"The best goddamn madam in all America"
I've been meeting a lot of interesting Jewish women lately. And all without leaving my computer! No, I'm not trolling JDate or chatrooms for a hot date (my life is complicated enough with a husband and two kids, thank you very much) -- I've been wandering through the couple thousand entries in the new online Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia!
One of the best characters I've encountered so far is Polly Adler, who liked to think of herself as "the best goddamn madam in all America." Her story is interesting not only because, well, you just don't hear much about Jewish brothel keepers these days (with the exception of Heidi Fleiss), but also because it illustrates several themes in the history of the sex industry.
Adler came to the US as a young immigrant, and like many other vulnerable people, her fall into "vice" was provoked by the experience of being raped (at age 17) and losing the support of her family as a result. On her own, working in a factory, she got involved with a bootlegger in 1920 and began to procure women for his gangster friends. After her first arrest, she tried to go legit, opening a lingerie business that did not last long.
So Adler returned to managing prostitutes, a business at which she was quite successful. She ran a series of bordellos catering to upper crust clientele, both in New York City and in Saratoga Springs, a popular summer destination. Despite a few arrests, she maintained a glamorous image.
After her last arrest in 1943, Adler retired to California and finally fulfilled her dreams of getting an education, earning a high school diploma and going to college. She never lost her entrepreneurial spirit, though, publishing a best-selling memoir, A House is Not a Home.
Over the years, Adler did what she had to do to survive, making the most of her connections and her business acumen. She was not ashamed of her work, but also did not let her reputation eclipse her other goals or the possibility that she could someday lead a different kind of life. She held onto her glamour posthumously: in 1964, two years after Adler's death, her memoir was made into a movie, with the tagline "No one knew her business better than Polly Adler!" and with movie star and fellow Jewess Shelley Winters playing the lead.