Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age
by Debby Applegate
The compulsively readable 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 twenties roar—from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America.
Simply put: Everybody came to Polly’s. Pearl “Polly” Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels in the Roaring Twenties 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.
My thoughts: A fascinating and thorough look at the life of Polly Adler. She came to America alone from a shtetl in Janow, Russia. After being kicked out of two different relatives homes, she moved to New York City and got some work in a corset factory. She learned the ropes in the prostitution game and set up her first brothel in 1920, the same year as Prohibition came into existence as a moral ban on alcohol. She ran her brothels well for someone in her 20s, but paid a lot of money in bribes and still got busted at times. That cost her a lot in having to relocate, bail everyone out and hire lawyers. Polly built up a following of famous people, wealthy patrons, and underworld figures. She allowed just about anyone with a large bankroll to hire the services of her whores. Polly Adler soon became so well known that there were few who didn’t recognize her name. Advance electronic review copy was provided by NetGalley, author Debby Applegate, and the publisher.
Publisher: Doubleday Books – 576 pages
Publication: Nov 2nd, 2021
My rating: 4/5 STARS
About the author: DEBBY APPLEGATE is a historian and biographer based in New Haven, CT. Her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. She is a graduate of Amherst College and was a Sterling Fellow in American Studies at Yale University where she received her Ph.D.