Elevating the World's Oldest Profession in Chicago In early 20th century Chicago, the Everleigh Club was the country's most famous brothel. Sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh welcomed prominent clientele and treated their "girls" like queens. But it didn't last.
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Elevating the World's Oldest Profession in Chicago

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Elevating the World's Oldest Profession in Chicago

Elevating the World's Oldest Profession in Chicago

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

A new hot book is putting the steam into scholarship and social history this summer. Karen Abbott's new book, "Sin in the Second City," describes the history of the most famous, opulent, overdone and influential brothel in American history - the Everleigh Club in Chicago's Levee District that operated in the first part of the 20th century.

Now today high-priced madams create scandals by leaking their list of clients, especially politicians. The Everleigh Club's list included most of the city's most powerful pols, including Hinky Dink Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin; famous actors, including John Barrymore; royalty, including Prince Henry of Prussia; Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion of the world; and the city's richest family names.

The bordello run by Ada and Minna Everleigh had more big name writers from Edgar Lee Masters to Theodore Dreiser, who were sitting around in their skivvies than you can usually see, sitting on the shelves of a Barnes & Noble.

Karen Abbott joins us now from our studios in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. KAREN ABBOTT (Author, "Sin in the Second City"): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Describe the Everleigh Club because it sounds like the Bellagio of it times.

Ms. ABBOTT: Absolutely. It was in a double mansion in Chicago's Near South Side. When you walked in, the first thing you saw were jets of perfume shooting into the air. There were three-stringed orchestras. There was a $15,000 gold piano, $650 gold spittons, even firecrackers that clients could shot off into barrels. A dining room that was designed to look like a Pullman Palace Car, which was the height of opulence at the time.

And, you know, to give you an idea of the price range - just to walk in the door was $50, and this is in an era when a three-course meal costs 50 cents. They - Everleigh has employed some of the finest chefs across the country, and a lot of men came just for the cuisine. And it was sort of like a gentlemen's club where they could kick the back, relax, have a drink and sex was almost beside the point.

SIMON: Poetry recitals.

Ms. ABBOTT: That too. The Everleigh sisters were very unique in the way that they cared for their girls, and one of the things they did was educate them. They taught them poetry. They made sure that they were well versed and could speak on the politics of the day. And the clients sort of enjoyed this and also laughed at it.

SIMON: How would the Everleigh sisters recruit these young women who became known as, I guess, the butterflies - Everleigh butterflies.

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, they - their story was that they had a waiting list. They initially recruited through their theatrical days. They sought actresses and sort of sought out young women who were - who they had known for the grapevine. And the Everleigh sisters soon established a reputation that warranted a waiting list.

SIMON: They had competition there in the Levee District, didn't they?

Ms. ABBOTT: Yes, they did. The Levee District had hundreds and hundreds of brothels. A lot of them were sort of lower dives with five-cent admission fees and places were madams kept a whipper on staff who met out discipline. But they did have a queen of the Levee District before the Everleighs came to town and her name was Vic Shaw(ph). She didn't at all appreciate these two, you know, aristocratic sisters, sauntering in with their manners and flouting around town as if the had been there for a long time. And she really resented their imposition and actually tried to frame them twice for murder.

SIMON: Alas, the young Marshall Field was shot one day.

Ms. ABBOTT: Yes, it was - actually in 1905, and it's a story that's always been surrounded in mystery. Chicago, to this day, is sort of not sure what happened to him. But the most persistent and juiciest piece of gossip held that he was shot while cavorting in the Everleigh Club. He angered a harlot and she pulled out a gun and shot him.

And the sisters whisked his body away in the dark of night back to his Prairie Avenue mansion, and we are able to cover this up because, number one, Marshall Field Sr. was powerful, obviously, and threatened to pull his advertising dollars. And number two, the Everleigh sisters themselves were smart and had very good relations with the rank-and-file press corps. And they knew how to get publicity when they wanted it, and how to avoid publicity when they didn't.

SIMON: Was it the ambition of the Everleigh sisters to turn what after all had been considered fairly by some people necessary, but a fairly squalid business into something resplendent and almost showbiz-like?

Ms. ABBOTT: It was their intention, and I think part of that was born of their own background and the degradation they suffered. If they were going to be in this business, they were going to run it properly and they were going to treat girls as they wished they had been treated.

A lot of the lesser dives employed a charlatan doctor that forged reports and you know, forced their girls to keep working, even if they were inflicted with disease or sick. But the Everleigh sisters made sure that they had a doctor on staff who would conduct honest examinations and that the girls were in good health.

SIMON: With the advantage of more than a century of retrospect, were they kidding themselves about that? Wasn't it still a pretty seamy business and exploitative of women?

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, there's absolutely no question that it was a difficult business. But to put that in the context of what women were offered and are -their opportunities at the time of the last century, you know, if you're lucky, you could have gotten a job as a clerk or a domestic worker for maybe $6 a week. At a lesser brothel, you could get maybe $15 a week. And at the Everleigh Club, you could get maybe $100 a week. So it was not necessarily the best route that one can take but it was what was available at the time.

SIMON: I have to ask you about an employee of the Everleigh Club named Suzy(ph) - Suzy from Shanghai.

Ms. ABBOTT: Yeah, Suzy from Shanghai. One of the clients had heard of Suzy from Shanghai. Apparently, she was a gorgeous woman and had become well - renown for her talent. But he did not want to visit the brothel where she was employed; it was beneath him.

So the Everleigh sisters worked out a very savvy deal with the madam of that house in which they would pay her, you know, cover Suzy's wages and then some that she would have earn at that house and took her to the Everleigh Club to satisfy their client. And as the story goes, he ended up marrying her.

SIMON: The more famous the Everleigh Club became - and it became a real landmark in Chicago - the more agitation there was to have it closed. There would be almost nightly demonstrations in front of it, wouldn't there be? Or at least weekly.

Ms. ABBOTT: Absolutely. One of the men I talked about in the book is a minister by the name of Ernest Bell. He was possibly the only person in the book who really meant what he said and said what he meant and was, you know, really believed that the Everleigh sisters were ruining the moral fabric of America. And he followed - he kept close tab on them and preached against them every night.

SIMON: When the Everleigh sisters retired - I guess, would be the term of art -they were people of means, and they said about essentially they covered their tracks from life. I love the story you tell about getting contact(ph) in the 1940s by a man who has become one of the most famous authors in the country, Irving Wallace.

Ms. ABBOTT: Yeah. That was one of my favorite incidents in the book too. You know, Minna was still an expert spin-doctor and the first note she writes back to Irving Wallace is one in which he denies that she and Ada are even the madams that he was seeking. She says, oh, we're not Minna and Ada Everleigh. We're Mary and Alice. And those two women in Chicago, you know, stole our names and have sullied our good reputation. And then she sort of adds, in true Minna fashion, but, you know, I do happen to know how to get in touch with them. So let me see if I can - what I can do and perhaps I can do you that favor. And I think Minna was at the point where she actually believed everything she said and was so wrapped up in the idea of the image that she created for herself, that she was very protective of that.

SIMON: Ms. Abbott, it's so nice talking to you. Thank you very much.

Ms. ABBOTT: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Karen Abbott is speaking with us from Chicago. Her new book is "Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul." And you can read more from the book at our Web site, npr.org.

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