From Nobody to a Legend
The epic slugfest between Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey in Yankee Stadium couldn’t have come at a better time, as far as Polly Adler was concerned. July and August were always tough months in her business; really, in every branch of Broadway’s Billion Dollar Beauty Trust. Action on the Main Stem was slow during the dog days of summer, in this age before air-conditioning. The big money men of Wall Street and midtown decamped to Europe with their wives, or to country homes on Long Island, Westchester, or the Jersey shore. The high-stakes gamblers and racketeers who were Polly’s most loyal customers hightailed it to Saratoga Springs for a blissful month at the racetrack. Most speakeasies and nightclubs closed, and the leg-and-fanny revues went on tour, taking with them many of the showgirls who moonlighted in Polly’s house of ill repute.
But receipts were down far more than usual in that summer of 1927. Up until now this had been Polly’s best year ever. After seven years in the skin trade, she had finally worked her way into the blue-chip clientele who thought nothing of dropping a couple hundred bucks for a roll in the hay and a few rounds of drinks. It wasn’t just her house. All that spring Broadway’s nightlife was booming as never before, fueled by the soaring stock market and the thriving bootleg liquor industry. The Big Street seemed gripped by a feverish, almost hysterical atmosphere of debauchery, with more shows, more nudity, and more cash changing hands than in any season in memory.
By July, however, the money river mysteriously seemed to dry up. One by one “the after-dark palaces of joy,” as The Morning Telegraph dubbed them, were closing their unmarked doors for lack of business.
Perhaps it was the spiraling prices in the nightclubs—lately even the top-hat-and-ermine set were starting to grouse about the size of their bar bills. Maybe it was the growing allure of Harlem, which was all the rage among the more daring thrill-seekers. It didn’t help that the city was in the grip of a vicious heat wave. Every day 8 million sweating citizens swelled the already-crowded stoops and sidewalks in search of a cool breeze. Every night thousands carried their alarm clocks and pillows to rooftops and fire escapes, hoping for a little relief. Even the hoopla over the historical transatlantic flights of Richard Byrd and Charles Lindbergh, including two tickertape parades up Fifth Avenue, did little to boost revenue. So the return of Jack Dempsey—the biggest entertainment draw in America, bar none—in a major prizefight was like the answer to a heathen’s prayer.
Boxing was always a hot topic among Polly’s clientele, second only to horse racing. But this matchup between Dempsey, the legendary Manassa Mauler, and the young upstart from Boston had sent the whole city into a frenzy of excitement. Tex Rickard, the impresario of Madison Square Garden who’d set up the bout, was predicting over $1 million in ticket sales. Newspaper coverage of the event was feverish, with more than five hundred reporters and photographers planning to be in attendance, and more than a million words in print before the first bell rang. This was Dempsey’s last shot at a comeback, and every high roller who could get his hands on a ticket planned to be there to see it. Everyone in the underworld hospitality industry—the bootleggers, bookmakers, nightclub managers, crap game runners, gold diggers, and prostitutes—was eagerly anticipating the arrival of so many fresh bankrolls eager to be plucked.
Everybody agreed it would be a close fight. The smart money was flocking to the younger, fitter Sharkey, but the sentimental coin was all on the Manassa Mauler. In Polly’s social circles—what might charitably be called the Broadway demimonde—Jack Dempsey was the very ideal of a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger hero. “Plus a few things Mr. Alger didn’t go in for,” Dempsey noted wryly: “beautiful movie and stage stars, a lot of laughs, pressure groups, knocking good guys senseless as a way of life, war, suicide, divorce.” He’d clawed his way to the top with a barbaric fighting style and generous helpings of hype. For the last four years, he’d been living the coddled life of a Hollywood celebrity, getting laid, getting drunk, and spending money hand over fist—a combination that had cost him his title in 1926 but burnished his popularity. Now, at the ancient age of thirty-two, he was attempting a feat never seen before: to take back the heavyweight crown.
To be honest, Polly didn’t really care who won. “I was never much of a fight fan,” she admitted. Nor was she a fan of Dempsey. “I knew him way back and never liked him and still don’t.” It was common knowledge that his first wife had worked as a prostitute, and rumor was that he had been her pimp—and, Polly noted pointedly, “I cannot deny that I mortally hate pimps.” But he was an exception. As a rule, she was fond of boxers. Like prostitution, prizefighting attracted ambitious youths from tough homes, whose only shot at climbing the ladder of success lay in their strong, svelte young bodies.
Like him or not, a good night for Dempsey meant a good night for Polly and her girls. This was the peak of the “One Good Party Era,” as one columnist dubbed it, when one well-oiled sucker on a spending spree could cover her overhead for a month or more. In her business, there were always unexpected expenses. She never knew when she’d be raided or shaken down by the cops, or when an overwrought customer might draw the wrong kind of attention, requiring her to shut down and move her operation—each time costing her a bundle of money and putting her at terrible risk. So a wise madam took advantage of every opportunity. And in her experience, nothing made a man want to party like the surging adrenaline of watching two hulking fellows beat each other bloody.
It was Dempsey’s former manager, Jack “Doc” Kearns, who’d helped build Polly’s reputation as the place for big spenders to celebrate. A fast-talking, wisecracking hustler who favored pastel suits, diamond stickpins, gold-tipped walking sticks, and violet-scented cologne, Doc demanded constant action. He drank voraciously, gambled recklessly, tipped the girls lavishly, had a passion for practical jokes (with a particular fondness for the hotfoot). He routinely bought drinks for everyone in the house, both friends and strangers. When he was in town, Doc was one of Polly’s best customers. “He used to tell me that whenever a fighter comes inside a woman, he loses his strength,” said Dempsey. “Doc believed that, but you sure couldn’t prove it by the way Doc liked to live himself.”
Adding to his charm, Kearns usually brought an entourage of newspapermen with him, all eating and drinking on his (or his fighter’s) dime. In gratitude, the reporters gave his boxers unlimited ink in their newspapers. Tex Rickard called this “sugaring” the sportswriters. Kearns referred to it as “movement money.” Polly’s less colorful clients simply called it an “expense account,” but the idea was the same. “Like a stripteaser,” said Kearns, “I always figured you couldn’t get anywhere without exposure.”
This was where Polly came in. It was a truth universally acknowledged among the denizens of Broadway that “ninety-five per cent of the sucker money is brought in by a skirt,” as one wag put it. That was as true for sports promoters as it was for theatrical producers, factory owners, advertising executives, politicians, or bootleggers. A swell party stocked with easy women was just the thing to convince a fellow to close a contract, make a deal, or pen an enthusiastic column. Like bootleg booze, girls were the grease that made the machinery of the metropolis run smoother.
In that sweltering summer of 1927, Polly Adler was Manhattan’s top supplier of party girls. Unlike Jack Kearns, Polly’s bacchanalian hospitality earned her no headlines. If anything, her kindness to the ink-stained wretches of the press kept her safely out of them. But it did win her exuberant word-of-mouth at Billy LaHiff’s tavern, Dinty Moore’s diner, Lindy’s delicatessen, the Algonquin Hotel, and the all-male sanctum of the Friars Club—wherever men regaled each other with stories of gorgeous women and epic parties. Her house had become one of the notorious late-night hotspots where a fellow who’d won a long shot at the track or made a killing in the stock market could show off his good fortune.
Unfortunately for the freeloaders in the press box, Kearns and Dempsey parted ways in 1925. But Doc had a new protégé, the welterweight champion Mickey Walker, a scrappy Irish slugger from New Jersey who rivaled Kearns in his appetite for booze and broads. Now, this one she liked. The Toy Bull Dog, as the sportswriters nicknamed young Walker, returned the sentiment. “She was a sharp businesswoman, a financial brain. 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,” said Mickey. “In my book, she is a real champ.”
Doc and Mickey were among Polly’s best prospects for raking in some serious dough that week. Right this moment they were on their way back from a raucous romp through Europe. But Doc had telegraphed to say they would be sailing into the port of New York on the day before the big bout. “The Queen Madam,” as Mickey called her, was keeping an anxious eye on the telephone, hoping to hear from the boys as soon as they landed. She was counting on the fact that after their weeks abroad, Mickey and his manager would be making the rounds of all the late-night joints, with a mob of thirsty reporters and gossipmongers in tow. Someone was going to get all that business—she just had to make sure she was one of them.
It was exhausting sometimes, always being on high alert like this, waiting for the phone to ring, listening for an ominous knock at the door, and looking over her shoulder for signs of unscrupulous cops, undercover investigators, blackmailers, and sociopathic customers. When she thought of the thousands of dollars she’d paid out to double-crossing cops and the abuse she took from coked-up racket boys, sometimes it made her blood boil.
But then, that was the secret to her success: her ability to take it on the chin without squawking, then get back up with a smile on her face. To an outsider, “it might seem that I have got Polly Adler confused with Pollyanna,” quipped Polly. “I can only say that I am one of those people who just can’t help getting a kick out of life—even when it’s a kick in the teeth.”
Still, enough good weeks, enough big spenders, and she’d leave this racket in a hot minute. Until then, she said—like the good Jewish girl she’d always meant to be—“I would do nothing but work until I had saved enough money to quit the whorehouse and find myself a decent man.”
Whore is a word that jars the ear and tastes bitter on the tongue. The English language abounds in more polite, poetic, and precise terms to describe a woman who trades sex for money: prostitute, sex worker, lady of the evening, working girl, fallen woman, call girl. Many more are unapologetically rude: hooker, gash, cunt, and piece of hide were all commonly heard in the dives of New York after the Great War.
Women who made a business of sex in those days often turned up their noses at the term prostitute, preferring to call themselves hustlers, party girls, or regulars. But everyone in the sex trade used the word whore. “In those days prostitutes weren’t called chippies or tarts or call girls or any other fancy names,” remembered the columnist Danton Walker. “They were known, quite properly, by the Biblical name: whores, and their establishments were called whorehouses.” It was, after all, one of the world’s oldest words, used to describe the world’s oldest profession.
No one meeting Pearl Adler on the street would have taken her for a fallen woman, let alone the proprietress of Manhattan’s most renowned bordello. “She was homey,” remembered the journalist Irving Drutman; “one would have placed her, and how mistakenly, as the ubiquitous mama in a family-run delicatessen.” Only twenty-seven years old, give or take, and tiny—barely five feet tall in her highest heels—she had a kewpie doll face and a sweet smile that revealed a girlish little gap between her two front teeth. She dressed conservatively in beautifully tailored clothes, often of her own design. Her hair was fashionably bobbed at the neck, her hands tastefully manicured. No ankle bracelets, heavy makeup, or the jungle-red nail polish associated with women of the night. Her jewelry was a tad showy and she had a well-known weakness for mink coats, but no more so than any ambitious Manhattan gold digger.
It was easy to underestimate her, at least until she opened her mouth. She was blessed with “the voice of a longshoreman” in the words of Oscar Levant—naturally husky and roughened by cigarettes, scotch, and a thousand late nights. It was so deep that telephone callers frequently mistook her for a man, much to her annoyance. “I can still hear her hollering over the phone, ‘This is Polly Adler, God damn it. Stop calling me mister,’ ” remembered one friend with amusement. Thirteen years after fleeing the Jewish Pale of Russia, she still spoke with Yiddish inflections, generously sprinkled with immigrant malapropisms and Broadway slang.
Not everyone liked her, of course. Rival madams didn’t care for her upstart ambitions. Some of the Broadway butterflies who worked for her chafed at her ban on drugs and pimps, her insistence that they go to bed with whoever came through the door, and her frequent lectures on social etiquette. Men who were touchy about their own social status often took comfort in belittling her. “I knew Polly Adler,” sniped the famously combative writer John O’Hara; “she was a noisy bore, who looked like Mike Romanoff in drag” (a reference to the infamous Russian-born con man–turned–Hollywood restaurateur). She’d been snubbed in public more times than she could possibly remember, even if she had wanted to.
Nonetheless, her fans outnumbered her foes. Slumming intellectuals and Broadway bohemians were tickled by her blunt realism and lightly louche wisecracks. Fellow Jews from the old country found her house haimish, a cozy home away from home. Many in the underground gay community—both male and female—found her parlor a retreat where they could relax and be themselves. Everyone, from Park Avenue aristocrats to Lower East Side hooligans, appreciated her ironclad discretion.
“Polly Adler was one of the most fascinating females I ever knew,” recalled the playboy songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen. “How the hell do you explain why you like someone? Polly was warm and funny, smart and gutsy and fun to be around. We liked each other and didn’t take the time to think about it much.”
Copyright © 2022 by Debby Applegate. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.