Madam: The Biog­ra­phy of Pol­ly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age

September 1, 2021

Madam is the biog­ra­phy of Pol­ly Adler (19001962), the most infa­mous and influ­en­tial madam in Jazz Age New York. Her 1953 mem­oir, A House is Not A Home, sold 2 mil­lion books and became a 1963 movie star­ring Shel­ley Win­ters. More than a biog­ra­phy, this is a col­or­ful and unusu­al his­to­ry of Jew­ish life told through the per­spec­tive of a good Jew­ish girl” from a Russ­ian shtetl who immi­grat­ed to Brook­lyn, and rose to become the Female Al Capone” and one of the most renowned Jew­ish-Amer­i­can women in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Her broth­els were under­world salons that catered to every­one from the Van­der­bilts and the Rock­fellers to Wal­ter Winchell, Frank Sina­tra, Desi Arnaz, the Algo­nquin Round­table, Dutch Schultz and Mey­er Lan­sky, and, it was rumored, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt. The New York Times Book Review praised Madam as a fast-paced tale of rad­i­cal, will­ful trans­for­ma­tion,” and a breath­less tale told through extra­or­di­nary research.” Deb­by Applegate’s first book won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biog­ra­phy and she spent the next 13 years work­ing on Madam.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Deb­by Applegate

  1. Most peo­ple have a fair­ly glam­orous vision of the Jazz Age, gleaned from read­ing The Great Gats­by in high school, and watch­ing old gang­ster movies and screw­ball come­dies. How did Madam change your vision of those years?

  2. Pol­ly said: If I had all of his­to­ry to choose from, I could hard­ly have picked a bet­ter age in which to be a madam.” What do you think she meant?

  3. All sorts of women worked for Pol­ly —from full-time pro­fes­sion­al hus­tlers who lived in her broth­els to aspir­ing actress­es and singers who secret­ly worked as occa­sion­al call girls until they got their big break. Over­all, would you say that Pol­ly was help­ing or harm­ing the women who worked for her?

  4. What did you make of the fact that so many men, of all walks of life, used Polly’s ser­vices? Do you think that men today would be as like­ly to go to a broth­el or hire a call girl as they were ear­li­er in the 20th Cen­tu­ry? Has the dou­ble stan­dard” fad­ed or is it still a com­mon belief?

  5. Did you find Pol­ly lik­able or sym­pa­thet­ic? Is it pos­si­ble to over­look – or at least under­stand —the fact that she chose to be so deeply immersed in crime and vice and var­i­ous forms of exploitation?

  6. She was arrest­ed well over a dozen times, but only went to prison once, for one month with five days off for good behav­ior. If it were up to you, would you say she should have spent more than 25 days in prison?

  7. Almost all of the police who appear in Polly’s life are cor­rupt in var­i­ous ways —tak­ing bribes, hav­ing sex with pros­ti­tutes (for free!), pro­tect­ing Pol­ly from arrest, befriend­ing boot­leg­gers and gam­blers. How did read­ing these sto­ries of cor­rupt cops affect your think­ing about policing?

  8. Do you feel this less savory aspect of Jew­ish his­to­ry has been glossed over in the myth of the mod­el minority?

  9. Pol­ly always craved social stature and respectabil­i­ty and she clear­ly want­ed to be remem­bered by pos­ter­i­ty. She saved trunks of memen­tos, scrap­books, let­ters and reel-to-reel record­ings of her mem­o­ries. And in the 1950s, Pol­ly pub­lished a block­buster mem­oir, A House is Not a Home, that sold 2 mil­lion copies. So, why do you think that we remem­ber her male crim­i­nal col­leagues — socio­path­ic gang­sters like Bugsy Siegel, Mey­er Lan­sky, Lucky Luciano and Legs Dia­mond —and turned them into Amer­i­can myth­ic fig­ures — but she has been most­ly for­got­ten by his­to­ry until now?

  10. Pol­ly liked to cast her­self as a clas­sic Hor­a­tio Alger Amer­i­can suc­cess sto­ry, but with an unex­pect­ed twist. Is that a fair way to describe her? Or would it be more accu­rate to describe her as an Amer­i­can tragedy? Would say her sto­ry had a hap­py ending”?