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Publisher's Summary

The compulsively listenable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star, and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the '20s roar - from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America.

“Applegate’s tour de force about Jazz Age icon Polly Adler will seize you by the lapels, buy you a drink, and keep you reading until the very last page.... A treat for fiction and nonfiction fans alike." (Abbott Kahler, New York Times best-selling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park)

Simply put: Everybody came to Polly's. Pearl "Polly" Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels in the Roaring '20s became places not just for men to have the company of women but were key gathering places where the culturati and celebrity elite mingled with high society and with violent figures of the underworld - and had a good time doing it. 

As a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, Polly Adler's life is a classic American story of success and assimilation that starts like a novel by Henry Roth and then turns into a glittering real-life tale straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She declared her ambition to be "the best goddam madam in all America" and succeeded wildly. Debby Applegate uses Polly's story as the key to unpacking just what made the 1920s the appallingly corrupt yet glamorous and transformational era that it was and how the collision between high and low is the unique ingredient that fuels American culture.

©2021 Debby Applegate (P)2021 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Pearl to Polly, shtetl child to savvy New Yorker, Brooklyn corset factory girl to Manhattan’s most notorious brothel owner: Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Debby Applegate, tells a fast-paced tale of radical, willful transformation.... Replete with accounts of Polly’s many court battles, newspaper headlines, mobster dealings and society gossip, Madam is a breathless tale told through extraordinary research.” (The New York Times Book Review)

"A biography that is also a story of America bursting into the modern age, with new roles for women, new rules for couples, and parties that flowed into rooms down the hall.” (CBS Sunday Morning) 

Madam, Debby Applegate’s tour de force about Jazz Age icon Polly Adler, will seize you by the lapels, buy you a drink, and keep you reading until the very last page. Applegate’s brilliant research and cinematic prose made me feel I was peering over Adler’s shoulder, watching her drift through the parlor of her brownstone establishment, wisecracking with the Mob and paying off the cops. Madam is a judicious exploration of the dark side of the American Dream, and Applegate is a lively and knowledgeable guide. A treat for fiction and nonfiction fans alike." (Abbott Kahler, New York Times best-selling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park)

What listeners say about Madam

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  • Overall
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Story of 20 through the eyes of a madam

I was hesitant at first as I never heard of this madam . But her story on NYT and then cbs Sunday got me interested. And I enjoyed all the history of this biography. So many big names but beyond the skin trade this book is an eye opening on chat happen in the -st half 20th century in NEW YORK And the early start of the entertainment industry high broadway and Hollywood.

2 people found this helpful

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Debby Applegate is amazing!

This book is a masterful undertaking. I was very moved by the fact that a little girl was sent to another country and left to fend for herself. Holly Adler was truly a survivor and a historical icon. Debby is a class act!

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thumbs up

a story that needed to be told to help understand women's roles as players in evolution of American society. extremely well written and narrated

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Thrilling ride through roaring 20s—Page-turner!

Polly Adler is Horacio Alger of the sexy underworld. Her trials and tribulations make for a breathtaking romp through three decades of shifting American attitudes about sex, women in business, and the immigrant experience. Beautifully read. Applegate’s got a great ear for story & dialogue.

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  • 11-15-21

Loved Madam!

Kept my attention from start to finish. This book was worth the wait. Suspenseful and engaging.

2 people found this helpful

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Broadway's Underside

“Madam” is the lively, fascinating tale of Polly Adler, a poor but plucky immigrant who developed the premier brothel in New York City in the gangster days of the ‘20s and ‘30. Her houses drew famous playwrights, musicians, actors and politicians, some seeking her company more than her women. But Polly also befriended hoodlums and killers like Arnold Rothstein and Dutch Schultz, and she had to put up with constant pressure from dishonest policemen demanding bribes. The book displays the transient glamor of her business and her life, but it also displays the ruined lives, the despair, the violence and the graft. The book is about more than just Polly Adler: it’s a kaleidoscopic view of nightlife and show business in New York City during Prohibition and the Depression.

Debby Applegate writes with a light, gossipy tone, using a lot of slang that gives the book a flavor of Polly’s Broadway world. The author names names, many still familiar today. She builds suspense as civic leaders try to shut down the gangs and the brothels, and the gangsters fight back. She doesn’t hide Polly’s follies, but she shows enough of the challenges of immigrant poverty to justify Polly’s determination to crawl up and out. Overall, “Madam” is an entertaining and well-researched biography of a woman and her era.

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Meh; but enough to create interest in the subject

Struggled to finish, lots of name dropping, not a terribly interesting narrative after about chapter 3.

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A great read for any lovers of the 20s

Loved every word. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in NYC

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Interesting, but…

An interesting story but sometimes dry and a challenge to keep reading (listening). She was a legend, for sure.

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Moves too slow narrator voice is monotone

Narrator is monotone with no energy. Good to fall asleep to. Story could have been interesting but develops too slowly.