Karen Abbott is a journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller Sin in the Second City, an exploration of the role of brothels in the cultural and political life of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Prior to publishing Sin in the Second City – which took her three years to write and research – Abbott worked for Philadelphia magazine and for Philadelphia Weekly. Abbott, a native of Philadelphia, received her BA from Villanova University in 1995. The critically acclaimed Sin in the Second City tells the story of Chicago’s Everleigh Club, a famous high-end whorehouse that was known as the “finest brothel in the land.” Abbott lives with her husband in Atlanta and is working on her second book, a portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee and Depression-era New York.
Karen Abbott: I’ll read a little bit of a scene from the First Ward Ball, which was the sort of . . . which I wish somebody would start having again. It was the . . . It was the annual party that the Levee District threw for itself. It was the chance for everybody to be as disgusting as they wanted to be with impunity, and they could just celebrate themselves. And this went on year after year until 1908 when the reformers got increasingly agitated about this and wanted to shut it down. And they were, in fact, so upset about it that a week before the ball was to take place they blew up the building. And of course the first word that the Levee District people wanted to have their party anyway. So they were undeterred and decided to go along with the festivities. So I’ll just read a short little excerpt from that then. “Unbelievable, this traffic. Trolleys stalled all along Wabash and State. Automobiles and cabs parked askew. Carriages lined in an endless chain. Fifteen thousand men, women, and children darting through the frigid December night curious for a glimpse of the strange procession – the painted ladies in their furs and extravagant hats, wide brims circling their heads like miniature rings of Saturn lifted above the mass, moving slowly toward the coliseum. The Everleigh sisters heard the cries, ‘They’re here!’ and watched the crowd part as if by Moses’ hand for their … Behind them and behind their 30 butterflies followed the lesser levee attractions, and they were all out tonight – Frankie Wright, madam of a brothel called “The Library”, so called an ironic homage to six unread books she’d stacked on a shelf; Big Jim Colisemus’ white slavery partner Maurice Van Beever and his wife Julia; Big Jim himself and his wife Victoria; terrible Johnny Torio, big Jim’s new bodyguard just imported from the Five Points neighborhood of New York City. Years later Torio too would import another Five Points gangster, a young comer named Alphonse Capone whose first job entailed buzzing madams to warn them of imminent raids. And there was Vic Shaw and her white slaver husband, Roy Jones, squeezed by her side. Policemen encircled the sisters and their girls, protecting them from groping hands as they entered the coliseum, a spiraling urban castle with … and turrets – Chicago’s answer to Madison Square Garden. Inside felt like a racing heart thrumming and pulsing to its own erratic beat. So close was the press, the … Herald noted, that even those already drunk were forced to stand erect. Thirty thousand people in a venue meant for half that number lunging and thrashing, bodies colliding. Mouths screamed through nickel store masks. Women wilted and collapsed to the floor. ‘…way! Dame fainted!’ was a frequent cry, and then were lifted and passed hand to hand crowd surf style to a growing pile of weary bodies in a tucked away corner. The air was damp with breath and sweat, the floor slick with spilled beer ankle deep. Men dressed like women; women dressed like men; androgynous revelers dressed like jockeys, clowns, Indians, gypsies, and page boys; madams with fur capes flung over bare shoulders; harlots in slick skirts, peek-a-boo waists, bloomers, and even bathing suits causing the Tribune to quip, ‘Mighty little suit of any kind.’ And one notorious …dressed like a nun.…knew what came next. The band struck up the Everleigh Club’s theme song, “Stay in Your Own Backyard” in honor of the sisters’ arrival. This was the one night of the year where the parameters of their own back yard shifted and stretched; when they took to the same dance floor as the pimps, and white slavers, and cretins who would never be permitted past the club’s doors; when any ignorant observer who knew nothing of levee hierarchy might fail to distinguish themselves from the rest. It was a reminder panting quietly in her ear of how low they once were; all those indignities that had to be wrapped in lie after lovely life; wrapping too thick now to ever tear open.”
Recorded On: 1/22/08