Debby Applegate
AUTHOR

Debby Applegate

I sometimes feel that the irresistible force of an invisible hand pushed me into writing my new biography of Polly Adler, the “Female Al Capone” and “New York’s Empress of Vice.” After my first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher was published, I swore I’d never write another biography. They take so long! They require such patience and fortitude! They can sink even the best authors in literary quicksand. But then one festive evening not long after my book won the Pulitzer Prize, we were celebrating after an award ceremony, I was feeling a little vain and my resolve started to falter. Then someone – I blame my editor Gerry Howard – casually threw out the suggestion that I next do a book about the Roaring Twenties. “How about Calvin Coolidge?” my husband Bruce piped up, a notion that was immediately nixed. Something sexy and scandalous, that was the ticket, everyone at the table agreed. In retrospect, the idea was silly. I’d spent the last two decades immersed in the nineteenth century, keeping company with Calvinists ministers. A wiser soul would have foreseen the challenges of switching eras and perspectives so radically. But then I stumbled on Polly Adler’s 1953 memoir, A House is Not a Home in the stacks of the Yale library. I’d never heard of her but I quickly discovered that she was a true icon and major influence of Jazz Age Manhattan. From 1920 to 1945, Polly Adler reigned as New York’s “queen of the underworld, ” When she was only a twenty-year old flapper, she opened her first, two-bedroom brothel in 1920, the same year Prohibition made the sale of “intoxicating beverages” illegal. But Polly had grander visions. “If I had to be a madam, I’d be a good madam,” she declared. "I was determined to be the best goddam madam in all America.” Polly cultivated gossip columnists and influential newspapermen and patronized the chic nightclubs with a rotating posse of glamour girls. “She was a sharp businesswoman, a financial brain,” remembered one customer. “You had to be somebody to go there, and you had to pay plenty, no matter who you were or how well you knew her.” By 1925, her house had become a favorite oasis for the bootleggers and gamblers who circled around Arnold Rothstein, and the late-night hangout for the wisecracking Broadway bohemians of the Algonquin Roundtable. The showbiz crowd soon followed. Top executives in the garment industry, motion pictures, and advertising employed her girls to woo clients. Wall Street traders passed along stock tips on their way to the bedroom. Crooked cops made her place their home away from home. Racketeers used her parlor as an informal headquarters where they could confer with politicians and judges. She once confessed that even Franklin Delano Roosevelt had employed her services. In 1953, Polly capped her career by publishing a memoir. A House is Not a Home became a runaway hit, selling two million copies and vaulting her to international fame. So once again, I found myself beguiled by an extraordinary character and an epic, but forgotten, American story, luring me down the primrose of path of writing another biography. But this one was about an entirely new subject, set in an entirely new century and a radically different culture! It was no small task to trade saints for sinners and ministers for madams. Had I known it would take thirteen years, I’d never have tried. But from the outset, this project seemed anointed by the muses. The first encouraging omen was the discovery that my former classmate, Rachel Rubin, had recently edited a new edition of A House is Not a Home for University of Massachusetts Press. Generously, Rachel handed me a stack of newspaper clippings on Polly (a very valuable gift in those early days of digitalization), sealing my fate. My run of uncanny good fortune was just beginning. By coincidence, that same year I was invited by Melissa Homestead to Lincoln, Nebraska, the home of Virginia Faulkner, Polly’s ghostwriter. In a miraculous twist, I stumbled on Faulkner’s personal notebooks documenting the writing of Polly’s memoir, including many of the names, dates and incidents that had been changed or excised. I give my deepest thanks to the anonymous collector who was savvy enough to save them from destruction. It felt like another miracle when I found the Yizkor memorial book documenting the Jewish community in Polly’s hometown of Janow al yad Pinsk, which was destroyed during the Holocaust. The discovery of such rich and poignant details of a long-gone community was truly an unexpected blessing. My good luck intensified when I found Eleanor Vera, who cared for Polly’s last surviving brother, Sam Adler. Embarrassed by his sister’s notoriety, Sam tossed out most of Polly’s scrapbooks, taped reminiscences, signed first editions and keepsakes after her death, but Ellie managed to save several boxes including many of the images that appear in this book. Without the farsightedness and generosity of Eleanor Vera and that anonymous collector in Nebraska, this biography would have been a faint shadow of itself. That same remarkable year, Polly’s cousin, the magnificent Smadar Gilboa found me. Over the course of our friendship Smadar became a master genealogist who spent hundreds of hours tracking clues and answering questions. She was a true partner in the creation of this book. These new relationships culminated during a magical weekend in Los Angeles, where I met Polly’s niece Robin Adler, daughter of her beloved brother Bob who could not have been more welcoming. With Smadar’s help I was also able to speak with Polly’s extended family who offered key insights. After this my debts mounted quickly. I was obsessed with the hunt for evidence and I pursued every angle, from the antiquarian to the cutting-edge. I went followed crazy hunches and went down improbable paths but the payoff was huge. I found hundreds of articles, memoirs, criminal records, FBI files, appearances in gossip columns, plays, movies, and jokes. For someone who was lived her life undercover, Polly sure did leave a big trail of breadcrumbs. I am so grateful to everyone who helped me so generously and who waited so patiently for Madam to finally arrive on bookshelves. And I am so grateful to those of you who read – or at least buy it! -- I hope you love it. With much joy and warm thanks to you all, Debby A note from 2007 -- on the release of my first book The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. I started researching the notorious and charming Reverend Henry Ward Beecher when I was only 18 years old, when I was asked to put together a display on notorious but forgotten alumni as a student worker in the Amherst College Archives (I was a great fan of American history even then). I was raised in a very unusual religious environment -- my mother's family is Mormon, my father's is Irish Catholic, I grew up around many evangelical Christians in Oregon, and my mother is a New Thought minister -- and Beecher seemed to embody the best of what religion could offer. I loved his very modern sense of humor and irreverence toward old sacred cows, and his joyful, ecumenical approach to religion and life in general. Except, of course, for the fact that he was accused (but never convicted) of an affair with his own parishioner -- which explains why he'd been forgotten. "What a great topic for a seminar paper!" I thought as an 18 year old student, but as I began writing about him I had no idea how long Beecher would capture my imagination. Finally, after nearly twenty years with Beecher -- including several years of college, 7 years of graduate school and another 7 years of research and writing (it begins to feel almost Biblical!) -- he and I have come to our climax. I still feel great affection for Beecher even after seeing him at his worst, including discovering a child whom I believe to be his illegitimate daughter. In both his glories and faults, he is one of the great founding fathers of modern American religion and it would be impossible to imagine American culture without his influence. Just try "googling" Henry Ward Beecher's name on the web and you will find hundreds of his pithy, profound and funny quotations collected by people who have no idea that he was once the most famous man in America. It would thrill me if my book restores some of Beecher's well-deserved fame and infamy. My only dilemma now is what to do now that old Beecher and I have finally come to the end of our collaboration. Any suggestions from readers are very welcome....
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