The immigrant experience is rarely if ever easy. It is hard to imagine sending a 13-year-old girl from Russia to the United States on her own, but, in 1913, the year that Pearl (“Polly”) Adler came through Ellis Island, “the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society estimated that 13,588 ‘unaccompanied Jewish girls’ came through the port of New York, out of the 101,330 Jews who immigrated from eastern Europe,” writes Debby Applegate in Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age.
The revelations abound in Madam and most do not centre around statistics, though there are some intriguing ones, like the fact that, in 1925, New York’s White Light District, with Times Square at its core, had “more than 2,500 speakeasies and 200 nightclubs, up from 300 saloons before Prohibition, all vying to offer the youngest girls, bawdiest songs, and hottest dance bands.”
Polly Adler was a major part of this scene, having entered the world of prostitution when she was 17. She had managed to avoid the lechers who recruited girls coming off the boats, and even got a couple years of education living with extended family in Springfield, Mass. But, once the minimum amount of schooling required was reached – a fourth-grade level of English – she had to work. And working in a factory wasn’t a way to get oneself out of poverty. So, with a little help from unscrupulous men, she started on a different career, one that would have her become the most well-known madam in New York, with clients that may even have included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It was a harsh world, though, filled with gangsters, crime, violence, and it wasn’t even that lucrative because of all the payoffs and the immense levels of corruption at every turn: police, lawyers, judges, politicians. But Adler could literally take the punches, and she was “determined to be the best goddam madam in all America.” She achieved her goal and was successful, if measured by fame and money. However, she never achieved the approval and acceptance she sought, having been cared for as a child but never really loved.
Applegate’s biography of Adler is a page-turner, which is an accomplishment given its comprehensiveness and the amount of detail she covers: there are 33 pages of notes and the bibliography runs 13 pages. Readers will really feel as if they’ve met Adler and walked a few feet in her shoes.
Applegate will talk about Madam in the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival event on Feb. 11, which she shares with Roberta Rich, author of The Jazz Club Spy (see jewishindependent.ca/mysteries-to-be-solved).