Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul Paperback – Jun 10 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Freelance journalist Abbott's vibrant first book probes the titillating milieu of the posh, world-famous Everleigh Club brothel that operated from 1900 to 1911 on Chicago's Near South Side. The madams, Ada and Minna Everleigh, were sisters whose shifting identities had them as traveling actors, Edgar Allan Poe's relatives, Kentucky debutantes fleeing violent husbands and daughters of a once-wealthy Virginia lawyer crushed by the Civil War. While lesser whorehouses specialized in deflowering virgins, beatings and bondage, the Everleighs spoiled their whores with couture gowns, gourmet meals and extraordinary salaries. The bordello—which boasted three stringed orchestras and a room of 1,000 mirrors—attracted such patrons as Theodore Dreiser, John Barrymore and Prussian Prince Henry. But the successful cathouse was implicated in the 1905 shooting of department store heir Marshall Field Jr. and inevitably became the target of rivals and reformers alike. Madam Vic Shaw tried to frame the Everleighs for a millionaire playboy's drug overdose, Rev. Ernest Bell preached nightly outside the club and ambitious Chicago state's attorney Clifford Roe built his career on the promise of obliterating white slavery. With colorful characters, this is an entertaining, well-researched slice of Windy City history. Photos. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Chicago, the saying goes, ain't ready for reform. It certainly wasn't in 1899, when sisters Ada and Minna "Everleigh" (real name: Simms) opened their brothel. As Abbott's jaunty history relates, their whorehouse was not a tawdry bang barn for johns with a nickel but a glitzy palace of paid pleasure for plutocrats. Ada and Minna's Everleigh Club prospered, protected by payoffs to Chicago's legendary political crooks "Bathhouse" Coughlin and "Hinky Dink" Kenna, but the bordello's brazenness mobilized moralists alarmed by vice, so-called white slavery in particular. An entertaining read, by turns bawdy and sad, as when a courtesan ends up dead, Abbott's account extends beyond local history because the campaign against Ada and Minna had lasting national effects: the closure of urban red-light districts and the passage of the federal Mann Act concerning prostitution. Abbott adroitly evokes the cathouse atmosphere, but it is the rapier-sharp character sketches of the cast that best show off her authorial skills and will keep readers continually bemused as they learn about the lives and times of two madams. Taylor, Gilbert --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
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Sisters Ada and Minna "Everleigh" (a name they assumed) were raised in privilege in a wealthy southern family. They were very highly educated women, intellectuals in an age that wasn't prized in the female sex. The story of how they went from high society to becoming madams is incredible, reflecting on their innate intelligence and economic and marketing savvy. But equally remarkable is the difference between their establishment and others that existed around the same time. Rather than demeaning their girls, Ada and Minna lavished money and benefits such as expensive clothing on their whores. These were girls who were tutored in the arts, making them more like geishas than common prostitutes.
The Everleigh Club was an elite bordello, drawing the likes of literary great Theodore Dreiser, the actor John Barrymore, and even a Prussian prince. This was no common whorehouse. Though the girls did provide sexual services, the Everleigh was a much more refined establishment featuring string orchestras, lavish decor, and a class of girls that were a cut above those in lesser houses.
The history presented here illustrates the high level of research Abbott conducted. To say it's thorough is a vast understatement. Not only do we get all the known history on the Everleigh, but the rest of Chicago history is likewise splayed out before us, including all that was going on politically, socially and in the literary world. Really a fascinating portrait of an age and a city, Sin in the Second City is a thrilling read I'd recommend to anyone, whether interested in Chicago history in particular or not. It's a slice of an era, and a invaluable historical record of how the nation stood at the beginning of the 20th century. It's as engaging as any novel I've ever read. I can smell the awards now.
Minna and Ada Simms were two Virginia-born debutantes who took their beauty, business smarts, love of refinement, and lack of subservience to men, and realized a fortune. Their palatial brothel in Chicago's raucous Levee district made them a cause celebre for the eleven years they remained in business. They catered to the millionaire element, becoming the Nordstrom's of the flesh trade, and injected class and humor into a profession that easily destroyed the bodies and souls of the unwary. Competitors like Madam Vic Shaw and the Weiss brothers hated them for setting gilded standards that the $2 dives like the Bucket of Blood and the Sappho could never hope to match. Religious crusaders and purity leagues blasted them as flagships for the dreaded white slave trade, conveniently forgetting that the Everleigh Club was so renowned for its generous treatment of the inmates that there was a waiting list to join the ranks of Everleigh 'butterflies', as Minna called them. But as the saying goes, "A narrow mind and a wide mouth usually go together."
Although the Everleigh Club's irreverent opulence caused its downfall and ultimately the closure of the old Levee, Minna and Ada had the last laugh. They took their millions, toured Europe, and lived out the last of their days in New York.
Through free use of anecdotes that make this nonfiction book read like the best-crafted fiction, Ms. Abbott has told a riveting story of two women who became successful and wealthy on their own terms. By going for the gold ring instead of the brass one, they went down in a blaze of glory... pun intended.
The writing is stellar, the time period fascinating, the details are sumptuous---I couldn't put this book down, and I know I will be rereading it. I can't recommend this book strongly enough.
The Everleigh Club was very different from the other brothels in the Levee. Minna and Ada put a great deal of effort into bringing some "dignity" to the prostitution business. Harlots (yes, that's how prostitutes are referred to in the book) needed to be put on a waiting list to get into the Everleigh Club because the place was unlike any other brothel in the country: hundreds of women wanted to work there. The club was grandly decorated in expensive gold fineries and only admitted wealthy and well-behaved male clientele. While other brothels would obtain harlots through methods of white slavery, the Everleigh sisters only hired courtesans who sincerely wanted to work for them. Everleigh "butterflies" were the most beautiful and sought-after girls in the business, and within days of its grand opening, the club became the most prestigious brothel in the country and retained its status for many years.
Unfortunately for Minna and Ada, their success didn't last forever. Chicago became known primarily for two things: the Union Stock Yards and the Everleigh Club. Such notoriety did not please city officials, who desired a more respectable reputation for Chicago. Religious activists and community leaders eventually became more and more determined to put an end to white slavery and dismantle the Levee district altogether. In the end, the Everleigh Club disappeared along with the other Chicago brothels, but it left a lasting impression on the city for a very long time.
When I first picked up this book, I figured that author Karen Abbott was trying to capitalize on the success of Erik Larson's bestseller, "The Devil in the White City." Indeed, the general concept of corruption in Chicago at the turn of the century is present in this book, and Abbott's writing style is somewhat similar to Larson's. However, Abbott's book surpasses Larson's in several ways. First of all, "Sin" is much better written than "Devil." There aren't any dry chapters and Abbott doesn't bombard the reader with a ridiculous amount of unnecessary detail. Also, Abbott's book doesn't drag on forever the way Larson's does, and even though the narration of "Sin" shifts perspective as it does in "Devil," one point of view isn't any less interesting than the others. Finally, although Abbott does make some general assumptions in this book (you have to, I think, if you're writing this kind of story), she doesn't go over-the-top the way Larson tends to do, making "Sin" a more credible piece of non-fiction than "Devil."
"Sin in the Second City" is meticulously researched, and it forces readers to question their perceptions on what is generally a very taboo topic. Although the Levee district hasn't existed in Chicago for years, prostitution is still very active around the world. The Everleigh sisters firmly believed that their business was a good and necessary one, and that the way they ran their club distinguished them from sleazier houses where girls were lured to disease-infested brothels, beaten and raped, and then forced to turn tricks or face the penalty of death.
Ultimately, the best thing about this book is that it delves into a huge part of Chicago history that's pretty much been buried for decades. I've lived in the Chicago area my entire life, and although I knew there used to be a Levee district here, I'd never even heard of the Everleigh Club before, which is a shame. This may be a slightly embarrassing part of the city's history, but it's history nonetheless, and I really enjoyed reading about it.