Adler’s Bordello: Jewish Female Paths in America
On the 16th of April 1900, Pearl (Polly) Adler was born in Ivanava (Yanow), Belarus, as the oldest of 9 siblings in a traditional Jewish family. When she was 12, her father, a successful travelling tailor, decided to send her ahead as the first link in the Russian “chain emigration” to the United States to stay with friends in Holyoke, Massachusetts. For 2 years she lived with “the Grodeskys, doing housework for them and attending public school. Shortly after her fourteenth birthday she began work in the local paper mills. The next year she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and lived with her cousins Lena and Yossell Rosen, working successively in a corset factory, as a seamstress at home, and as a machine operator in a shirt factory. An attractive teenager eager to escape the grinding poverty of immigrant life, Adler refused the penniless suitor her relatives had chosen for her and instead sought glamour in the local dance halls. At the age of seventeen she was raped by her supervisor from the shirt factory. After a family quarrel and an abortion she moved to Manhattan, where she found part-time work, once more in a corset factory. Through a family friend Adler became acquainted with a young actress living on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper West Side who introduced her to a world of show business celebrities and the flashy, flourishing world of the prohibition bootleggers.” (Notable American Women: The Modern Period : a Biographical Dictionary, Volume 4, edited by Barbara Sicherman, Carol Hurd Green)
This was a world Adler had not encountered before: realising that her actress friend was addicted to drugs she accepted the assistance of a gangster acquaintance to fund her rent in an apartment where her new career as a provider of pleasure began. Notably, Adler tried to dislodge herself from this career and once she had made sufficient money she tried her hand at opening a legitimate lingerie shop. This however, went bust a year in, and in 1924, she properly embraced her career as brothel madam. In her memoirs she wrote, “In the world of the Twenties, the only unforgivable sin was to be poor”; adopting the credo that whatever is economically right is morally right, she determined “to be the best goddam madam in America.”
Adler began a well-organized publicity campaign to make ” ‘going to Polly’s’ a euphemism for the world’s most popular indoor sport.” Short (four feet eleven), plump, dark-haired, and flamboyantly dressed, she became a familiar figure at New York’s best-known nightclubs, spending freely, attracting attention to her beautiful girls, and providing material for newspaper columnists. Her shrewd business sense resulted in a skyrocket rise to popularity, and her liberal bribes to law enforcement officials kept her establishment open. Adler moved farther downtown to a lavish apartment near the center of Manhattan, and at the age of twenty-four found herself with a business so successful that she had no time to devote to her private life. The patronage of her New York establishment ranged from the wits of the Algonquin Round Table to motion picture stars, business tycoons, and notable members of the social register set. In an effort to attract a more elite clientele, Adler also established a summer business in fashionable Saratoga Springs. (Notable American Women: The Modern Period : a Biographical Dictionary, Volume 4, edited by Barbara Sicherman, Carol Hurd Green). Gangsters, among them “Dutch” Schultz and Lucky Luciano, rubbed elbows in her parlors with the Manhattan haut monde. Although she was briefly imprisoned and witness to numerous trials, her dubious associations never really damaged her glamorous image. To the public, she remained the classic American madam—a feisty, albeit disreputable, victor over adversity. Adler remained in business through most of World War II until her last arrest in 1943 (the charges were dismissed, as usual). She then retired to Burbank, California, where she completed high school and enrolled in Los Angeles Valley College. She died of cancer in Los Angeles on June 9, 1962.
In 1952, Adler’s autobiography A House Is Not a Home, ghosted by Virginia Faulkner was published, becoming a New York Times bestseller. In the early 1960s, her memoirs were made it onto a Hollywood movie starring Shelley Winters as Adler. Her book provides an informal social history of immigrant mobility, prostitution, Jewish life in New York, police corruption, the “white slavery” menace of the early twentieth century, and political dishonesty. Adler’s story fills an important gap in the history of immigrant life, urban experience, and organized crime in the Big Apple. While most other accounts of the New York underworld focus on the lives of men, from Herbert Asbury’s “Gangs of New York” through more recent works on Jewish and Italian gangsters, this book brings women’s lives and issues into focus. In The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century (1997), Joyce Antler wrote about the triple marginalization of American Jewish women: first, for being females in their own patriarchal Jewish communities, second, for being Jews in an era in which reform was a privilege of Christian women in America, and thirdly, as “Jewish women in a modern feminism that often demanded that they choose between religious convictions and political belief. (…) women in different periods had to navigate different shoals: the struggle against the patriarchal view of traditional women’s roles for Yezierska or the labor leader Rose Cohen, the anti-Semitism of female Christian reformers for political activists such as Rebekah Kohut, or the hostility of modern feminists who equated Zionism with racism for Bella Abzug or Letty Cottin Pogrebin.” (Sydney Stahl Weinberg, review of Joyce Antler’s The Journey Home in The Journal of American History, Vol. 88, No. 1, Jun., 2001). Polly Adler, of course, carried the added stigma of her personal life choices, of living outside the legal system as well as outside the moral laws of society at large. Her personal struggles, as well as her later notoriousness, and ultimately, fame in 1930s America is the subject of a forthcoming biography by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Debby Applegate, entitled Madam: The Notorious Life and Times of Polly Adler.