To call Polly Adler (1900-1962) the most famous madam of the Jazz Age does not do her justice. In those heady days between the world wars, she was one of New York’s most celebrated hostesses and an underworld icon. Her swinging parties and deluxe bordellos were patronized by some of the biggest names of the era – luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, Milton Berle, Al Capone, Huey P. Long, and, it was rumored, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even Al Hirschfeld, that broadminded boulevardier, admitted to stopping into Polly’s brothels on occasion. “From the parlor of my house I had a backstage, three-way view,” remembered Polly with pride. “I could look into the underworld, the half-world and the high.” Al Hirschfeld captured many of Polly’s pals in his illustrations from those years. This exhibit offers a sample of Hirschfeld’s drawings of the colorful characters who made up their mutual social circle. Polly opened her first brothel in 1920, at the start of Prohibition. By 1923 her “speakeasy with a harem” as she called it, had become the city’s hottest afterhours clubhouse and taboo hideaway. The newspapers dubbed her “the Female Al Capone,” and “the Queen of Tarts” but Polly was more modest. “I was a creation of the times,” she insisted, “of an era whose credo was: ‘Anything which is economically right is morally right’—and my story is inseparable from the story of the twenties.” Her heyday coincided with Broadway’s Golden Age when the Main Stem reigned as the glittering, gritty playground of America’s “tinsel aristocracy.” “Polly Adler’s was the meetinghouse for all Broadway in those days,” remembered the talk-show host and pianist Oscar Levant. Her customers included the VIPs of Café Society, Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Tin Pan Alley, Madison Square Garden, Tammany Hall, the Friars Club, the Algonquin Round Table and the NYPD. “Politicians, mobsters, entertainers, and socialites, all loved her,” remembered the swing-era bandleader Charlie Barnett. “Even the police, who were supposed to prevent or hamper her operation, had a soft spot for Polly. To know her, in other words, was to love her.” After twenty-five years of dodging cops, paying off politicians, and courting the cognoscenti Polly retired from the flesh trade. She left Manhattan in 1945, heading to sunny California. But like Hirschfeld with his iconic illustrations, Polly captured the flamboyant characters and the glamour and corruption of the Jazz Age in her best-selling 1953 memoir, A House is Not a Home.
Debby Applegate is a historian and obsessive reader whose first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2007 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, and was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Washington Post, Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and American Heritage Magazine.
The Most Famous Man in America was an unconventional portrait of an unconventional minister and antislavery activist whose celebrity rivalled Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln. With her second book, Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, she plunged from the world of virtue to the underbelly of vice. It took thirteen years of immersion in the archives to research and write and – to give fair warning to all readers — is much racier than the first.
A rehearsal of Earl Carroll's Sketch Book (clockwise from top left): Choreographer Leroy Prinz works with the chorus, director Edgar MacGregor, Eddie Cantor, the Phelps Twins, Earl Carroll, Will Mahoney, William Demarest, and producer Earl Carroll.
Polly Adler often hired chorus girls from the Broadway shows and nightclubs to moonlight in her brothel – nicknamed “Polly’s Follies.” Many of them were “actresses who couldn’t get that first break, singers or dancers who had run out of dough before they clicked solidly, show girls between jobs,” in Polly’s words. “Each night from five to ten show girls would drop by, including some of Ziegfeld’s and Earl Carroll’s kids. They were always sure of picking up the price of a Madam Frances gown.”
The Ziegfeld Follies beauties were her most prestigious hires. But the girls from Earl Carroll’s Vanities were easier to recruit. Earl Carroll, a scoundrel among scoundrels, preferred to hire “Dumb Doras,” as they were known in the theater, firm-fleshed girls in their early-teens with little to no experience onstage.
Union scale for Dumb Doras was a pitiful $12.50 a week, making them ripe prospects for Polly’s propositions. Especially since Carroll’s girls were already required to entertain potential investors at wild, nightly parties where the producer “dispensed drinks and cocaine,” as one guest put it. Carroll’s girls “were jaded,” remembered one reporter, despite the fact that they “were young – very young, some of them – and pretty. But they had that tired-of-it-all quality. Perhaps, if you went to a party every night, after the show, sometimes twice on matinee days, you too would seem jaded.”
By 1923, Polly Adler was growing more ambitious. “Already my girls were known to be the best-looking, best-dressed and best—well, best all-around in New York,” she boasted. But she had higher ambitions: “What I really was shooting for was the patronage of the upper brackets of society, of theater people and artists and writers (the successful ones).”
So Polly set her sights on the Broadway bohemians known colloquially as the Algonquin Round Table. They were nicknamed for the Algonquin Hotel, not far from Times Square, where their clique met for long, laughter-filled lunches, trading quips, plotting practical jokes, nipping from flasks, and inspiring envy in less lively diners.
The Round Tablers were wordsmiths and cultural influencers – the publicists, playwrights, and critics whose columns were must-read for the city’s sophisticates. They took the brash Broadway wisecrack, spiffed up its grammar, tossed in a few fifty-cent words, and turned it into fodder for glossy magazines and the legitimate stage. To those who hadn’t felt the lash of their wit or the scorn of their criticism, their irreverent antics and public pursuit of fun were the essence of metropolitan sophistication.
To Polly’s surprise, these pen pushers would become some of her biggest fans. How she first enticed them to her establishment was never clear, for good reason. Those sorts of stories—no matter how often they were retold over drinks to gales of laughter—were rarely written down.
But it was obvious why they kept coming back: the Broadway literati were, to use a new phrase of the era, sex-obsessed. Next to drinking, their favorite pastime was sexual adventuring, legitimated by the theories of Sigmund Freud and fueled by an endless stream of gin, rye, and whiskey.
When Polly Adler met the legendary Edward “Duke” Ellington, the 25-year old bandleader and his jazz combo had just become the house band at a gangster-owned speakeasy in a basement near Times Square. When the band was on fire there was no hotter spot in the city, although, as the drummer Sonny Greer recalled, “if a revenue agent came around the doorman stepped on a foot buzzer and the place turned into a church.”
Polly was a regular at the club, sometimes recruiting new talent from among the club’s hostesses. She became a great fan of Duke’s and he returned the sentiment. “She was a petite, gregarious lady, with great charm, whom everybody loved,” recalled Ellington, “and she got along great with all the mob guys.”
Polly started hiring the band for her after-hours parties. At least once or twice a month on a Sunday morning after the club closed, they would pop up to Polly’s West 54th St. brothel to entertain the big spenders. “We’d show around five o’clock,” remembered Greer. “Polly would see we got breakfast, and we’d work until around nine in the morning. It was nothing to leave with fifty or sixty dollars in tips.”
The charismatic Duke was also a favorite of Polly’s employees. “One of the girls took such a liking to Duke, she started seeing him on the side,” remembered Greer with amusement.
A hand signed, limited edition lithograph of this work available for sale.
Once in a Lifetime with Hugh O'Connell, Jean Dixon, Charles Halton, George S. Kaufman.
One of Polly Adler’s earliest customers from the Algonquin Round Table was George S. Kaufman, the theater critic for the New York Times, who was beginning a meteoric career as a playwright and director of hit comedies.
“He did not want to be seen at her ‘house,’ where he had a charge account,” remembered Kaufman’s friend Hudson Strode. Instead George arranged for one of Polly’s girls to wait under a streetlamp on Central Park West. At the appointed time, the playwright would stroll up to her, make a little small talk, then invite her back to a pied-à-terre he kept on West 73rd St. After they finished, he ushered the girl out with an empty promise to meet again. No money passed between them; Polly presented him with a bill at the end of every month.
Kaufman would soon become one of Broadway’s legendary lotharios, a “male nymphomaniac,” in producer Max Gordon’s phrase. “Kaufman was a man who could never satisfy himself in work or in sex,” explained one collaborator. “Frequently he employed one as a substitute for the other. It is of no small importance that he was compulsive in both.”
Backstage view of Show Girl, a musical comedy produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, written by William Anthony McGuire, based on the novel by J. P. McEvoy, with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and Gus Kahn. Starring Ruby Keeler, seated, and the madcap trio of Jimmy Durante (holding the flag), Eddie Jackson, & Lou Clayton – all of them darlings of the Broadway nightclub scene. Published in the New York Times, June 30, 1929.
Polly Adler got to know Ruby Keeler when she was a sweet-faced teenage dancer at the Silver Slipper, a gangster-owned speakeasy -- long before she became America’s sweetheart in Hollywood’s version of 42nd Street. Polly’s cousins remembered her bringing Keeler, and the brassy comedienne Martha Raye, home to Brooklyn for supper. “Such pretty friends Pearl has!” they always remarked.
Polly met Durante, Jackson and Clayton, in 1923 in the Club Durant, “perhaps the most screwball establishment of all time,” as Polly described it. “Let me put it this way,” remembered the comedian George Burns, “their act made the Marx Brothers look sophisticated. Basically it consisted of throwing insults, lamps, telephones, dishes, whatever they could pick up, at each other, the people who worked for them and the customers. Jimmy’s big finish was ripping apart his pianna piece by piece and throwing it at the band. The more things they threw at the customers, the more popular they got.”
Politicians were some of Polly Adler’s best customers. In a rare exception to her famous discretion, Polly bragged openly and often of her friendship with Jimmy Walker – the hard-partying “Jazz Mayor” of New York from 1926 to 1932. It was no mystery how they met. “He was a ladies’ man, and he was a bottle man,” as one newspaper columnist put it. Although married, he was regularly spotted carousing with chorus girls in the better dives of Broadway.
“Walker was a charmer and a rascal,” remembered one friend. “Considering how much time he spent at fights, racetracks, ballparks and theaters, he was an authentic political genius.” Polly provided a secret hideaway for the mayor, where he could party out of the public eye and meet with the shady characters and bootlegger barons who were some of his biggest supporters.
Polly’s friendship with the mayor protected her from the law until the early 1930s, when both Adler and Walker were targeted by the Seabury investigation into vice and corruption. But while Polly emerged unscathed from the scandals, Walker was forced to resign in disgrace.
Robert Benchley made his living being funny, as a humorist and theater critic for Life magazine. But among Broadway insiders he was best known as the Pied Piper of Café Society, who was on a first-name basis with every bouncer in every speakeasy from Greenwich Village to Harlem. So when Benchley met Polly Adler in 1924 and made “Let’s all go up to Pawly’s”—uttered in his Yankee accent—his midnight rallying cry, Manhattan’s cognoscenti took notice.
Polly adored Bob. “Of all the friends I made during my years as a madam, I think his was the friendship I valued most,” she remembered. “Robert Benchley was the kindest, warmest-hearted man in the world. Petty gratuitous meanness always infuriated him, and he despised snobs and hypocrites.” Although he was married, he made no secret of their close friendship, and he treated her girls with an authentic gentlemanliness that was rare in a brothel.
His friends struggled to reconcile Benchley’s innate decency with his fondness for her services. “Benchley was a regular at Polly Adler’s not to partake of the available young ladies,” insisted the critic Harold Stern, “but simply because it was the one place in town which he could visit at any hour knowing he would always have a room and a typewriter at his disposal.” Others claimed that Bench merely hated to go to bed and liked Polly’s place “because it never closed.”
Whatever the truth was, Benchley never considered divorce, and he didn’t care to be asked about it. “A man had his wife, whatever their relationship might be, and that was that,” he told James Thurber. “The rest was his own business.”
Polly Adler met Desi Arnaz in the summer of 1938, when the Cuba bandleader made his Manhattan debut at La Conga nightclub. She began dropping in nearly every night with 3 or 4 pretty girls in tow. One night Desi spotted a well-endowed redhead at Polly’s table, and asked for an introduction. Polly invited him to join them for breakfast when he finished for the night. As he tucked into her caviar, scrambled eggs and champagne, he suddenly realized his hostess was a madam and her beautiful companions could be hired by the hour. Watching him gloomily calculate the price of his desires, Polly laughed and said, “That’s all right, sonny. This one’s on the house.”
“I’ve had my share of delicious sex in my life but that red head was something else,” he remembered. “If there was anything I had not learned already, she taught it to me then.”
Polly and Desi became good friends. "I was 21 years old, a good looking kid, and my two best women friends were from the top and bottom socially -- Brenda Frazier, the debutante of the year, and Polly Adler,” remembered Arnaz.
In October 1939, Arnaz debuted in the Rodgers and Hart musical comedy Too Many Girls. On opening night they all gathered at La Conga to await the early reviews. At four a.m. they were sitting at the newspaper-strewn table, when Polly came barreling over.
“Cuban, you are the biggest fucking hit in town!” she boomed. “We’re going to celebrate, so if you have any plans for later on, cancel them. Polly’s place will be closed to everybody else until tomorrow night. My staff will feed and divert you until you drop. Then you’ll know what it’s really like to have too many girls!”
When Polly Adler met Paul Whiteman, the portly celebrity bandleader had just been crowned “The King of Jazz” by Broadway publicists. Although Whiteman disavowed that title, he could take credit for introducing jazz to middle-class America, convincing music publishers to treat it as something other than a naughty novelty suited only to barrooms and brothels.
Whiteman weighed over 250 pounds and was a man of large appetites who spent enormous sums of money on clothes, food, fast cars, bootleg liquor, “and above all, for parties,” as one reporter noted. He quickly became one of Polly’s best customers, setting a house spending record when he dropped $50,000 for a five-day party with her girls. He usually arrived with a rowdy entourage of musicians, promoters and industry bigwigs, and under his patronage, Polly quickly became the favorite hostess of the music men of Tin Pan Alley, Harlem and Broadway.
Polly kept maternal eye on Paul when he went on his drunken benders, “to keep him from giving away everything he possessed. I remember one night he smiled at me lovingly and said, ‘Polly, baby, I have a surprise for you.’
“What kind of a surprise?” she asked suspiciously.
“I'm gonna buy you a big fat Cadillac all for yourself,” he slurred.
"Sure, sure," Polly replied and thought no more about it, until she got a frantic call from his manager. When Polly informed him she had no intention of allowing Paul to give out free Cadillacs, she recalled, “The manager, a hair-tearing type, was much relieved and became one of my biggest boosters.”
Polly Adler befriended Dorothy Parker in the early 1920s when Parker was gaining national fame as the pinnacle of the sophisticated literary flapper: flippant, flirtatious, and risqué, peppering her conversation with witty wisecracks and clever put-downs. Parker offered a fresh take on the modern-day battle of the sexes, shaped by her suspicion that the sexual revolution wasn’t the great gift to women it was cracked up to be.
Parker first came to Polly’s “speakeasy with a harem” with her fellow-humorist Robert Benchley. They would drop by Polly’s in the afternoons after long lunches in the Rose Room at the Algonquin Hotel, or after they’d stumbled out of the speakeasies that had the gall to close at 3am. They compiled a list of books for Polly to fill to her empty cases, including classics, current literature, and signed editions of her new friends’ books.
Parker and the other women of the Algonquin Round Table seemed to take Polly and her professionals seductresses in stride. But, then, it would have been gauche to disapprove. “The 1920s had their moral principles,” as the critic Malcom Cowley noted, “one of which was not to pass judgments on other people, especially if they were creative artists.”
Polly Alder never named publicly any of the “legitimate” women who moonlighted in her brothels. “Polly would proposition any good-looking girl she met, no matter where,” as the songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen recalled. “As a result, she had dozens of legitimate girls who never were anywhere near her place available via telephone for some well-paid dates with well-heeled swingers. Many a girl turned a trick or two every week or so for years and no one knew about it. Polly was a discreet dame.”
But privately, Polly told friends that Dorothy Lamour, a dusky young singer from New Orleans, had gone on dates for her before hitting it big in Hollywood as the sexy sidekick in Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s classic Road to … comedies.
Polly remembered the risk Lamour took when reminiscing about how one of Dutch Schultz’s henchmen, Rocco Delarmi, paid the rent on one of Polly’s private apartments for six months. “No, he was not boffing me,” she joked. “I recall the Dutchman warning me not to mention that Dot belonged to Polly’s stable because one of his cuties was smitten with Dorothy, it appears to me that Rocky was the cutie. One thing in the Dutchman’s favor he was trying to protect a female.”
When Polly Adler met Joe Adonis, he was a young hoodlum named Giuseppe Antonio Doto, who was managing a string of Brooklyn brothels and running bootleg liquor. Doto was very vain about his good looks and nicknamed himself "Joe Adonis.” His fellow-bootlegger Lucky Luciano recalled catching Adonis staring in a mirror, and teasing him, "Who do you think you are, Rudolph Valentino?"
"For looks, that guy's a bum!" Joe retorted indignantly.
Adonis rose to become one of Polly’s most powerful patrons and protectors. Although, he was a ruthless criminal, “he has the carefully cultivated geniality of the professional host,” as one reporter noted. “He is a smooth, soft-spoken fellow not unlike a George Raft character in the movies.” Adonis put his charm to use after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, recasting himself as a legitimate night club owner. But the law finally caught up with him and in 1953 he was deported to Italy where he died of a heart attack.
Harold Ross portrayed as the New Yorker’s dandy mascot, Eustace Tilley, published in The Vicious Circle, 1951.
In 1925, Harold Ross, of Algonquin Roundtable, founded The New Yorker magazine to capitalize on the new fascination with Manhattan’s “metropolitan personalities” -- the politicians, entertainers, gangsters, athletes, cops, women-about-town, and the Broadway night-clubbers and first-nighters. The magazine’s unofficial motto was "Not edited for the old lady in Dubuque."
By the end of its first year, the New Yorker had become the darling of New York’s smart set. Following Benchley’s lead, Polly Adler’s house became a late-night rendezvous for many of the New Yorker’s hard-partying staff members, including Ralph Ingersoll, managing editor of the magazine, the novelist, Philip Wylie, who managed the art department, writers James Thurber and Wolcott Gibbs, and Peter Arno, a recent Yale graduate whose sly cartoons of flappers, sugar daddies, and Park Avenue dowagers became a signature of the magazine.
Harold Ross was one of the few who didn’t fall for Polly’s charms. Peter Arno once brought Ross to her bordello, remembered Woollcott Gibbs incredulously, but the eccentric editor brought along a stack of manuscripts “and just read them,” while the fun eddied around him.
Blues, Ballads and Sin-Songs with Gerald Cook and Libby Holman. 1954
Libby Holman worked for Polly before finding fame as a torch singer and Café Society playgirl. Holman was in her early 20s when she met Polly in the mid-1920s. When she explained that she was a student at Columbia University, Polly arranged for her to take an after-school shift. “Every afternoon she would arrive after her classes, carrying her schoolbooks, wearing the short skirts, oxfords and beret that were the thing among coeds, and settle down to work.”
Libby “was pleasant, smiling, and matter-of-fact about her method of earning a living,” remembered Polly. “She was the delight of my patrons for some time, especially one literary gentleman of whom I was very fond. He never failed to ask about her, always with a slow grin spreading across his big good-natured face, until at last he had to shake his head and laugh out loud.” “How’s the schoolgirl?” he’d always ask.
Holman quit Columbia when she discovered Broadway. Her breakout hit was “Moanin’ Low,” a hustler’s ode to her pimp, in the style of her idol, Bessie Smith. She could be regularly seen running around Harlem with a posse of A-list lesbians, before marrying an heir to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune in 1931. Seven months after their wedding, Libby was accused of shooting him through the head while pregnant with his child. Just another Broadway Cinderella story…
When Polly Adler met Francesco Castiglia in the early 1920s, he was just beginning his climb up the ladder of organized crime, but he had already rechristened himself Frank Costello. (It always helped to have an Irish moniker when conversing with cops.) Costello, his long-time lawyer claimed, was “the real Jay Gatsby, with two differences. His guttural rasp could never have formed the words ‘old sport.’ And he never would have wasted a minute staring across a bay just to spot a ‘broad’ named Daisy.”
By the mid-1930s, Costello reigned as chairman of the National Crime Syndicate and the underworld’s most influential political power broker. Over the course of his long, vicious career, Costello introduced Polly to most of the major gang leaders of the era, including Al Capone. She and her girls were honored guests at the swanky nightclubs Costello backed, including the Copacabana, a mob favorite. In 1939, when the IRS accused Polly of underpaying her taxes from 1927 to 1930, Costello put up $50,000 in U.S. Treasury bonds (over $1 million in 2022 dollars) to help her pay the bill.
A decade later, while working on her memoir, Polly became infuriated after reading a salacious paperback biography of her old friend Frank. “I know every character in the book, including the dead ones,” she fumed. “The so-called righteous public makes me sick. All my life I have been persecuted by the cops, judges and respectable people. Just who were those people to judge others. I didn’t like the feeling of being spat on and I will not do the same to others just because I’m writing a book.”
In the summer of 1924, Polly Adler got a big boost to her trade when the Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo -- burst into stardom on the Broadway stage. They came out of the fast-talking, wise-cracking world of vaudeville, with an act that featured raw, antic lunacy with a hint of violence, and a nonstop patter of dexterous word play, exaggerated lechery, and nonsensical braggadocio. The Marx brothers and the Algonquin Round Table became an instant mutual admiration society, as fellow-laugh-getters and manic playmates in the city’s fleshpots.
“All the Marx Brothers were the same: They were lechers,” recalled Chico’s daughter, each with their own flavor. It was family lore that Polly became especially fond of Harpo, the silent clown, with his curly, blonde wig, oversized overcoat and battered hat. Chico the oldest of the brothers and the wildest of the boys, was also a familiar face. “Chico was the kind of man that would chase us into the dressing rooms,” remembered one actress. (His nickname, pronounced Chick-o, was short for Chicken Chaser.) Groucho, the youngest, Polly didn’t know as well, although he always spoke fondly of losing his virginity in a Montreal bordello, despite picking up a case of the clap.
“Everybody had an angle, everybody was raking in the chips, there was no excuse not to have money – and along with everybody else, I was right in there, my front feet planted firmly in the trough,” Polly Adler wrote in her memoir. New York City’s underworld – including the gamblers, bootleggers, and corrupt public servants who were her best customers – was thriving during the Prohibition era.
That all changed in the early 1930s when legendary gangbuster Thomas E. Dewey was appointed as a special prosecutor charged with cleaning up organized crime in the city. Polly wasn’t worried at first, but then, one by one, Dewey began sending her pals to prison. In 1936, when she realized that Dewey had her in his sights, Polly went on the lam to Hawaii. She escaped unscathed, but her friend Lucky Luciano was convicted of compulsory prostitution and sentenced to thirty years behind bars.
Dewey parlayed his fame as a crime-fighter to become the governor of New York in 1943 and a Republic contender for the White House. During the presidential election of 1952, Polly was adamant that she would never vote for a Republican, because, as she explained, “I simply can’t stand Dewey in the picture, his mustash tickles me. I have no respect for a guy who picks on the underdog to make him Governor.”
Polly Adler met Frank Sinatra in the early 1940s, when he was a young singer with the red-hot Tommy Dorsey band. Sinatra had recently teamed up with the songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, who was a close friend and regular customer of Polly’s. Van Heusen was “the whoremaster,” as one of Sinatra’s girlfriends said disapprovingly, the guy who could always get a hooker at a moment’s notice for the singer and his cronies.
Polly was a favorite hostess of the Tin Pan Alley crowd – the musicians, songwriters, promoters and publishers who made New York the center of the music industry. At that point, Polly’s legend far out-shadowed Sinatra’s, although that would soon change. The first time they met, Sinatra signed her autograph book with the elaborate formality of a Damon Runyon character: “To Polly – a person I’ve heard of for some time -- and whom I’ve finally met – a very charming person – my pleasure. Sincerely Frank Sinatra” A few years later she got a far warmer inscription from the crooner: “Polly – I adore you – Francis.”
The popular humorist, James Thurber, began coming to Polly Adler’s brothel after he joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1927. Thurber was usually accompanied by their mutual friend, Robert Benchley, when he visited, but he lacked Benchley’s charm. “Jim was good until his third drink and then sometimes he became a madman, tempestuous and foul-mouthed,” remembered writer E. B. White, especially with women. “Jim had it in for women and he was obnoxious about it.”
Nonetheless, Polly was proud to host the man who drew some of the magazine’s most iconic cartoons. When she published her memoir, A House is Not a Home, in 1953, she wrote to Thurber asking for permission to refer to him as “my old friend Jim Thurber” in a passing anecdote. But the irascible humorist was appalled by the request. “I always thought she was awful, but my lawyer, who is also the publisher’s, says, ‘It’s a social document,’” Thurber complained to New Yorker editor Hamilton Basso. “I wrote Harriet Pilpel at Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst right away, saying uh-uh, and explaining that my mother is a hundred years old and would drop dead, and that the eyebrows of my daughter, a senior at Penn, have risen high enough because of me.”
The playboy songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, was introduced to Polly Adler in the 1930s by the legendary music publisher Jack Robbins. They became instant friends. “Polly Adler was one of the most fascinating females I ever knew,” recalled Van Heusen. “How the hell do you explain why you like someone? Polly was warm and funny, smart and gutsy and fun to be around. We liked each other and didn’t take the time to think about it much.”
“I used to hang around Polly’s a lot. I’d go and have a drink or play backgammon with her. I didn’t pay to jump on any of her broads,” Van Huesen remembered with pleasure. “I had a great time, drinking and playing with Polly and trying to nail all the girls in sight.”
Van Heusen was an amateur pilot who encouraged Polly to get her own pilot’s license. He enjoyed a long after-hours romance with one of Polly’s girls, by the name of Gail. “Gail used to come out to the field with me when I was flying around,” Van Heusen said. “Then she started to take lessons on her own. I saw her learner’s permit one day and noticed her age – she was 14. She was like me. She started her business early.”
“Polly Adler’s was the meetinghouse for all Broadway in those days,” remembered Oscar Levant, the concert pianist, talk show host and professional wisecracker. The songwriter Alec Wilder recounted an epic night at Polly’s with a half dozen friends, including Levant, and comedians Milton Berle and Frank Fay. When Oscar suggested they pay a late-night visit to her brothel, Berle endorsed this heartily, claiming Polly hired only “high class broads.”
The crew arrived in high spirits, treating her neighbors to a rollicking chorus of “Waltzing Matilda” in the hallway. Polly -- blessed with “the voice of a longshoreman” in Oscar’s phrase, naturally husky and roughened by cigarettes, scotch and a thousand late nights – gave them a thorough bawling out. “As she was yelling at us I said, ‘How did a sweet kid like you drift into a racket like this?” he recalled with amusement. Levant made an even poorer impression on the girl he took to bed, who was outraged that he “insisted on smoking a cigarette right in her face while having intercourse with her.”
Nonetheless, Polly had a soft spot for the irreverent entertainer. “Years later when I did my television show – it was in 1958 – she sent me a wildly enthusiastic telegram,” remembered Levant. “I read it aloud to a TV audience.”
Season in the Sun with Nancy Kelly, Richard Whorf, Charles Thompson, Eddie Mayehoff, Doreen Lang, Paula Laurence (as Polly Adler aka “Molly Burden,”), Grace Valentine, and Anthony Ross
In the summer of 1943, Polly took a long sabbatical on Fire Island, the bohemian and gay getaway east of New York City. One evening she was drinking with two friends at the local hotel when her long-time customer, the New Yorker writer Wolcott Gibbs, invited Polly and her pals to join his table for cocktails. The next morning, the ladies were having breakfast when they were joined by another weekend visitor, who began lamenting that she’d missed out on all the fun the night before.
“I hear there was a terrific party—and but swarming with intelligentsia—and, of all people, Polly Adler!" she exclaimed. "Well, as you can imagine, everyone's absolutely up in arms and appalled and horrified that this Adler creature's roaming around loose on the island, and they say on a talent hunt."
"Who are you to call me disgraceful?” Polly snapped in anger. “I'm Polly Adler." The busybody quickly excused herself, but Polly was humiliated.
Three year later, this story appeared, thinly disguised, in a short story by Wolcott Gibbs in The New Yorker, and was later incorporated into his novel A Season in the Sun. In 1951, she saw herself portrayed by Paula Laurence as “Molly Burden” in the stage version of Season in the Sun, sending the cast into “an amused tizzy” when they learned the real Madam Adler was in the audience.
“I do wish Mr. Gibbs had come to see me,” she told Robert Sylvester, columnist for the Daily News. “For technical advice only, of course.’”
Comedians and nightclub entertainers were some of Polly’s best customers.
Milton Berle considered Polly a good friend and a fountain of dirty jokes. Berle liked to tell the story of hanging out with the young actor John Garfield in the 1930s, when he was working at the Paradise Club, a mob-owned nightclub, and dating a woman named Carole. The two men decided to stop by Polly’s for dinner. “Sure, the world knew Polly as a madam,” said Berle with rare sincerity, “but her friends knew her as an intelligent woman, fun to be with, and a good cook.”
After dinner, Berle said to Garfield, “I don't know about you, Julie (his real name was Jules), but I feel sort of horny.” Garfield, as it happened, felt much the same. So Polly offered to send two of her $100 girls – “Polly handled only the best” -- to meet them wherever they preferred. “John and I went our separate ways to await our deliveries. When the doorbell rang at my place, there was Carole!”
One of Polly’s closest friends in later years was the earthy comedienne and brassy singer, Martha Raye. Raye was a hungry teenager hustling in nightclubs when Polly first met her, who may have gone on dates for Polly. Raye would be remembered for her big-mouth comic persona, but in the early 1930s she was a wide-eyed beauty, with a capacious bosom and a devilish grin. When Polly retired in 1945, she stayed in Raye’s house in Toluca Lake, California, while looking for a home of her own.
When Polly Adler met Wallace Beery, the gruff, craggy-faced actor was one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood. Among his fellow actors Beery had a reputation for being crude, obnoxious, even cruel, but he took an immediate liking to Polly. “Wally, I think there’s something you ought to know about me,” she warned him when they first met. “I run a whorehouse." Beery didn't even blink. "So what?" he shot back. "You can run fifty of them. To me you are a very nice person."
Beery spent many nights in the 1930s and 40s hanging around her brothel, gossiping, listening to the radio, poking fun at the stuffed shirts, drinking beer and snacking on her famous pot-roast. Polly adored him. He nicknamed her “Prune” because she was so tiny, and loved the way their names rhymed: “Wally-Polly.” Unlike most men of her acquittance, he made no secret of their friendship. The gossip columnist Walter Winchell marveled at his brazeness, describing his surprise as “Wallace Beery and Polly Adler arm-in-armed it on 5th Ave. the other afternoon – bowing to their respective fans. Such popularity!” When Beery died in 1949, Polly was inconsolable and was said to have cried for weeks.
Polly Adler counted some of the most powerful men in America among her customers precisely because she kept their secrets. But near the end of her life, she made a shocking confession to a young friend: she knew Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States.
Out of the blue, Polly mentioned that “she had something to do with the opposition to Roosevelt when he was governor of New York, running for President.” And not just that, her friend recalled. “She said that FDR was one of her clients and that she was being taken care of for the rest of her life by the contributions of Democrats.” She was vague on the details, but it seemed that she had remained silent in return for a substantial financial pay-off.
It is impossible to confirm Polly’s claim, but it wasn’t unlikely. It was well-known that Roosevelt loved a good old-fashioned stag party, and threw an annual men’s-only bash with all the trimmings for his birthday every year. Roosevelt was well-known to enjoy the company of women who were not his wife, and had at least one known sexual affair. The newspaper publisher, Dorothy Schiff, confirmed that “the President was still potent,” in a private conversation with Roosevelt’s physician.
“Don’t forget, only his legs are paralyzed,’” explained the doctor.
“How does he do it?” she asked with surprise.
“The French way,” he replied - a specialty that was rarely practiced among women who were not prostitutes in those days.
Polly never mentioned FDR again, but her friend never forgot the conversation. “It was if she were saying: ‘I am worthy: I know a lot of very important people, including the most important person of our generation.’”
During Prohibition, “Jack and Charlie’s” was one of favorite speakeasies of the upscale Broadway and Algonquin Round Table crowd. After Prohibition was repealed, “Jack and Charlie’s” survived to become the legendary “21” Club, the premiere watering hole of the Manhattan elite. “’21’ and Polly enjoyed an informal business relationship,” explained the club’s greeter, Jerry Berns. “She bought her whiskey from us, and if one of our patrons was seeking temporary companionship we gave him Polly’s phone number.”
When Polly Adler published her memoir A House is Not a Home in 1953, “21” hosted a grand book party. “As the author of a highly successful new book, A House is Not a Home, her status has changed,” sniffed columnist Danton Walker as he glanced at the high-toned guest list. But as far as “21’s” owners and the boys at the bar were concerned, it was merely Polly’s due. When Jerry Berns was pressed on why he’d host a party for a notorious madam, his answer was decisive. “Why not?” he shrugged. “Where else would Polly go?”
Image courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, Promised gift of Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld, Scenes of New York City.
Polly Adler’s life became more complicated when the fiery reformer Fiorello LaGuardia replaced the corrupt but charming Jimmy Walker as the iconic mayor of New York City. The new mayor soon had Polly in his sights, vowing to drive her out of the city.
But the wily madam was too clever, and her continued prosperity became a very public thorn in the mayor’s side. After one high-profile meeting between the mayor and the welfare commissioner, reporters pressed him for details. “Damn it, we talked about everything except Polly Adler and the weather,” LaGuardia replied irritably.
“Is Polly on relief?” demanded the excited reporter.
“She doesn’t have to be,” snapped the mayor.
In 1939 Polly was featured in Fortune’s irreverent guide for visitors to NYC, describing in detail her current operation, “with two or three girls in an apartment, not far from Central Park West, in the Sixties.” LaGuardia was infuriated by the article, complaining that it was “humiliating to me” that Fortune knew Polly’s whereabouts when he, the mayor, did not. “Personally I think the article was lousy,” he griped to the magazine’s publisher Henry Luce. “I think the writers were all right but someone got in the dirty work which proves my contention that the oldest profession in the world is not limited to one sex.”
It was a relief to them both when Polly retired to California. “When LaGuardia left office, a friend called me long distance to ask if I’d be interested in re-opening my business in the East,” she recalled. “I knew then I was cured – I had no wish to return, ever.”
The nationally syndicated gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, was the living symbol of Manhattan to newspaper readers and radio listeners across America. The “Bard of Broadway” was also one of Polly Adler’s oldest and most enthusiastic customers.
Winchell made no secret of his friendly relations with the “Queen of Hookaville,” as he dubbed her, and regularly mentioned her in his columns. But then, many of Walter’s “personal friends were whores or pimps,” scoffed one critic. He liked to brag that he knew every important gangster in New York except Dutch Schultz. But when accidently ran into Dutch at Polly’s, Winchell yelped, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and dashed out the door. Polly scolded the scribe when she saw him next, saying that it had hurt Dutch’s feelings that he didn’t want to join him for a cocktail.
When Polly was publishing her memoirs in the 1950s, she wrote to Winchell seeking permission to use his name. Surprisingly, Walter refused. “I don’t want to embarrass the family,” he replied. “The decent thing about you, Polly, is that you never, to my knowledge, purposely did that to anyone – and that is why you have always found me on your team.”
Polly made her final appearance in Winchell’s column in March of 1962, when he reported that she was suffering from lung cancer – “The Big C”, in his phrase. He remembered her fondly after her death: “My favorite paragraph about her: When she escorted clients to the exit she always said (in a slight accent), ‘Denk you. It’s all-vays a business doing pleasure mit you!’”