The Manhattan ‘Madam’ Who Hobnobbed With the City’s Elite

The extra profitable Polly grew to become, the extra hounded she was — by the police, by Tammany Corridor, by the Broadway mob. Her brothel was distinguished by good hygiene and well-selected “ladies.” (When the Melancholy hit, Polly was capable of flip away as much as 40 younger girls for each one she employed — an acceptance charge analogous to that of the Ivy League as of late.) However because the enterprise developed, her brothel additionally supplied much less tangible providers: It took on the looks of a literary salon, with drink from the perfect bootleggers, meals from her personal cooks and good firm from Polly. It grew to become the after-hours place not just for gangsters, lowlifes and politicians, but in addition for the Algonquin Spherical Desk and for writers at The New Yorker. (Dorothy Parker and Polly would chat whereas the lads availed themselves of the providers.) Right here, an usually unexplored exploitation haunts Applegate’s narrative: Polly, who has claimed the American dream and sits sipping drinks with the celebrated Parker, can be the one who procured these younger, largely working-class girls.

Having well-known associates additionally meant that Polly grew to become the topic of gossip columns, jokes and banter, which added to her renown. However not the whole lot was so peachy; her gangster associates have been simply as more likely to fleece or beat her as they have been to commerce laughs and cook dinner up schemes along with her. After all, misogyny was hardly the only purview of the underworld; the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who used Polly’s providers extensively, balked when an up-and-coming bandleader fell in love along with her. Winchell objected that the bandleader, who may have had any lady he desired, was relationship a “broken-down outdated whore and an unsightly one at that.”

Replete with accounts of Polly’s many court docket battles, newspaper headlines, mobster dealings and society gossip, “Madam” is a breathless story instructed by means of extraordinary analysis. Certainly, the galloping tempo of Applegate’s guide generally makes the reader wish to pull out a white flag and wave in give up — begging for her to decelerate. The mob violence, political corruption, social approbation and multitude of johns that Polly confronts at her ever-changing brothel places are each spectacular and unrelenting. And whereas Polly appears to be within the thick of the motion, those that encompass her usually additionally outshine her. Within the guide’s final pages, Applegate makes a forthright case for why Polly is worthy of a biography by noting this injustice: It was not Polly however “her male legal colleagues who grew to become Twentieth-century cultural icons.” “Intercourse staff normally … are sellers in phantasm,” she writes, and People don’t wish to see the curtain pulled again to disclose the mechanisms, not to mention the banality, of their desires.

Now, Applegate suggests, with the appearance of social actions round intercourse and energy, we’d lastly be prepared. However elsewhere, she stakes Polly’s declare for fame on her proximity to males who made historical past (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), wittily narrated it (Robert Benchley), created its soundtrack (Duke Ellington) or violently upended it (Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond). But the takeaway for this reader not less than is that Polly deserves our consideration as a result of her life reveals how girls who want to transcend their standing should grow to be knowledgeable practitioners of chameleonism. That can be what makes Polly on some stage a irritating topic for a biography. As Applegate concedes, Polly “hid much more of her story than she shared, even from herself.” In different phrases, the very trait that made Polly Adler survive and succeed can be what makes her defiantly elusive. Applegate, armed with formidable expertise, could be the biographer who can come closest to revealing her.

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