The more Polly succeeded, the more hunted she was – by the police, by Tammany Hall, by the Broadway crowd. His brothel was distinguished by good hygiene and well-chosen “girls”. (When the Depression hit, Polly was able to turn down as many as 40 young women for every person she hired – an acceptance rate analogous to the Ivy League today.) But as the business was evolving, his brothel also offered less tangible services. : It took on the appearance of a literary salon, with the drink of the best bootleggers, the food of his private cooks and the good company of Polly. It has become the after-hours place not only for gangsters, thugs, and politicians, but also for the Algonquin Roundtable and New Yorker writers. (Dorothy Parker and Polly chatted as the men availed themselves of the services.) Here, an often unexplored exploitation haunts Applegate’s tale: Polly, who claimed the American Dream and sits down sipping drinks with the famous Parker, is also the one who provided these young women, mostly from the working class.
Having famous friends also meant that Polly became the subject of columns of gossip, jokes and jokes, which added to her fame. But all was not so sinful; her gangster friends were just as likely to shear or beat her as they were to exchange laughs and concoct plans with her. Of course, misogyny was not at all the prerogative of the underworld; Gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who used Polly’s services extensively, balked when a promising conductor fell in love with her. Winchell objected that the conductor, who could have had any woman he wanted, was dating a “broken and ugly old bitch”.
Filled with tales of Polly’s many court battles, newspaper headlines, gangster cases, and company gossip, “Madame” is a breathtaking story told through extraordinary research. Indeed, the galloping pace of Applegate’s book sometimes makes the reader want to pull out a white flag and surrender in surrender – begging her to slow down. The mob violence, political corruption, social approval, and the multitude of clients Polly faces in her ever-changing brothels are both awe-inspiring and relentless. And while Polly seems to be right in the thick of the action, those around her often overshadow her, too. In the final pages of the book, Applegate makes it clear why Polly deserves a biography by noting this injustice: it was not Polly but “her fellow male criminals who became cultural icons of the 20th century.” “Sex workers in general… are traffickers of illusions,” she writes, and Americans don’t like to see the curtain drawn to reveal the mechanisms, let alone the banality, of their dreams.
Now, Applegate suggests, with the advent of social movements around sex and power, we may finally be ready. But elsewhere, she puts Polly’s glory on her closeness to the men who have made history (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), told it with humor (Robert Benchley), created her soundtrack (Duke Ellington) or have it. violently upset (Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond). Still, the takeaway for this reader at least is that Polly deserves our attention because her life shows how women who wish to transcend their status must become expert practitioners of chameleonism. It’s also what makes Polly on some level such a frustrating topic for a biography. As Applegate concedes, Polly “hid a lot more of her story than she shared, even from herself.” In other words, the very trait that allowed Polly Adler to survive and be successful is also what makes her elusive. Applegate, armed with formidable skills, is perhaps the closest biographer to revealing her.