In many ways, Polly Adler's rags to riches tale is exemplary of the American Dream. Who was she?
When Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other members of The Roundtable left the Algonquin Hotel, they could often be overheard saying they’d be “going to Polly’s” later that evening. To the untrained ear, it might have sounded like they were headed to a friend’s for a dinner party.
In a way, that was true: the Polly of whom they spoke was Polly Adler, and she did throw lavish parties almost nightly, entertaining not just writers like Parker and Benchley, but celebrities, mob bosses, and other New York City elite. The parties, however infamous, were very exclusive: they took place at Madam Adler’s bordello at 215 West 75th Street.
Their friend Polly was the most well-known madam in New York City and ran not just one, but several high-end brothels in New York City. But who was this woman and how did she find herself at the height of the Big Apple’s social life as a house mother to the city’s prostitutes?
Pearl Adler was born on April 16, 1900 in Belorussia, but was sent to America as a young woman ahead of the rest of her family, who planned to immigrate. When she arrived she spoke practically no English, had very few work-related skills and with the exception of a few extended family members, knew no one. She was able to get a job working in a shirt-making factory, but was raped by the foreman.
When she discovered she was pregnant, she was forced into the city to find someone to perform an abortion. Thrown out by her relatives, she moved to Manhattan with a few girls from the factory. What she didn’t realize was that the girls were heavily involved in the sex industry, and they immediately introduced her to their pimp.
When she started in the sex industry, Polly quite naturally developed her skills in procuring girls and organizing them. She was also fearless when it came to standing up against clients to protect her girls. When Polly Adler realized that she could be successful as a procuress, she proclaimed to her roommates that she wanted to be “the best goddamn madam in all of America.” Pretty soon she was making $1,100 a week.
By the early 1920s, Polly had established her first brothel. It quickly became the center of the city’s night life, in large part because it wasn’t only about the girls: there was always plenty to eat and drink, a library stocked with books from Parker and Benchley, who were dear friends, and parties that centered as much around music and dance as they did sex. Polly’s, as a destination, was truly “a party house” in every sense of the word.
Her first arrest occurred in 1922, but the economic success of her brothels, combined with her overall savvy business nature, convinced much of the law enforcement to enter into bribes with her that kept her in operation well into the Great Depression. Her girls still managed to pull in $20 a night per client, which when adjusting for inflation would be around $250 in today’s money.
While sex continued to sell amid the economic downturn, the majority of her income in those years came from bootleg liquor. She was notorious throughout all of New York state, running a particular high-end brothel in Sarasota Springs. Her brothels all had hidden stairways and doors so that clients could leave without being seen, either in the midst of a bust or, in the case of celebrities or politicians, simply the need to be discreet.
Polly Adler’s connections with various gangsters made her an enticing witness, but she managed to weasel her way out of many high profile cases by citing “poor memory” – which may well have been rooted in truth, since she ran such an extensive business with more patrons than she could reasonably remember.
She survived the Great Depression by flying under the radar as much as possible while other businesses collapsed around her. Soon she was known to the entire East Coast as the “Queen of Tarts” and was well on her way to achieving her goal of being the best madam in the United States.
In her autobiography A House is Not a Home, she writes:
“If I was to make my living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution, considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint. I had to look at it simply as a part of life, which exists today as it existed yesterday…The operation of any business is contingent on the law of supply and demand, and if there were no customers, there certainly would be no whorehouses. Prostitution exists because men are willing to pay for sexual gratification, and whatever men are willing to pay for, someone will provide.”
Polly Adler was arrested for the last time in 1943, at which time she decided it was time to retire from the business. Taking her earnings she fled to the West Coast, settling into a small home in Burbank, California. She went back to school and finished not just her GED, but her bachelor’s as well (jokingly referring to herself as Madam Emeritus). She lived in California until her death in 1962.
Two years later, a film of her life (based heavily on her book, which had sold well) was produced and starred Shelley Winters. Even after Polly left her life in New York City and, as she might have said “cleaned up her act,” she maintained that prostitution was a relatively simple business model that, like most things, relied on supply and demand.
Morally, she had no qualms about the work, and only cared that her girls (of whom she was fiercely protective, since she never married or had children of her own) were safe and well looked after.
In her own words, Polly Adler makes it quite clear that prostitution was to her always a business; and, in her case, a successful venture:
“What it comes down to is this: the grocer, the butcher, the baker, the merchant, the landlord, the druggist, the liquor dealer, the policeman, the doctor, the city father and the politician—these are the people who make money out of prostitution, these are the real reapers of the wages of sin.”