Polly Adler would have loved Debbie Applegate.
Dr. Applegate, a freelance historian and biographer with a Ph.D. from Yale and the ability to weave evocative old slang into highly readable prose, wrote a book about Polly; she’ll talk about “Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age,” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on Sunday. (See below.)
Polly Adler used to be famous, first as a madam — a woman who supplied other women to men — and then, much later, and surprisingly, as the sort-of author of a best-selling memoir more or less about her career.
She’s pretty much been forgotten, but Dr. Applegate brings her astonishing career to life.
Polly’s story has almost everything. She was born in 1900 — she was Pearl then — in Yanov-al-yad-Pinsk, a Russian shtetl that as its name implies was near the larger Pinsk. It was not a childhood that would evoke nostalgia; the Russian Empire was falling apart, the town was close to its border, and as always everyone blamed the Jews. There were pogroms and there was massive poverty. Polly wanted an education, and although she was a girl, she was the oldest child, and a precocious one. Her parents were prepared to send her to school — against the odds, she won a place — but as life grew ever more precarious, her parents decided to leave Russia.
Polly, at 13, was sent from Russia to make her way to the United States. She traveled with an older cousin — but the cousin got sick, got scared, and turned back. Polly had to fend for herself. Her parents and younger brothers were supposed to follow, but World War I kept them in Eastern Europe for many years. Polly was on her own. She lived with distant cousins for a few years, first in Massachusetts, then in Brooklyn, but the relationships never really jelled. Polly was unconventional and ambitious. She was also poor, uneducated, unskilled, and unwilling to work the grueling hours for the low pay that the only jobs she could get offered. She had no close family; there was no one to whom she could turn who could guide her.
She also was smart, vivacious, witty, clever, warm, and intuitive; she could figure out what people wanted and get it to them. She moved gradually into the business of supplying women to men; it demanded her skills with both women and men, as well as a good grasp of logistics, supply-and-demand economics, and the domestic arts. She was known as a good traditional cook, and she was gifted at home hospitality.
In a way, Dr. Applegate said, Polly was using the skills she’d learned back in Yanov, although with a twist. “Nobody starts off to be a whore,” Polly said later. During her childhood, “boys were learners and girls were earners,” Dr. Applegate said; Polly followed that tradition. She didn’t wait around for a man to take care of her, particularly since none was in the offing. But “she came from the balabusta tradition, and it turns out that being a balabusta” — a highly skilled housewife — “is great training for running a high-class bordello. She was a fabulous cook; she always had pot roast and chopped liver on hand. She was a great hostess and a hard-headed businesswoman. She was tough as nails.”
When they came to this country, “a lot of men had very little worldly education,” Dr. Applegate continued. “They didn’t know how to do math or handle money. Women knew how to deal with all kinds of people. In many of the early stories of immigration, when families come here, the men just sink into depression, and that’s how they spend the rest of their lives in America. Whereas although there was many a woman who spent her life wailing for the old country, many of them went out and made a living.”
Polly Adler came to New York at a very specific time and lived in a very specific place. When she first began her independent life in New York, she was involved with people who did drugs constantly — they were hopped up, they kicked the gong around, and then often they overdosed or lost touch with reality and died young. No matter what else she did, Polly did not do drugs; she saw too much of what they did to people. She had a noticeable streak of kindness that animated her often, and she tried to help her friends off drugs, without any notable successes.
History kept happening. Polly lived through — and in fact triumphed during — Prohibition, when the city’s theoretical dryness just meant that bordellos, which doubled as speakeasies, were wetter than ever. The city was notoriously corrupt; politicians and gangsters were in each other’s pockets — and in Polly’s.
The truest manifestation of Polly’s art was in the parties she gave, Dr. Applegate said. There was a party just about every night, and it went all night. Hers were the best after-parties. Because they also were illegal, she had to keep moving, keep handing new cards with new addresses to her friends and clients. She was like a shorter, Jewish female version of the Great Gatsby, who was throwing parties at the same time, just a little to her east — except, of course, that Jay Gatsby came from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination, and Polly Adler was her own creation.
Polly’s guests — she made huge amounts of money, discreetly handed over, from serving alcohol as well as women — were the city’s leading politicians, gangsters, writers, actors, musicians, intellectuals, wits, boxers, athletes, and police officers. Dr. Applegate’s book chronicles the city’s history, including the shocking violence and jaw-dropping dishonesty. Some of the violence touched Polly personally; more than a few times one of her underworld clients beat her bloody.
Northern New Jersey figures into Polly’s story as well; she often had to get away, and New Jersey was right there. She developed relationships with many of the gangsters who ruled the state. Many of them were Jewish. including Waxey Gordon (who lived well for a long time, but died in Alcatraz) and his protégé, Longy Zwillman, who stopped criming long enough to fight the Nazis in Newark. “As far as sociopaths go, Zwillman was a pretty good one,” Dr. Applegate said.
New Jersey had its own underground culture. It also had safe places, where a person could go to escape her enemies and also lose a little weight at the same time. One of the places Polly loved was the Milk Farm in Englewood Cliffs, which stood near the intersection of Sylvan and Palisades avenues. The local nightclubs, meanwhile, “were 100 percent mobbed up,” Dr. Applegate said.
Eventually, the law, which had pursued Polly for many years, caught up with her. Her business was very stressful; she had to be constantly vigilant, and always present a cheerful face whether she wanted to or not. She had many friends, many connections, but no real, long-term relationships. At bottom, she was always alone. She was arrested many times, paid many fines, even after she’d paid off the guys who were supposed to keep her fine-free, and eventually it all became too much.
She moved to California, where she settled near Los Angeles, and went first to high school and then to junior college, eventually earning an associate degree. It meant a huge amount to her. It brought her back to the ideal of learning that she’d learned in childhood. “She had an uncle who was a scholar, who was very much in that tradition,” Dr. Applegate said. “In America, for girls, that gets translated into secular education and refinement.”
She topped off her career with her memoir, “A House Is Not a Home.” She didn’t write it herself; her ghostwriter, Virginia Faulkner, was gifted in ways that Polly was not. The book’s tone is Ms. Faulkner’s.
By the time she died, Polly Adler, who’d been the subject of many newspaper stories during her life, some of them flattering, many of them nasty, particularly as she grew older and times changed, drew respectful obituaries. She was not called a madam — to be fair, it’s hard to imagine the New York Times using that word in an obituary in 1962 — but an author.
In the end, Dr. Applegate’s book is perhaps more about Polly Adler’s times than Polly Adler herself, although certainly she’s the main character. But the book is so full of so many characters and so many wild stories, and Polly Adler was such a hidden person although she was so very public, that at times she recedes from her own story. She probably would have wanted it that way.
Certainly, she would have wanted Debbie Applegate to tell it. And it’s quite a story.
What: The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly presents Sunday of Strong Women
Who: Three women — legendary feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, and historian and biographer Debbie Applegate —
will talk about their work.
When: On Sunday, March 19, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC
How much: JCC members pay $40, nonmembers $48. Lunch is included
For more information or to register: Space is limited. To learn more or to register, go to jccotp.org/ssw