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

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The compulsively readable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the twenties roar--from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America. "Applegate's tour de force abo The compulsively readable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the twenties roar--from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America. "Applegate's tour de force about Jazz Age icon Polly Adler will seize you by the lapels, buy you a drink, and keep you reading until the very last page.... A treat for fiction and nonfiction fans alike. --Abbott Kahler, New York Times bestselling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park Simply put: Everybody came to Polly's. Pearl Polly Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels in the Roaring Twenties became places not just for men to have the company of women but were key gathering places where the culturati and celebrity elite mingled with high society and with violent figures of the underworld--and had a good time doing it. As a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe, Polly Adler's life is a classic American story of success and assimilation that starts like a novel by Henry Roth and then turns into a glittering real-life tale straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She declared her ambition to be the best goddam madam in all America and succeeded wildly. Debby Applegate uses Polly's story as the key to unpacking just what made the 1920s the appallingly corrupt yet glamorous and transformational era that it was and how the collision between high and low is the unique ingredient that fuels American culture.


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The compulsively readable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the twenties roar--from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America. "Applegate's tour de force abo The compulsively readable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the twenties roar--from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America. "Applegate's tour de force about Jazz Age icon Polly Adler will seize you by the lapels, buy you a drink, and keep you reading until the very last page.... A treat for fiction and nonfiction fans alike. --Abbott Kahler, New York Times bestselling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park Simply put: Everybody came to Polly's. Pearl Polly Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels in the Roaring Twenties became places not just for men to have the company of women but were key gathering places where the culturati and celebrity elite mingled with high society and with violent figures of the underworld--and had a good time doing it. As a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe, Polly Adler's life is a classic American story of success and assimilation that starts like a novel by Henry Roth and then turns into a glittering real-life tale straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She declared her ambition to be the best goddam madam in all America and succeeded wildly. Debby Applegate uses Polly's story as the key to unpacking just what made the 1920s the appallingly corrupt yet glamorous and transformational era that it was and how the collision between high and low is the unique ingredient that fuels American culture.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Petra thinks dating is, sadly, a waste of time

    Stunning book. If you are Russian/Jewish the first chapters will move you immeasurably. I never knew in detail what my family went through until reading them. If you think that the root of all evil is money and drugs you might have your mind changed to thinking it is government, their rules and laws. Prohibition and the continuing misogyny of the US governments criminalising women's sexual work are responsible for a lot of the underworld's activities. If when you think of the jazz age and crime Stunning book. If you are Russian/Jewish the first chapters will move you immeasurably. I never knew in detail what my family went through until reading them. If you think that the root of all evil is money and drugs you might have your mind changed to thinking it is government, their rules and laws. Prohibition and the continuing misogyny of the US governments criminalising women's sexual work are responsible for a lot of the underworld's activities. If when you think of the jazz age and crime you think of the Italian Mafia, they scarcely make a showing in this book, it's all Jewish criminal gangs and the equally corrupt and criminal mainly Irish police force (and mobs) all run by the WASPy politicians, judges and lawyers who need their cut. Politicans might look like they have clean hands now, Roosevelt for instance, but no one sued the author of this book for libel! If you've ever read Damon Runyon's books, this is how it really was. An entire history of the jazz age's underworld up into the 50s. Proper review to come. This book deserves it!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Linden

    Debby Applegate, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, has written a fascinating biography of Polly Adler, a jazz-age madam, referred to as the "Jewish Jezebel." At age 13, she came to the United States by herself from a shtetel in Russia, and eventually became a notorious madam, catering to society men, gangsters, and the literati of 1920's New York. In Polly's rags to riches story; the author tells of life in the shtetl, Polly's experience as a new immigrant, and the reality of running an illici Debby Applegate, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, has written a fascinating biography of Polly Adler, a jazz-age madam, referred to as the "Jewish Jezebel." At age 13, she came to the United States by herself from a shtetel in Russia, and eventually became a notorious madam, catering to society men, gangsters, and the literati of 1920's New York. In Polly's rags to riches story; the author tells of life in the shtetl, Polly's experience as a new immigrant, and the reality of running an illicit business in 1920's Manhattan, replete with police payoffs, bootleggers, drugs, and the constant demand for attractive women. (I kept wondering if she would get caught, as did so many of the gangsters of the era, for tax evasion.) Recommended for anyone with an interest in women's history, or the history of the Roaring Twenties.. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    Giveaway Win! I love the 1920's it was a time of great change in American society. Women started to express their independence, youth culture became a thing, sexual taboos were being explored and dismantled. Basically times were a changing. Russian Jewish immigrant Polly Adler arrived in America at just the right time. The New York City that Polly arrived in was a hard place for immigrants and it was even harder for a young immigrant woman. There were many days when Polly went without food and had Giveaway Win! I love the 1920's it was a time of great change in American society. Women started to express their independence, youth culture became a thing, sexual taboos were being explored and dismantled. Basically times were a changing. Russian Jewish immigrant Polly Adler arrived in America at just the right time. The New York City that Polly arrived in was a hard place for immigrants and it was even harder for a young immigrant woman. There were many days when Polly went without food and had to rely on the kindness of friends to have some place to live. But Polly was a hustler and soon discovered the business that would make her rich and infamous...Sex. Polly Adler was one of the biggest and most well known madams in the 1920's. Her Manhattan brothel was considered the place to be for not just "Johns" looking for sex but also for the 1920's glitterati. Polly's friends included Desi Arnaz, Dutch Schultz, Duke Ellington, Al Capone and Franklin Roosevelt. Polly Adler was the true definition of a entrepreneur. After the sex industry no longer was conducive to her life she became a New York Times best-selling author. What An Icon! Madam was not only a fascinating look at one of the most interesting women of the 20th century but it was also a great look at what life was like for immigrants at that time and it explored just how much society was changing during this time. Polly went from being a penniless 13 year old immigrant to being the First Lady of the Underworld to being a bestselling author. If that isn't the American Dream than I don't know what is. Great book! Recommended to my fellow History lovers.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Camelia Rose

    In her latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Debby Applegate did her best to reveal the history and the full character of Polly Adler, the famous/infamous madam (a.k.a. brothel owner) of Jazz Age. Thoroughly researched, the biography not only presents the life story of Polly Adler, but also gives a kaleidoscopic view of 1920s and 1930s New York, including both the highbrow and lowbrow: the gangsters, politicians, entertainment personals of Broadway, the literatis, and of cours In her latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Debby Applegate did her best to reveal the history and the full character of Polly Adler, the famous/infamous madam (a.k.a. brothel owner) of Jazz Age. Thoroughly researched, the biography not only presents the life story of Polly Adler, but also gives a kaleidoscopic view of 1920s and 1930s New York, including both the highbrow and lowbrow: the gangsters, politicians, entertainment personals of Broadway, the literatis, and of course, the madams, prostitutes and their customers. This is not a book of voyeurism. I like the feminism angle when analysing a complex woman like Polly Adler. Polly Adler, born Pearl Adler in Yanow, Belarus to a Jewish tailor and his wife, immigrated to the US at age of 13. Her earlier years in the US were as tremulous as her later years. Thanks to the excellent writing, I keep hoping that Pearl would make it, and she would not end up as a prostitute and a madam as she did. I don’t find any white-washing in the book. Applegate is also careful not to pass on moral judgements. There are plenty of disturbing scenes. Almost all women who ended up being a prostitute for Polly (and prostitution in genral) had some kind of sexual trauma during their formative years, including Polly herself. Polly Adler claimed that she never recruited fresh start girls but the author thinks she did. According to the author, the reason she survived gangsters, law enforcements and blackmailers is largely attributed to her discretion and practicality. As a madam of the oldest disreputable profession, she craved for respectability until the very end of her life. She wrote her memoir, A House is Not a Home, a bestseller, with the help of her literary friend, Virginia Faulkner. Yet, she claimed it was all written by herself. What I find very interesting: - Tammany Hall, the influential political pressure group, the political machine behind Democratic Party of New York - The unspeakable connection between gangsters, elections and politicians - NYPD, how corrupted it was, especially its notorious plainclothes vice squad. - The general public’s change of attitude towards fashion, women and sex during 1920s. - In the 1920s, Jewish took up 20% of the population in New York, but 50% of the brothels were run by Jewish madams - How “Jazz” in the Jazz Age came to being; interesting it originally was associated with disreputable underworld and decadence; the connection between gangsters and Broadway industry; how George Gershwin wrote his famous Rhapsody in Blue (1924) - Dorothy Parker, a famous American poet and writer of her time, strikes me as the only modern woman (by today’s standard) among Polly’s patrons - Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby is based on Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish mob boss of the Jazz Age. Slangs I’ve learned: bootleggers, speakeasies, watering holes, kingpin Polly Adler’s business was inevitably entangled with the New York underworld. There are many gangsters and mob bosses, Irish, Jewish and Italian, too many for me to remember their names. Here are a few: Arnold Rothstein, George McManus, Dutch Schultz

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jennie Damron

    My husband bought this for me for Christmas. I am so glad he did. Polly Adler's life was fascinating. Her connections to the mob and Crime syndicate made for excellent reading. I was surprised how thorough the research was done. To me it seemed nothing was left out. Polly was Indeed a historical figure. She knew so much about the inner workings of the mob and politics of that time. Yet even though she never got the respect she so longed for people admired her for never being a snitch. Honestly w My husband bought this for me for Christmas. I am so glad he did. Polly Adler's life was fascinating. Her connections to the mob and Crime syndicate made for excellent reading. I was surprised how thorough the research was done. To me it seemed nothing was left out. Polly was Indeed a historical figure. She knew so much about the inner workings of the mob and politics of that time. Yet even though she never got the respect she so longed for people admired her for never being a snitch. Honestly with how many times she was double crossed it indeed was impressive. I enjoyed my time with this book. Polly Adler was a Madam and I would say she did that job well.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

    This is so much more than a biography of the infamous MADAM, Polly Adler, it is a social history of the era in which she reigned. The author has blended in so many of the important political, sports figures and other celebrities, that I found it a joyful learning experience. I know I will use this material in my seminars. This book is well written and filled with the fascinating story of an era. Thank you Netgalley for sending me this remarkable book

  7. 4 out of 5

    Valerity (Val)

    A fascinating and thorough look at the life of Polly Adler. She came to America alone from a shtetl in Janow, Russia. After being kicked out of two different relatives homes, she moved to New York City and got some work in a corset factory. She learned the ropes in the prostitution game and set up her first brothel in 1920, the same year as Prohibition came into existence as a moral ban on alcohol. She ran her brothels well for someone in her 20s, but paid a lot of money in bribes and still got A fascinating and thorough look at the life of Polly Adler. She came to America alone from a shtetl in Janow, Russia. After being kicked out of two different relatives homes, she moved to New York City and got some work in a corset factory. She learned the ropes in the prostitution game and set up her first brothel in 1920, the same year as Prohibition came into existence as a moral ban on alcohol. She ran her brothels well for someone in her 20s, but paid a lot of money in bribes and still got busted at times. That cost her a lot in having to relocate, bail everyone out and hire lawyers. Polly built up a following of famous people, wealthy patrons, and underworld figures. She allowed just about anyone with a large bankroll to hire the services of her whores. Polly Adler soon became so well known that there were few who didn’t recognize her name. Advance electronic review copy was provided by NetGalley, author Debby Applegate, and the publisher.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    I stumbled across Polly's memoir A House is Not a Home probably 30 years ago and loved it. It was such an excellent thrift store find! It's a different take from the usual 1920's stories one hears. The focus is almost always on the men of that era - the gangsters, the politicians, the writers, the actors and musicians. Sure occasionally Dorothy Parker or Tallulah Bankhead make an appearance, but mainly the focus is on men. Women are the supporting characters, not the focal point. My biggest quibb I stumbled across Polly's memoir A House is Not a Home probably 30 years ago and loved it. It was such an excellent thrift store find! It's a different take from the usual 1920's stories one hears. The focus is almost always on the men of that era - the gangsters, the politicians, the writers, the actors and musicians. Sure occasionally Dorothy Parker or Tallulah Bankhead make an appearance, but mainly the focus is on men. Women are the supporting characters, not the focal point. My biggest quibble about this biography is that for chunks of the story, Polly basically vanishes from the pages. It's all about what the guys were up to. Applegate does do an excellent job, summarizing the era. Over the years I've gathered bits and pieces of the history of NYC of that era, but it was great having it told in one fell swoop. It just bothered me that this was supposed to be Polly's story and instead I was reading pages about Mayor Jimmy Walker and Lucky Luciano and Robert Benchley.The sad fact of the matter is that much of her story is lost. In history it is rare to get in-depth looks at women except in as far as how they interacted with men. That is the case here. Polly is seen through the prism of the men around her. I started thinking that really the best way to tell her story would be through historical fiction. That way the author could fill in the missing pieces. I wanted to learn more about backstage - what was happening behind the scenes at the bordello. I wanted to learn more about Showboat, Polly's long term maid/second in command. I wanted to learn about the women working there and about their relationships with each other, with Polly, with Showboat....about outside friends, relationships with family, boyfriends/girlfriends? So many unexplored topics. Even though the biography didn't fulfill all of my desires for it, it is still worth the read. I cannot stress how batshit crazy NYC was in the 1910s, 20's and 30s. People nowadays love to complain about how terrible everything is but boy, it used to be so much worse. For instance, all the drama about voter rights nowadays. There are issues about poll locations being closed, the time window for voting is being shortened, people being thrown off voter rolls. All bad things, to be sure. Voting in NYC a hundred years ago entailed men with billy clubs, chains and guns beating you up if you tried to vote, busloads of people being driven from poll to poll voting multiple times (and stinking drunk while voting) getting threatened with losing your job or life if you didn't vote a certain way....The level of violence in town was nuts as well. I was amazed reading about the murder at - I think it was called the Hotsy Totsy club? Anyway, a gangster was murdered by Legs Diamond after hours, when some staff were still there. Legs started worrying about witnesses so one by one the club manager, the bandleader, the bartender, the waiters, the hatcheck girl(!) and finally Leg's own girlfriend were all murdered in order to get rid of the pesky witness problem. Very Jimmy from the move Goodfellas. One of the. gangsters was nicknamed Baby Killer because during drive-by shootings he shot some children. I don't feel like going into all the sexual sadists Polly and her girls had to cope with. Speaking of children, I'd be remiss not to mention how young the prostitutes were. And showgirls, who were often prostitutes on the side. I'm talking 12, 13, 14 years old. The story of Polly's best friend Garnet Williams, the one who introduced her to a life of prostitution, was devastating. Her mother Helen caught her boyfriend molesting Garnet so she did what any mother would do....no wait a minute, actually she blamed Garnet for seducing the guy and kicked Garnet out of the house. Garnet was 12. To survive, she started singing in saloons which evolved into turning tricks which evolved into a serious drug addiction. Honestly, an opium pipe sounds great in comparison to what she was being put through on a daily basis. The author did not highlight these disturbing stories the way I am. The focus was more on politics and gangsters jockeying for power interspersed with the shenanigans of pretty much every famous person of the era. Duke Ellington used to play music at Pollys. Wow, that's quite a house band. Name a famous person from that era and 100% they hung out with Polly. Some famous people were nice, other were jerks. I enjoyed reading all the gossipy stories about them. Reading this biography is part of a 1920s kick I've been on lately. Maybe because it was 100 years ago? The book has pointed me towards a lot of different rabbit holes I plan to fall through. I want to know more!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Megargee

    Pulitzer prize winning historian Debby Applegate's biography of notorious madam Polly Adler is a social history of New York City during the Jazz Age as seen through the prism of prostitution. Adler, who immigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms at 13, landed alone at Ellis Island in 1913 with no money and little formal education. Starting out as a sweat shop seamstress, she worked her way up to becoming the city's most notorious madam. In the 1930s and 1940s, Polly's houses provided neutral g Pulitzer prize winning historian Debby Applegate's biography of notorious madam Polly Adler is a social history of New York City during the Jazz Age as seen through the prism of prostitution. Adler, who immigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms at 13, landed alone at Ellis Island in 1913 with no money and little formal education. Starting out as a sweat shop seamstress, she worked her way up to becoming the city's most notorious madam. In the 1930s and 1940s, Polly's houses provided neutral ground where the corrupt politicians of Tammany Hall, the Broadway glitterati, bandleaders, notorious gangsters, and members of Murder Inc. could mingle with film stars, actors, socialites and members of the Algonquin Round Table. Applegate's 550 page tome, researched over 13 years, details Adler's years-long bribery of the authorities, her ties to mob figures such as Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Legs Diamond, her relations with prominent politicians, and her investigation by the Seabury Commission. Written in the NY vernacular of the time and heavily larded with direct quotations, Adler presents a not only panoramic picture of the seamy side of NYC in first half of the 20th century, but also a wealth of fascinating details. (For example, Polly had to provide Joe DiMaggio with cotton sheets because his knees slipped on her usual satin bedclothes.)

  10. 4 out of 5

    Donald Powell

    Too long. Too tedious. Too lacking in story.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

    If you're someone who's thinking, "Eh, I don't know if I want to spend 600 pages reading about a madam," fear not, Debby Applegate's "Madam" is a sleek, Duesenberg-like vehicle to examine prominent gangsters, musicians, politicians, businessman, athletes and writers -- I'm looking at you, The New Yorker -- who patronized her prostitutes, and the larger societal trends these figures, along with Polly herself, represented. From that perspective, her book succeeds roaringly. Where I think the book f If you're someone who's thinking, "Eh, I don't know if I want to spend 600 pages reading about a madam," fear not, Debby Applegate's "Madam" is a sleek, Duesenberg-like vehicle to examine prominent gangsters, musicians, politicians, businessman, athletes and writers -- I'm looking at you, The New Yorker -- who patronized her prostitutes, and the larger societal trends these figures, along with Polly herself, represented. From that perspective, her book succeeds roaringly. Where I think the book falters slightly is in its dearth of details about Polly's relationships with her workers. For instance, I may be mistaken, but I can't recall a single mention of what the basic percentage revenue split was between Polly and her workers, nor did I get a palpable feel for what it was like to work for Polly on a day-to-day basis; perhaps those stories are lost to history, but Applegate is SUCH a thorough and capable researcher about everything else, it feels like an emotional hole. If you provided services to the country's most famous men and were simultaneously shunned by the larger society, you, too, would be obsessed with respectability as much as Polly was, however, I found that trope belabored and, ultimately, as uninteresting as Polly's cravings for fame. One theme I didn't find tiresome: despite her renown and periods of wealth, you wouldn't wish Polly's job on anyone it was so stressful and dangerous, albeit far better than the alternative: working in a sweatshop for nothing. In any case, this is a SERIOUSLY enjoyable and informative read and I strongly recommend it despite the aforementioned quibbles. If you liked Bill Bryson's "One Summer: America, 1927," or get off on hypocrisy with a capital "H," you'll relish this book. Lastly, one factoid I learned that was never mentioned in Hebrew school: Jewish women, apparently, made the best madams.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sharyl

    This is not only a fascinating biography of Polly Adler, but also an insightful history of the Jazz Age. Polly Adler was once one of many young immigrants to come from Eastern Europe, but the path her life took was anything but expected. Born in Yanow, Russia, in 1900, Pearl Adler's early life was very circumspect due to her gender and the anti-Semitic restrictions of the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, throughout her childhood, Pearl exhibited intelligence and was determined to get an education, This is not only a fascinating biography of Polly Adler, but also an insightful history of the Jazz Age. Polly Adler was once one of many young immigrants to come from Eastern Europe, but the path her life took was anything but expected. Born in Yanow, Russia, in 1900, Pearl Adler's early life was very circumspect due to her gender and the anti-Semitic restrictions of the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, throughout her childhood, Pearl exhibited intelligence and was determined to get an education, even though that was unheard of for a girl. At just thirteen years of age, she landed at Ellis Island, all alone, to meet relations who were strangers. When this arrangement turned out to be less than desirable, she was forced to live on her own at a very young age. Her intelligence and determination would be put to many a test in the coming years. How Pearl became Polly Adler, the most well-known madam and a legend in New York City, is a long story, and very much worth reading. Boxers, gangsters, politicians, entertainers, cops, judges, writers, and reporters. High brow, low brow, and everything in between. She met them. Some came for drinks and games, some for sex, some to hide out. She had her finger on the pulse of the current culture for years. I was shocked at the depth of corruption in NYC during Polly’s lifetime. It was truly wild, as was her existence. The tenacity and stamina it took to hold on to her livelihood is unimaginable. Author Debby Applegate has used the language of this time period, and it effectively creates an atmosphere that transports the reader to another era. I am impressed with the extensive research this volume required and was captivated by its style. I haven’t given away any details in this review, in the hope that some of the surprising facts--and there are many--will amaze and enthrall someone else in the same way. Thank you so much to Doubleday and Netgalley for this mesmerizing experience.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This book about a major madam of the early 20th century is far from titillating. I did feel exhausted with the merry-go-round of pay-offs and address changes necessarily for Polly Adler to stay on top of her profession. The book does contain familiar names, mostly gangsters but also a few from literati and show biz. The book is a good view of how the country, especially morals, have changed over the century. The punch line appeared in her obituary. Despite close to 50 years in the oldest professio This book about a major madam of the early 20th century is far from titillating. I did feel exhausted with the merry-go-round of pay-offs and address changes necessarily for Polly Adler to stay on top of her profession. The book does contain familiar names, mostly gangsters but also a few from literati and show biz. The book is a good view of how the country, especially morals, have changed over the century. The punch line appeared in her obituary. Despite close to 50 years in the oldest profession, she spent the last 10 years of her life pushing her autobiography. Her description in her obit: auteur.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lissa Revenew

    Really 2.5 mired down in quotes by people I didn’t know or could keep track of. Too detailed in dropping names. Extensively researched but went on tangents a lot.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Leslie Zemeckis

    Excellent bio of madam Polly Adler - an in-depth look at jazz age prostitution in NYC

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kristine

    Madam by Debby Applegate is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late October. The 1920s era-specific description is laid over a scene/situation like heavy ornate drapes that you want to push or peel aside. It’s a bummer since I love stories like these, but it’s meant for a far more patient and obliging reader than I am.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gail O'Connor

    I felt that the book was based more upon US history and not of Polly Adler I was quite disappointed. I'm sure however that many people will enjoy this book. I had to put it down. Could not keep my interest. I felt that the book was based more upon US history and not of Polly Adler I was quite disappointed. I'm sure however that many people will enjoy this book. I had to put it down. Could not keep my interest.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    A lot of historical context but it was too much at times and bored me

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Wagner

    Polly Adler lived a very unique version of the American dream. Born into a Jewish family in Russia around the turn of the twentieth century, Polly immigrated to the United States just before World War I. Young and in need of a way to support herself, Polly tried a number of trades before she was pulled into the world of brothels, madams, and sex. Before long, Polly was a madam herself, running her own bordello patronized by some of the most notable men of New York in the 1920s and 30s. Adler had Polly Adler lived a very unique version of the American dream. Born into a Jewish family in Russia around the turn of the twentieth century, Polly immigrated to the United States just before World War I. Young and in need of a way to support herself, Polly tried a number of trades before she was pulled into the world of brothels, madams, and sex. Before long, Polly was a madam herself, running her own bordello patronized by some of the most notable men of New York in the 1920s and 30s. Adler had connections with politicians, mobsters, Hollywood actors, and lived to write her own story in the form of memoirs in the 1950s. A fascinating woman, and a biography that offers a fresh perspective of the iconic Jazz Age.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    This book is quite thorough. I loved reading about the mob scene and show business. I was also fascinated reading how many people in powerful positions frequented brothels, though not surprised. I found the parts about New York politics to drag on unnecessarily.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Drea

    Who knew a book about a woman I had never heard of would be so compelling and bring together famous people we all know (FDR, Milton Berle, Desi Arnez) into this incredible picture of life in the early-mid 20th century. What an amazing, complex, relentless woman Polly Adler was! I loved this book. So well researched! I love when I’m reading and learn new things yet am reintroduced to familiar names and events tying them all together. This book is long - and packed with details and info - I found a Who knew a book about a woman I had never heard of would be so compelling and bring together famous people we all know (FDR, Milton Berle, Desi Arnez) into this incredible picture of life in the early-mid 20th century. What an amazing, complex, relentless woman Polly Adler was! I loved this book. So well researched! I love when I’m reading and learn new things yet am reintroduced to familiar names and events tying them all together. This book is long - and packed with details and info - I found all of it captivating. This is the book I didn’t know I needed to read and am so glad I did! Highly recommend! Heartfelt thanks to Doubleday for the advanced copy. Go read this book! So fascinating!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sally Koslow

    A riveting biography of the 1920s-1940s most successful brothel owner as well as a rich social history of the time and places where she lived. The context for the story of Polly Adler's life is jam-packed with juicy details, from an astute description of the social hierarchy of her hometown shtetl before emigrating to the United States around 1915 to inside baseball factoids about Pollys best customers, from Jewish mob king Arnold Rothstein to, ahem, FDR. I have been urging everyone I know to re A riveting biography of the 1920s-1940s most successful brothel owner as well as a rich social history of the time and places where she lived. The context for the story of Polly Adler's life is jam-packed with juicy details, from an astute description of the social hierarchy of her hometown shtetl before emigrating to the United States around 1915 to inside baseball factoids about Pollys best customers, from Jewish mob king Arnold Rothstein to, ahem, FDR. I have been urging everyone I know to read this book, which I "read" on audio.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Baker

    3.5 Well-researched, informative but tends to drag towards the end

  24. 4 out of 5

    Terry Audette weiss

    Could not get into this book.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    Read first half on kindle, listened to the audiobook for the rest. Recommend looking at the excellent photos in the book but I enjoyed the audiobook. Recommended to my library for NF book group. The story was fairly wordy, something I found hard to focus on at bedtime, and there was a lot of old timey slang used for character (and some of it was offensive, but some people were known by offensive nicknames and it would've been hard to tell the story without them). A LOT of characters too, Polly kn Read first half on kindle, listened to the audiobook for the rest. Recommend looking at the excellent photos in the book but I enjoyed the audiobook. Recommended to my library for NF book group. The story was fairly wordy, something I found hard to focus on at bedtime, and there was a lot of old timey slang used for character (and some of it was offensive, but some people were known by offensive nicknames and it would've been hard to tell the story without them). A LOT of characters too, Polly knew everyone, and the stories about all the mobsters were a little dizzying at times. Polly's story was fascinating though, an American Dream story of sorts (the author points out that the first use of the term "American Dream" was in a story about a prostitute) and the life that Polly made was worlds away from what she might've lived in Yanow, Belarus, if she had stayed there. Maybe no life at all, given that the entire Jewish population of Yanow fled or was killed in WWII. I found the history of Polly's family and shtetl background very interesting, especially the gender roles, and can hardly imagine what it was like for her to land alone at Ellis Island as a teenager. What a life. The task of tracing this history must've been monumental. As Polly's ghostwriter (or editor?) had noted, this woman had a 'constitutional, or at least vocational, dislike of being pinned down' (rough paraphrase) and what she told in her autobiography was only part of the story, the bits that could be told while so many of her clients were still alive. I loved learning about the mobsters and corruption of NYC in the 20s and 30s, the trends in music and dance, the origin of the "little black book" and the horrific double standard which still dogs us. I understand a little more about Jewish NY and the migrations to Hollywood mid-century. Breaking down the "Roaring Twenties" was interesting too - the first few years sound a lot like what we're dealing with now, but after many decades we lump the whole 20s together as if they were only boom times and not recovering from pandemic, war, and economic strife for the first few years. Funny thing, I had never heard of "policy" gambling until late last year and now I've read about it in at least 3 different books. I had never heard that "jazz" used to mean sex or that you could talk about "jazzing" someone in the bathroom of the club. I love how language changes over time, even when a lot of people are horrified by a new usage. This is a great history of Prohibition and one slice of New York City, and if I'm going to read about gangsters and corruption I think seeing it from the point of view of a female on the edges of it all is preferable. If we all know the names of Jazz Age gangsters I think we should all know about the Madam who knew them all, Pearl (Polly) Adler.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jake

    This is another book where you really have to be deeply invested in the subject matter to enjoy it. Fortunately, it’s right up my alley. 20s, bootlegging, gangsters, New York City. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It seems as if there was one running thread that connected gangsters like Arnold Rothstein to politicians like Jimmy Walker to entertainers like the Marx brothers to athletes like Jack Dempsey to the upper crust of Manhattan society, it was sex. Specifically the sex Polly Adler provided in her m This is another book where you really have to be deeply invested in the subject matter to enjoy it. Fortunately, it’s right up my alley. 20s, bootlegging, gangsters, New York City. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It seems as if there was one running thread that connected gangsters like Arnold Rothstein to politicians like Jimmy Walker to entertainers like the Marx brothers to athletes like Jack Dempsey to the upper crust of Manhattan society, it was sex. Specifically the sex Polly Adler provided in her many and various houses up and down the island. Applegate spends the minimum amount of time on Adler’s background and rise to prominence, with the bulk of the book dedicated to her running her operations while trying to evade the law. She was definitely a right person in the right place at the right time. 1920s New York City was flush with cash and everyone seemed to rub elbows in the same clubs and speakeasies on the way to Polly. But there’s a reason I did a lot of name dropping in the preceding paragraph (not to jack up the word count for the matter). Debby Applegate’s style itself is to do a lot of name dropping while documenting the specifics of Polly moving her houses from one place to another to evade the authorities. The only difference between the chapters are the timing of the year (1925 was a good year, 1930 was not, etc.). I enjoyed the heck out of it because the names fascinated me and how they all connected to Polly but this is really where you need to decide what your tolerance level is. I also liked how Debby Applegate covered the hypocrisy of the flesh trade and how Polly was treated. How everyone came running to Polly when they needed a screw but ditched her at the first sign of trouble or how they brought her into a man’s world but always reminded her in one way or another, physically or verbally, that she’s a woman. She made it in a difficult world but it was indeed difficult and Applegate doesn’t shy away from that. As I said, I enjoyed this one immensely but my recommendations would be specific to those who are interested in the subject or the era.

  27. 5 out of 5

    B

    Debby Applegate, may the gods bless you. Madam took a mammoth amount of research to write. Applegate not only researched Polly Adler, but also the Russian village where Adler was born, New York City the place in the 1920s and 30s, the politics of Adler's world, and the biographies of many key public figures of the time, including mobsters, policemen, and musicians. I can see Applegate sitting down to write, then thinking "wait, who is the police commissioner, like, really?" Then going down a 2-d Debby Applegate, may the gods bless you. Madam took a mammoth amount of research to write. Applegate not only researched Polly Adler, but also the Russian village where Adler was born, New York City the place in the 1920s and 30s, the politics of Adler's world, and the biographies of many key public figures of the time, including mobsters, policemen, and musicians. I can see Applegate sitting down to write, then thinking "wait, who is the police commissioner, like, really?" Then going down a 2-day rabbit hole reading everything she can about the man, circling back to write, and having to rinse and repeat dozens and dozens of times as Adler's world unfurled before her. Writing nonfiction is so difficult. You want to paint an accurate picture, but you also have to trim the fat and fill in blanks in order to create a compelling narrative, and that's where Applegate fell short for me. I think she got so bogged down in researching everything that was going on around Polly Adler, she was so preoccupied with the framework of Polly Adler, that she sort of lost sight of Polly Adler the person. Who, you know, was the whole point of the book, or so it was billed. Part of the issue seems to be all of the secrecy and rumor surrounding Polly Adler. Adler published a memoir, sure, but can you really believe said memoir? And, if so little is definitively out there about Ms. Adler, isn't it better to just write what we know is truth? I'm gonna say no. Sorry. I think about Robert Massie's book on Catherine the Great. He took leaps and made assumptions in that book to make it a truly fantastic biography. For whatever reason, Applegate was unwilling to make leaps, or draw conclusions, and her book suffers from that reluctance. You could easily say "sources disagree, but" and give us the goods. At the end of 500 pages, I don't feel as though I know who Polly Adler was. What I do have is a rich description of what New York City was like in the 1920s and 30s. Applegate also spent a lot of time fleshing out organized crime. To a certain extent, it makes sense. Ms. Adler was dealing in an illegal business, so organized crime was going to be a factor in her life. But Applegate spent too much time talking about how this mobster hated that mobster and those mobsters tried to gun down these mobsters and just, like, who cares? There were so many names flying around who had very little to do with Polly Adler. And, again, isn't this a book about Polly Adler? I'm going to do what Applegate didn't, and draw a conclusion here. I think Applegate did so much research to ensure accuracy of time and place that she lost sight of her subject matter. She had so much detail about all these people and events from her research, that she decided to include them all, despite their only tangential relation to the point of the book she was writing. I get it: you did all that work and want to "show" that work, as it were. But the book dragged in places because of this exhaustive inclusion that rarely circled back to Polly Adler the person. This became frustrating as the book marched on, because we were spending so much time with male mobsters, but Applegate never really unpacked what I was interested in: being a woman in the 1920s dealing in prostitution where women are abused and murdered regularly. There are several scenes in Madam where Polly Adler and/or the women she employs are abused by customers, but Applegate takes the anthropological approach with these scenes. She doesn't comment on or unpack these injustices. She records them and moves on. We spend so much time learning about the powerful men in the book, and so little time learning about the women beneath, or sometimes on top, of them. Would providing that context and commentary be an impossible ask for an author? These women were, in most cases, intentionally anonymous. But we could explore what it was like to be Woman back then, and we could, again, draw conclusions to try to breathe color and life into these women who deserve to, finally, have voices. It was disappointing to get so much detail about the peripheral men in Polly Adler's life, but so little about the women surrounding her. To be fair, the final page of the book is a thunderclap of genius, speaking to what few avenues of power women had during Polly Adler's time. But that is ONE page in a 500 book, and it just demonstrates that Applegate has the writing chops to really break down Polly Adler for us, and didn't. TL;DR : meticulously researched and generally well-written but it isn't about Polly Adler so much as as snapshot of New York City in the 1920s and 30s.

  28. 4 out of 5

    LeeAnne

    Fascinating look at American history of the early 20th century.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

    Fascinating story, though sometimes a little more sprawling than necessary. One quibble: I question the use of language specific to the era; it took me out of the narrative.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Meade

    so many famous connections! I enjoyed the book very much. Polly Adler lived an interesting, if unconventional, life. One must consider the many hurdles she faced from a very early age before questioning her decisions in life. She was quite a colorful character! I also enjoyed learning of the myriad connections she had… from the famous to infamous! I think fans of Boardwalk Empire would enjoy the book simply for all the connections to the underworld.

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