Karen Abbott never seems to tire of talking about pimps, prostitutes, and panders.
OK, so that may be an unfair way to put it; after all, I'm the one who raises the subject as we sit down to dinner at La Petite Grocery on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Abbott is in town to promote her book, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul, recently released in paperback. Tom Lowenburg and Judith Lafitte of Octavia Books, the site of Abbott's reading and book-signing earlier in the day, enthusiastically recommended the restaurant, which I have been eager to try out.
Sin in the Second City is a critical and publishing success. USA Today wrote that "Karen Abbott has pioneered sizzle history with...this satisfyingly lurid tale." The Wall Street Journal called Sin in the Second City "an immensely readable book." Janet Maslin praised it in the daily New York Times and Ada Calhoun, writing in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, called it "a lush love letter to the underworld" with a "wealth of details."
The quality of the book accounts for this critical reception; and yet, as the author rightly observes, many excellent books fail to get a wide readership because they are inadequately promoted. Abbott was determined to give her book a fair chance: she spent an extraordinary amount of time and her own money traveling in support of the book when it was first released. One casualty of the time away from home: her parrots feel neglected, especially "Poe," the elder of the pair. As we peruse the menu, Abbott jokes that she'll not order poultry out of sympathy for Poe's hurt feelings. I have my eye on the fish, so I'm relieved that she doesn't have a sensitive goldfish at home.
Poe is named after Edgar Allan Poe, the writer who many Philadelphians (Abbott grew up there) claim as one of their own—Poe wrote much of his better work there—at least as vigorously as do the denizens of Baltimore, where Poe died and is buried. Abbott's younger parrot is "Dexter," after Pete Dexter, the novelist and one-time columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. It turns out that Abbott may be an even bigger fan of Dexter's work than I am—and that's saying quite a lot—and she's had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the writer.
I arrived at Abbott's reading only as it was breaking up, yet I can tell she's an enthusiastic promoter of her creation. She says it's easy to be so: "I'm amazed by the stories, and I hope others will be, too." And the stories are amazing. Sin in the Second City recounts the rise and fall of the Everleigh Club, the most expensive and exclusive bordello in Chicago—probably, in the world—from its opening in February 1900 until it was shuttered in October 1911. The book is engrossing for its social history as much as for the character study of the Everleigh's founders, the spinster sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh. The narrative is also packed with irresistible vignettes about the "sporting girls," as they were commonly known a century ago, and their customers.
My favorite patron of the club is "Uncle Ned," whose annual holiday gift to himself was to rent out the club's Music Room and work out an unusual kink: he "thrust his bare feet into buckets of ice, downed a tall glass of sarsaparilla, and ordered the girls to circle him and sing 'Jingle Bells.'" Uncle Ned accompanied his chorus with a tambourine and repeatedly shouted, "Let's all go for an old-fashioned sleigh ride...whee! " While doubtless exploitative and mildly sadistic—Minna told Ada that these kind of antics were "more tiring than what the girls lose their social standing over"—these practices at the Everleigh were a lot less harmful than what went on elsewhere in the South Side Levee district.
Our starters arrive. Abbott has opted for a salad of Romaine Hearts with Shaved Peccorino and Creamy Lemon Dressing. I'm having an exotic variation of one of my favorite appetizers: Water Buffalo Mozzarella and Local Heirloom Tomatoes with Herbs.
As entertaining as the whorehouse shenanigans are, the politics of the era are at least as intriguing. The machinations of the reformers and how they manipulated the public, Abbott says, captivated her interest as much what went on in the Everleigh Club: these people in Chicago changed American history. Abbott recounts how the so-called reformers, really just a handful of men in the beginning, were "so effective at fear and gloom and doom" with the books they put out conflating white slavery with prostitution.
Obviously, there were some cases of white slavery: unwitting and unwilling young women tricked into and trapped by the prostitution business, often violently so. And yet it is just as clear that the larger part of the sex industry relied on a supply of workers driven there by economic opportunity and necessity, and by the steady demand from men willing to pay for sex. The luxurious Everleigh Club had no part in the violence of white slavery: its workers were paid extremely well, pampered, and even educated at the sister-madams' insistence.
Our entrees arrive—Abbott has ordered the Grilled Hanger Steak with Truffle Aioli, Caramelized Onions and Fries, and I chose the Redfish Court Bouillion and Crabmeat over Louisiana Popcorn Rice—and it seems like natural dinner conversation to ask her about her view on prostitution and whether it is exploitative or should be legalized. Of course it's exploitative, she says, but it is a social phenomenon that isn't going to disappear and it should be legalized. If the state legalizes prostitution, then it can regulate it, tax it, and monitor the health of sex workers.
Sin in the Second City strikes me as obvious Hollywood bait, so I ask if there are any plans for an adaptation. The answer is Yes, and Abbott tells me the name of the major industry figure who owns the option on the book—and makes me pledge to not repeat it yet. Of course I agree to keep the secret: like a New Orleans madam once said, "With discretion, I [get] a better class of clientele." All I will spill at this time is news that this producer has a lot of clout and readers will recognize his work, so there is a better than usual chance that an adaptation will be forthcoming. (I'd love to see Jack Nicholson as Uncle Ned.)
Abbott's work-in-progress is a book about Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous actress, stripper, and writer. Just as Sin in the Second City is not merely a biography of the Everleigh sisters or a history of their whorehouse, the Gypsy Rose Lee project is not a straight biography. Instead, the book largely focuses on the intersection of Gypsy Lee's life and the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, where she was a headliner. Abbott says it was a bizarre moment in history: America was not yet at war but many other countries had already fallen to Germany and Japan. The fair was supposed to be about optimism in the future, yet there was a cloud over Europe and Asia. New York City itself was undergoing significant changes with the decline of Tammany Hall and the rise of Mayor LaGuardia. It was a pregnant time for gangster society and literary culture as well. When she completes the current book tour, Abbott will return to New York for more research into this forthcoming addition to "sizzle history."
As we leave the restaurant, I ask Abbott to sign my copy of Sin in the Second City. Her inscription reads: "For Marshal, who would have gotten the Prince Henry treatment" [at the Everleigh Club]. See the chapter titled "Knowing Your Balzac" to learn why that makes me smile.
© Marshal Zeringue