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Making love pay in the Levee

Elegant brothel thrived in seedy Chicago quarter

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul
By Karen Abbott
Random House, 356 pp., illustrated, $25.95

During the early years of the 20th century, Chicago's Levee district was about as wild and ribald an urban quarter as could be found in America. Here, streetwalkers plied their trade while gaudily dressed men prowled the streets and lurked in back alleys. Piano men banged out ditties in low dives, and Mickey Finn served up drinks in his bar.

Standing out somewhat incongruously amid all the tawdriness was a double mansion at 2131-2133 South Dearborn St. that housed the Everleigh Club. Sex was for sale here, but as Karen Abbott recounts in the entertaining if over-the-top "Sin in the Second City," this was a bordello with a difference, one gussied up with a veneer of refinement and civility. That was the whole idea. The women in charge, sisters Ada and Minna Everleigh, had aristocratic pretensions about their trade.

"The Everleighs," writes Abbott, "proved that madams could conduct business with decency and class. . . . The sisters wanted to uplift the profession, remove its stain and stigma, argue that a girl can't lose her social standing if she stands level with those poised to judge her." To that end, the Everleighs tutored their girls in the classics, dressed them in fine clothes, fed them well, taught them proper manners, and employed a doctor to give them regular checkups.

It was a winning formula. From 1900 to 1911, the club, sporting 30 boudoirs and a "Room of 1,000 Mirrors," drew rich playboys, actors, and politicians. The boxer Jack Johnson was a patron, as was John Barrymore. Theodore Dreiser and Ring Lardner attended poetry recitals by the girls (though Abbott doesn't say if either one did more than that). With the connivance of politicians on the make, the Levee boomed, and the Everleigh Club was its glimmering jewel in the rough.

Abbott knows the seedy terrain of Chicago's red-light districts well. It's hard to fault a writer for embracing her material, as Abbott does, but her gusto leads her to make some dubious stylistic choices. Her prose lurches from the annoyingly mannered to the breathlessly overwrought. ("Behind those grand mahogany doors women lost their husbands, mothers lost their sons, girls lost their innocence and freedom - and men lost their lives.") Though she has included an extensive bibliography and insists that her book is a work of nonfiction, there are too many patches of dialogue that feel too good to be true. Certainly there was no need to embellish, given the built-in color of the material and a real-life dramatis personae that includes Vic Shaw, a rival madam; Levee political bosses Bathhouse John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna; and, not least, the Everleighs and their Gatsby-like powers of self-invention.

Deploying a two-pronged narrative, Abbott also takes up the story of a disparate group of reformers who wanted to clean up the Levee and put the sisters out of business. Though the Everleighs treated their girls remarkably well - "A girl in our establishment is not a commodity with a market-price, like a pound of butter or a leg of lamb," said Minna - they were caught up in a panic about white-slavery rings running rampant in US cities. Lurid headlines about young women forced into prostitution and brutalized by heartless pimps filled the papers. Vast changes in urban demography - more single women entering the workforce and a surge in immigration - stoked reformers' fears. An ambitious state's attorney named Clifford Roe led the charge on the legal end, while a crusading minister, Ernest Bell, took his fight to the heart of the Levee, setting up nightly in front of the club. Heckled and pelted with eggs, Bell held up a coin and intoned gravely, "You bring your money with the burning name of God upon it to buy the abominations of Sodom."

The Everleighs weathered the initial assaults against their operation, yet scandal invariably swirled around them. In 1905, Marshall Field Jr., the scion of Chicago's famous retailing family, was shot in the Levee. Jealous madams pointed their fingers at the sisters, alleging Field had been done in at the club (he wasn't). Their success began to wane. The city's mayors tended to favor the Levee powers, but were pressured by a growing coalition of social reformers clamoring for results.

In 1911 the Chicago Vice Commission published a 400-page muckraking document, "The Social Evil in Chicago," that painted a harrowing portrait of the city's illicit trade in sex, drugs, and booze, and its "gilded palaces of sin patronized by the wealthy." The sisters did not help themselves when they published an ostentatious book, "The Everleigh Club, Illustrated," that seemed to mock their critics.

Mayor Carter H. Harrison II had had it with the "painted, peroxided, bedizened" sisters and sent a terse note to his chief of police: "Close the Everleigh Club."

For the Everleighs, it was an inglorious end. Abbott presents a sympathetic case for the sisters. The sex trade could be grim, but there was a world of difference between the nastiness of the common pimp and the genteel protocols of Ada and Minna Everleigh.

Matthew Price is a critic and journalist in Brooklyn.

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