Review: A House Is Not a Home by Polly Adler

Synopsis (from Amazon.com):

Polly Adler’s “house” — the brothel that gave this best-selling 1953 autobiography its title — was a major site of New York City underworld activity from the 1920s through the 1940s. Adler’s notorious Lexington Avenue house of prostitution functioned as a sort of social club for New York’s gangsters and a variety of celebrities, including Robert Benchley and his friend Dorothy Parker. According to one New York tabloid, it made Adler’s name “synonymous with sin.”

A House Is Not a Home provides an informal social history of immigrant mobility, prostitution, Jewish life in New York, police dishonesty, the “white slavery” scare of the early twentieth century, and political corruption. Adler’s story fills an important gap in the history of immigrant life, urban experience, and organized crime in New York City. While most other accounts of the New York underworld focus on the lives of men, from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York through more recent works on Jewish and Italian gangsters, this book brings women’s lives and problems to the forefront.

My impressions:

Young Polly with a friend

A House Is Not a Home was once popular enough to draw Hollywood’s attention, leading to a movie with Shelley Winters as Adler. Then the book has been largely forgotten – I suppose mainly because all those tidbits and juicy gossip lost the novelty factor and the heroes and heroines they concerned were either dead or retired. Still, as a history buff with a penchant for the Roaring Twenties, I was overjoyed when I managed to procure (yes! I have to use that word!) a second-hand (or rather a second-dozen-hand) copy of this autobiography at a very affordable price – less than 5 dollars, packaging and postage fee included. However, I had to wait for it almost two solid weeks – one reason why I buy more and more e-books nowadays. Small wonder I started to read it the day it arrived.

Adler, like most madams, entered the profession both accidentally and tragically. She was born Pearl Adler on April 16, 1900, in Yanow (then Russia), in a Jewish family. She was the eldest of nine children, and her earliest goal was to attend the gymnasium in Pinsk. Instead her father decided to transplant the family to America, sending them one at a time for financial reasons. Polly was the first to immigrate, initially being taken care of by family friends in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she did housework and learned English. When the advent of World War I cut her off from Yanow—and the monthly allowance sent by her father—she moved in with cousins in Brooklyn, attending school and working in a corset factory for $5 a week. At 17, she was neither very pretty nor especially streetwise and, without any adult guidance, soon she made her first serious mistake. She went on a date with  an older but very handsome foreman she’d been fancing for a while. He promised her a lot of fun in Coney Island but first invited her to his flat and then beat and raped her. He also left Polly to deal with the consequences when she became pregnant. She found a doctor who charged $150 to perform abortions, but she had only $35. The doctor took pity, accepting $25 and telling her to “take the rest and buy some shoes and stockings.” Her life changed dramatically afterwards.

Ostracized by her cousins, she moved to Manhattan and continued working in a factory but soon she lost her job due to the raging recession. In 1920 her roommate introduced her to a bootlegger named Tony. He was having an affair with a prominent married woman and needed a discreet arrangement. If Polly would take an apartment and allow him to meet her there, Tony would pay the rent. Polly agreed, and adopted a pragmatic philosophy about her profession she would hold throughout most of her adult life. “I am not apologizing for my decision,” Adler wrote in her memoir, “nor do I think, even if I had been aware of the moral issues involved, I would have made a different one. My feeling is that by the time there are such choices to be made, your life already has made the decision for you.”

Polly Adler’s calling card with a purple parrot.

Although Polly neither apologized for the path she took nor did she deny some of the costs that she paid for a career that partially depended on the hypocrisy of those who controlled the society, still you can say deep down she felt a bit guilty. It can be felt in her memoirs. She mentions many times how she helped different prostitutes who found themselves in the lurch, how well she treated her employees and clients, especially those younger ones, how understanding and discreet she was while dealing with dangerous mobsters and drug addicts. Time and again she emphasized the fact that, contrary to your average pimp, she never forced any girl to work for her and she never accepted anybody without professional ‘experience’, often actively discouraging naïve hopefuls who approached her looking for a job. She also didn’t tolerate drugs and drug peddlers at her premises – her girls had to be ‘clean’: healthy, pretty, well-groomed and well-mannered. She employed a doctor, a hairdresser and a beautician on a regual basis and she was always happy whenever one of her ‘girls’ managed to settle down and leave the world of prostitution behind. Unfortunately she saw far more disastrous, tragic endings than the happy ones so she never recommended prostitution as a career – to anybody.

Although I am skeptical about autobiographies, Ms. Adler managed to persuade me of her  version of events. Overall while reading about her life you feel that, even if she couldn’t be totally honest about it (and who can?), she was at least as honest as it was possible, all things considered. She neither whitewashed the business of prostitution nor did she cast it as a hellish melodrama straight out of tabloids and Christian pamphlets. Like any other job, her career as a madam had its rewards and its dangers. I have to admit I liked chapters about the nitty-gritty of managing a business called ‘a house of disrepute’ the best; the chapters about Polly’s connections and problems with different New York mobsters were a bit boring.

Still be forewarned: if you expect some detailed descriptions of lurid orgies and/or different kinks of clients visiting Polly’s house you are bound to be disappointed. The owner of that particular brothel strove to cultivate an atmosphere that was more clubhouse than cathouse, where clients were just as likely to close a business deal or hold a dinner party as retire to an upstairs boudoir with an escort (and what happened in that boudoir stayed in the boudoir). “The Waldorf,” one client told Adler, “just isn’t in it with you when it comes to service.” Accordingly, Ms. Adler is a surprisingly tactful narrator who left a lot of scandalous aspects of the trade to your imagination, focusing rather on the ‘why’s’ not the ‘how’s’. Small wonder she was so popular – and so expensive.

Final verdict:

I recommend this book wholeheartedly. It is not only readable and fun, it is also practically a historical source. Finally, it is written by a woman and, as such, shows the Roaring Twenties from a unique perspective of an intelligent female, a madam and an immigrant. Polly Adler could really make that era sound real and lively.

One drawback – as far as I know there is no digital version of this book available. Visit your second-hand bookstores and look for a copy, though – perhaps you’ll be lucky.

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10 Responses to Review: A House Is Not a Home by Polly Adler

  1. heidenkind says:

    This does sound like a fun autobiography—although autobiographies tend to bug me because I’m never sure what’s true and what isn’t.

    • That’s true – once or twice I had an impression that Polly tried to hide some ‘dirt’ which would put her in bad light. Still, overall, she sounded pretty honest and she was so funny.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    It actually sounds interesting

  3. Renata says:

    I never read nonfiction, but this one sure made me curious. I too love the Roaring Twenties, and her story sounds fascinating. Loved the pictures!

  4. rameau says:

    I’m curious, but I can’t see myself hunting down this book :/

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