Brothel-keeper Polly Adler jailed
When Polly Adler died in 1962, she was probably America's best-known brothel keeper. She had come a long way from her hometown of Yanow, Belarus. Born in 1900, Adler studied with her village rabbi and initially hoped to attend the gymnasium (high school) in Pinsk, but her father had other plans. In 1912, he sent her to live with friends in western Massachusetts, where she did housework to earn her keep while attending school to learn English. When World War I cut off communication with her family, including the monthly stipend her father had been sending, she moved in with cousins in Brooklyn.
At seventeen, Adler was raped by the foreman in the shirt factory where she worked. After an argument with her relatives over her subsequent abortion, she moved out on her own in Manhattan, where she continued to work in a factory. In 1920, Adler fell in with a bootlegger, who paid for an apartment where Adler, in return, secured women for the gangster's friends. It was the beginning of a long career managing prostitutes. She was arrested for the first time in 1922, ending her alliance with the bootlegger. After her release, Adler attempted to open a legitimate lingerie business, but it soon failed.
Following that failure, Adler returned to her career as a madam, opening a series of bordellos in New York City that catered to upper-class clients. Eventually, she opened an establishment in Saratoga Springs, New York, a popular summer retreat. In addition to New York's fashionable upper crust, her clients included gangster Lucky Luciano. Although she was frequently arrested, the charges were usually dropped; she went to jail only once. A police raid on March 5, 1935, resulted in a sentence of 30 days imprisonment, of which Adler served 24 days. Although her arrests and her connections with the underworld were well known, Adler managed to maintain a glamorous image that lasted until her final arrest in 1943. When the last set of charges was dropped, Adler gave up her business and retired to Burbank, California, where she finally completed high school and then enrolled in Los Angeles Valley College. In 1953, she published a best-selling memoir, A House is Not a Home, which was later made into a movie. She lived in Los Angeles until her death on June 9, 1962.
Sources: Polly Adler, A House Is Not a Home (New York, 1953); Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 16-17; New York Times, March 20, 1935; May 11, 1935; June 11, 1962; September 2, 1964; Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1964.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Brothel-keeper Polly Adler jailed." (Viewed on April 10, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/05/1935/polly-adler>.