange a dinner party for six people so well-known that privacy was imperative. Would I, he asked, exclude everyone, girls as well as customers? I explained that there was a big football game on that day and many of my young college friends would be disappointed to find my doors shut. Being an old Ivy League man himself, Bob told me to go ahead and let the kids have their fun, and settled for my reserving one wing of the apartment for his guests.

These turned out to be a truly notable assortment of celebrities, among them a U.S. Senator who was much in the news just then, a famous woman writer, a movie idol, a prominent and lovely member of the fast fox-hunting’ set, and a career girl, well-known both in Washington and New York, and very close to a member of the White House inner circle.

As Bob has requested, I had instructed the girls to keep away, but when they saw who all was there, they were extremely annoyed not to be allowed to join such a celebrity-studded group. In particular, Ellie—who was something of a sorehead anyway and had been boozing all afternoon—felt put upon at being excluded, and accused me of fostering class-consciousness, I told her I wasn’t fostering anything but a private party, but she would be fostering a tremendous hangover if she didn’t lay off the sauce.

Dinner went off well, but afterward the movie star excused himself to go into the bathroom and when he came out he had Ellie with him. This prompted Bob to observe, “Nice flushing, old man!” and everybody laughed, but I was furious and marched Ellie right back to the other part of the house. I told the maids to keep an eye on her, for Ellie was a bad drunk and often threatened suicide when she got loaded.

Meanwhile the entertainers engaged by Bob had arrived, and the party really was beginning to roll. The first to perform were three queer boys who were completely in drag, with wigs, false eyelashes, high-heeled pumps and beautiful evening gowns. Their act was hilarious and they were so convincing that for some time the Senator refused to believe they weren’t women. However, the hit of the evening was their opposite number, Mabel, a big fat colored girl clad in white tie and tails, who flaunted a key ring on which was inscribed “with love” and the nickname of a well-known Pak Avenue matron. Mabel was famous for her risqué songs and tonight, was usual, she wowed her audience.

As I was busy all evening commuting between Bob’s party and the football rooters, I did not know that Lola, the White House favorite, had asked one of the maids to show her around, and, just for a lark, introduce her as one of the girls. But about half an hour later, when I was back with Bob’s party, Lola stumbled into the room, crying hysterically.

“Oh, my God! Ellie fell out of the window!” she sobbed. “I tried to hold her, but she fell.”

In an instant everything was in an uproar. “Get to Ellie,” I yelled at a maid. Then, like Paul Revere, I raced to every part of the house, knocking at doors and urging people to leave. “There’s going to be trouble—get out! Hurry! There’s going to be trouble!” I called over an over. The queers got so excited their wigs flew in every direction, their eyelashes fell off, and they began pushing a shoving to the nearest exit, stumbling along in their high-heeled shoes in the wake of Mabel who was cutting out with no time wasted. Her hoarse shouts made the pandemonium complete, and the football crowd couldn’t have liked it more. In fact, they insisted on staying to see the rest of the fun, and I nearly lost my mind before I could get rid of them.

I found Bob alone, taking a cat nap in one of the rooms, and dragged him out of bed while he kept protesting that such a rude awakening was unfair to organized sleeping. But his sleepiness disappeared when Sam, the elevator boy, caught up with us. Sam was in a sweat of excitement. “She’s alive,” he reported breathlessly. “I carried her into the superintendent’s apartment.” Quickly we hurried down to Ellie. She lay brokenly on a bed, and kept repeating feebly, “I was pushed…She pushed me out the window.”

I knew Ellie was lying, for Lola was not the sort of woman who went around pushing people out of windows. But if Ellie were to persist in her story, and an investigation should result, I shuddered to think of the scandal. Turning to Bob I told him that he and his friends must leave at once.

“The hell we will, Poll,” said Bob. “We’re not going to leave you to take this all on your own shoulders. If we ran out and the girl died, you might be held for manslaughter. We’re sticking right here until we find out how badly she’s hurt.”

I hurriedly got the neighborhood doctor on the phone, but when I tried to explain what had happened he cut in rudely, “What do you mean—a girl fell out of the window? You must be drunk. Call the police department.” Finally, Bob had to take over and convince him there really had been an accident, and it was an emergency.

The doctor was unable to determine how seriously Ellie had been injured and called in a colleague, who advised us to take her to a private sanitarium. (The healers split two hundred and fifty not to talk about their visit.) I went along with Ellie and stayed till I learned that nothing ailed her except a few broken ribs…

When I got back to the house it was well after daybreak, but I found Bob and his friends still waiting. They were people who had everything to lose by becoming involved in a scandal, and it would have been perfectly easy for them to run out, yet they stood by.

P. 225 – Killing time, I stopped in at Dave Chasen’s only to find no drinks were being served as it was Election Day. However, when I caught sight of a certain well-known and beloved face, I felt as a wayfarer lost in the Alps must feel when he sees the lights of the hospice shining through the snow—Robert Benchley was there, and waving at me to join him. With characteristic foresight, Bench had prepared for the Election Day emergency, and offered me a Pink Lady from a flask that would have broken the neck of a St. Bernard. Soon we were deep in reminiscences about the old times, about Papa Tony and Dorothy Parker and the members of the Algonquin Round Table.

We were well on the way to getting lost in a pale pink fog, when I heard brays of greetings, and there were some of the hotel guests bearing down on us, their cold shoulders magically defrosted at the sight of my companion. I whispered that up to now these characters had done nothing but snub me, and Bench responded by giving them the full treatment—a brush-off that sent them scattering in all directions like a busted strand of dime-store pearls.

Robert Benchley was the kindest, warmest-hearted man in the world, and ordinarily he would cut off his right arm rather than do or say anything to make another person uncomfortable. But such petty gratuitous meanness always infuriated him, and he despised snobs and hypocrites. To cheer me up, he told me of the time a great friend of his, an international stage star, opened in a play. As always, she was snowed under the telegrams wishing her luck, most of which were signed with internationally famous names. But in the place of honor at the top of the dressing-table mirror was the telegram from me. Speaking of this actress, I remember that Bench used to kid me about my husky voice, saying that I sounded just like her with a cold.

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