Her talent was in taking her shortcomings and using them to her advantage. This strategy enabled Polly to leave her imprint on New York City not as a convict or vice queen, both of which she was, but as a respected, famous author.
Mention Polly Adler to New Yorkers born before 1940, and they will smile in recognition.
It is hard to imagine a world where a brothel owner would not be an instant celebrity. But the mindset of the years before the Prohibition Era, was a Victorian attitude. Prostitution was a hidden system, so much so that an equally covert citizen’s group, the Committee of 14, was formed to spy on it. The Committee of 14 spies were shocked not so much by paid sexual activity, as they were by the interracial coupling and homosexuality that they discovered.
By the time Polly Adler was in business, the Committee of 14 had disbanded. Prostitution still remained in the back-rooms of saloons, known as assignation houses. During the early 1920s, they would come to be operated transiently by apartment-hopping madams who ran one step ahead of the law.
Polly Adler created a new business model for the oldest profession. That was not a small feat for a tiny, physically unattractive woman who got off the boat from Russia with her possessions carried in a dirty pillowcase. Although madams like Peggy Wild were equally conniving, Polly Adler avoided the common sideline of blackmail. In that way, she garnered not only cash but trust.
She was born in Russia in 1900, and listed her given name as Pearl. Her story is that of many immigrants who came to America alone, without parents, while mere children. She started her life sleeping on the sofa of a friend of her family. Board wasn’t free and she left the tenement house every day to ride the subway from Brooklyn to work in the garment factories. She quickly tired of the factory and like a lost woman of a Dreiser novel, drifted toward Manhattan’s theater district. She wasn’t bound for glory but in a sordid way, she found it through the hustlers she found there. Polly found ways to earn money on the street while still a young teenager.
According to her memoir, she never worked as a prostitute. It was a claim common to madams who tried to disassociate themselves from their origins. Polly made connections with the gangsters in the numbers racket, and developed a friendship with Dutch Schultz. Perhaps funded by the Dutchman, Polly opened a house while developing a high-end business.
She offered an antiseptic product. Her girls passed their Wasserman test, were not syphilitic; they were girls who saw doctors and had pedicures, girls who could eat at a table with silverware. But the true element of her business was youth. Polly didn’t walk in beauty, but she dealt in it.
This gimmick worked. Women in the world of paid sex were drug addicts, low-paid and on a decline, both physically and mentally. Polly designed a brothel with outrageous prices, and the clientele to match. One segment of the men who paid to enter Polly’s houses during the age of the Roaring Twenties, were politicians. These were the men who had the most to lose if exposed. Polly’s strongest selling point was the protection from exposure she offered to powerful men.
She was also popular with the racketeers who dealt in bootlegging, extortion and gambling during the 1920s. Lucky Luciano was among her friends. She would later defend Luciano against his unearned reputation as a vice lord. In doing so, Polly named named names and called the State’s star witness, Madam Mildred Balitzer, a liar. Yet her loyalty to Luciano got her nothing. His power was curtailed with his 1936 conviction on vice charges. By then, Polly was herself an ex-con.
Her reign had lasted through the Roaring Twenties and ended with the Seabury Investigation of 1931. This landmark investigation, into the administration of corrupt Mayor Jimmy Walker, would help the people of New York who had been victimized by corrupt police precincts. But it resulted in the hounding and ultimate ruin of people who had knowledge of the bad cops. Polly Adler, who paid off the police in order to operate her business, was issued a subpoena. Her long-standing reputation for keeping silence however, meant that she could never testify against the bagmen who collected the precinct payoffs.
To avoid testifying, Polly fled from New York City and went on the lam. When she returned in 1935, the City kept its grudge against her by sending in the new police administration to raid her apartment. The new, cleaned-up police force confiscated a pile of smut films. The sensational publicity eroded the low profile that had enabled her to operate underground. Polly’s trial made the headlines. When she served time in New York’s House of Detention for Women, she was photographed by the press getting out of the police wagon.
The jail was new and sat behind the oddly archaic Jefferson Market Women’s Court, in Greenwich Village. Polly was no stranger to the Jefferson Market Women’s Court. It was the venue for disposing of all cases involving prostitution and other sex-related crimes.
After her release from prison, the government assessed her for back taxes, which Polly eventually paid. She became ill and suffered pleurisy and a general breakdown in New York’s Bellevue Hospital during the 1940s.
In the same way that she had once escaped the factories of Brooklyn, Polly now found a way out of Bellevue Hospital. She decided it was time to leave New York City for sunny California. In 1953 she released her memoir, written with the help of a ghost-writer. It became an instant bestseller. The title, “A House is Not a Home,” is well-known today as the book that put a face, and a name, to the secret world of the brothel.
Polly Adler died in 1962. Today’s crime historians intrinsically link her to New York’s speakeasy-era. Racketeers Lucky Luciano, and the Detroit Purple Gang, patronized her houses. Dutch Schultz found a safe haven with Polly, and shared with her his unique philosophy of crime. “You can’t escape the rackets,” the Dutchman told Polly. No, but you can take it on the lam, she might have replied.