Actors and sports stars, writers and gangsters, they all flocked to the short, stout Jewish woman’s house. And so did the police. This is the remarkable story of Polly Adler—a 20th century American tale of overcoming adversity through hard work…and immorality.
Pearl ‘Polly’ Adler was born in Yanow, in what is today Belarus, in 1900. A studious child, she desperately hoped to attend the gymnasium, or elite high school, in nearby Pinsk. However, “Only one scholarship was available to the Jewish children in Yanow,” she recalled, “and custom decreed it should go to a boy.”
Nevertheless, Polly studied hard with the local rabbi. Meanwhile, her tailor father fretted over their future. Although the family was financially comfortable, he considered their situation precarious as pogroms across the Russian Empire left thousands of Jews dead. Like many others, he concluded that America, the ‘goldene medina,’ would provide a better future for the family.
But a family could not always emigrate en masse. Often one member would journey ahead. Usually it was a father; sometimes—as in the case of Polly—it was a daughter. So in 1912, Polly, aged 12, left behind her family and dreams of school and sailed alone to the New World.
Polly lodged with family friends in Holyoke, Massachusetts, while awaiting her family. Then, in 1914, came World War I. In the upheaval, she lost contact with her parents and with it their financial support. At 14, her life again took a sudden turn—this time toward penury.
Polly moved in with her “very poor” cousins in Brooklyn, where she took a job in a sweatshop. She still hadn’t given up on school and its promise of a better future and took evening high school classes after work. After two years, however, she found studying too exhausting after spending all day on her feet working at a corset factory. Once more she had to put her dreams of school on hold.
In 1917, the United States entered the war and Polly took another factory job manufacturing soldiers’ shirts. A foreman named Frank at the new factory asked Polly, then 17, on a date to Coney Island. She agreed but instead of going to Coney Island, Frank took her to a desolate cottage. There he made advances, which Polly resisted. Frank’s response: to knock out Polly and rape her.
The rape left Polly traumatized. “I went through the motions of living. I was changed; I had lost heart. I no longer had hope.” A month later, she discovered she was pregnant. She spent her entire savings on an abortion, which she could only afford when a doctor dropped his fee on hearing her story.
Reeling, Polly tried alcohol for the first time in her life at a party. She returned drunk to her cousins’ home in Brooklyn, whereupon they threw her out. “So far I had certainly racked up a row of goose eggs in the Golden Land. I had failed in my quest for an education […] I had lost my virginity, my reputation and my job. All I had gotten was older.”
Polly was broke, homeless and desperate when a bookkeeper friend—whom she referred to as ‘Tony’—offered her a solution: he would pay for an apartment for her, if she allowed him to meet his married girlfriend there. Polly readily agreed and moved to the Upper West Side.
Tony’s affair soon ended and he asked Polly to find him a replacement girl for a tryst. He offered $50 to Polly and $100 to the girl. Polly accepted and found Tony an obliging blonde. “It was in this informal, almost casual fashion that I began my career as a madam.”
Polly tried to justify her new gig. “I didn’t think of it then as a career or myself as a madam. I suppose, in the way, people do, I managed to sell myself a bill of goods—I didn’t invent sex. Nobody had to come to my apartment who didn’t want to. I was really doing them a favor—that sort of thing.”
However reluctant she was, Polly was adept at her new line of work. Her timing was good, too. In the 1920s, the days of the Jazz Age and Prohibition, New York was a swinging, louche, almost lawless city. Her brothel business rapidly took off. The situation became even more accommodating when the corrupt Jimmy Walker—a client of Polly’s—became mayor of New York City in 1926.
Many of Polly’s clients were themselves professional criminals, including legendary mobsters Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano. Although Polly feared Schultz as a volatile psychopath, she had nothing against gangsters per se. “I know that society takes a dim view of Al Capone…[but] such times as I happened to run into Al he was always very pleasant.” Polly also got on well with Luciano, the father of the modern mafia, who wrote that hers was “the best damn whorehouse in New York.”
“You going to Polly’s?” became a familiar refrain among a disparate crowd of connected New Yorkers. Regular visitors included boxing world champion Mickey Walker and members of the Algonquin Roundtable—a group of influential intellectuals, journalists, editors, writers and artists—Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman and Edna Farber. Parker and Farber came for the atmosphere rather than the girls, while Kauffman enjoyed a credit line. Benchley would regularly sleep over while working on pieces for Vanity Fair or the New Yorker; he preferred Polly’s to the Waldorf.
As Polly explained, “Polly’s also was a place to meet friends, play cards, arrange a dinner party, kill time—a sort to combination club and speakeasy with a harem conveniently handy. Many a big business deal was clinched at my bar over a Scotch and soda.” At Polly’s one could find prostitutes, sure, but also writers, politicians, comedians, actors and even judges.
While business boomed, Polly tried to take care of her girls beyond just financially. “It worried me to see so many of them making no preparations for the future, and I used to nag and prod the girls to read good books and make something of themselves.” Although her nudging was regular, it’s unclear if it was effective. “I would inquire […] what she expected to do when she was 35, and all too often the only answer was a bored sigh.”
Polly was certainly prepared. She spent thousands of dollars paying off corrupt vice squad officers and regularly moved her brothels around the city. Over the years, Polly had bordellos at 59th and Madison Avenue; 69th and Columbus Avenue; 77th and Amsterdam Avenue; on West 83rd Street; West 54th Street, East 55th Street; and in the West Fifties at Seventh Avenue.
In the late 1920s, she set up shop at Majestic Towers on 75th Street and Broadway. According to the building’s website, the “’life of sin’ has much to do with the building’s labyrinth of front and back apartment entrances and the multiple interior staircases,” which were perfect for hasty getaways.
Dutifully the police raided almost every location, and managed never to gather sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. By 1930, corruption was so rife that the New York Supreme Court launched the largest investigation of municipal corruption in American history, the Seabury Commission. Among other things, the commission—which cost Jimmy Walker the mayor’s office in 1932—investigated why Polly had never been convicted of prostitution despite her 11 arrests.
Polly learned of the commission’s interest from an anonymous call, which tipped her off that she was about to be served a subpoena. “I had to get out of town because I wasn’t going to squeal,” she recalled. “If I accepted a subpoena, a lot of people might be dubious about my ability to keep clammed up and decide to insure [sic] my silence in ways I didn’t care to dwell on.”
Polly fled to Miami until things died down. Six months later, bored, she returned to New York and resumed her business activities. She clocked up another six arrests. Whenever she appeared in court, the press was there too. “The police tap this woman’s wires,” a sympathetic New York Daily News reported, “and in other ways keep her under surveillance as if they suspected her of being the Lindbergh kidnapper.”
While the Seabury Commission’s interest had waned, press interest hadn’t. Polly was a media darling. Walter Winchell—the most prominent gossip columnist du jour—reported her strolling down the street. (Winchell, a Jew, was an early and high profile critic of Hitler and American anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh, and features in the Philip Roth novel “The Plot Against America.”) Although one reporter referred to Polly as the “Jewish Jezebel,” the press tended to allude to her Jewishness more obliquely, calling her a “Russian procuress.” She didn’t just sell sex; she sold papers too.
By her 17th arrest in 1941, Polly had had enough. She quit prostitution and fittingly—for that is where her story could have been written— moved to Hollywood, where she wrote her autobiography. The bestselling “A House is Not Home” was published in 1953. In 1964, two years after her death from cancer, the book was made into a movie.
Yet Polly’s story had already had its Hollywood ending, in 1950, when she finally realized her dream and graduated high school. By then the self-proclaimed “best goddamn madam in all America” had learned, in her own words, that “it’s not the college degree that makes a writer. The great thing is to have a story to tell.”