Sin in the Second City and Turn-of-the-Century Sexual Power Dynamics
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: It was sort of a roundabout way. I got into the story because my great-grandmother’s sister and my great-grandmother immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in 1905. And one weekend my great grandmother’s sister went to Chicago and was never heard from again. And I, you know, was always intrigued about this and didn’t really know much about the story. Nobody in my family had any really traceable information. But I thought it would be interesting just to explore the circumstances that could have led to her disappearance, because I knew Chicago was a pretty dynamic and dangerous place at the time. So I just started going through microfilm . . . Chicago Tribune microfilm in 1905 and came upon the Marshall Field, Jr. shooting, and was immediately intrigued by that ‘cause it was huge news. And soon after coming upon the shooting I found the Everleigh sisters, and then of course forgot all about my missing relative because they were so much more interesting, I thought. Well the Everleigh sisters . . . A good question because they were a very . . . part of their main facet of their personalities was their ability to sort of camouflage who they were, and to keep changing who they were, and to change their back story so frequently that nobody could pin them down. They told people they were from Kentucky. They told people they were from Virginia. They told people they were from Indiana. And I was able to pin down that they were, in fact, from this wealthy family in Virginia, but they had fallen on hard times. And nobody knew the really sad part of their story, which was that their father was the one who forced them into prostitution at a very young age. And they, of course, led everybody to believe that they just decided to become madams on a whim after sort of coming into an inheritance, and joining a theatrical troupe, and seeing that this might be a good business opportunity. So there was a sort of sad undercurrent to their story that was really interesting to explore. I think it was several things. I do think they were colored by their experience in being forced to be prostitutes themselves. They . . . Like many people who became madams, they began in the business like that. And I think that they were subjected to such degradation that they really . . . What concerned them was that they had girls that they had not to be . . . They wanted to spoil their girls, not exploit them. They wanted to treat them as they wish they had been treated. I think that was a large part of it. I think the other thing was they saw . . . looked around and were realists and saw there was not much opportunity for women. This was 100 years ago. Women couldn’t vote. Women couldn’t even enter saloons where politics were discussed. I mean there was absolutely no way for women to enter political discourse or have a say in anything. And all of these reformers who were trying to “help these women”, these sisters were actually doing more concretely to help these women than they were – you know providing them with food, and clothes, and meals, so . . . It just reminds me of something funny ___________ said. She said entertaining most men in the parlors is more tiresome than what the girls lose their social standing over. So yeah girls lost their sexual standing by being promiscuous – by being prostitutes. A lot of girls, in fact, were kicked out of their home for being promiscuous. I mean that was such . . . considered such an egregious offense back then that you could actually be kicked out of your home. And a lot of _________ prostitution figuring well if I’m going to be kicked out of my home, I might was well be paid for it. And it was a huge stigma, and I think the Everleigh sisters, part of their . . . part of their goal was to help girls reform themselves in terms of returning them back to polite society if that’s what their ultimate goal was. A lot of their girls ended up, after leaving the club, marrying into wealthy families across the United States – marrying senators and prominent businessmen and whatnot. So men of course . . . You know it was a stigma . . . In fact it was a badge of honor to be admitted into the Everleigh Club. Of course the usual double standard applied, but . . . but you know the Everleigh Club seemed to be the one place where girls could sort of overcome that . . . that stigma at some point. I think their . . . part of their power came from the fact that they were able to so . . . so completely cover their past. In the book I call them a 19th century amalgamation of Martha Stewart and Madonna because they just kept reinventing themselves and reinventing themselves. And I even think that – ____________ in particular – by the time they were older they believed every lie they ever told. I think that they completely, you know, bought into the idea that they were aristocratic ladies who had these privileged, lovely upbringing and never had a hard day in their life. And I think by that point that’s their story and they were sticking to it. And no one really had any right or reason to know anything different. I think the Everleigh sisters wielded tremendous power. And part of the reason they went into this business, it was . . . If you think about it, it was the only viable business where a woman could actually be the, you know, the commander . . . Not the Commander-in-Chief, the CEO if you will. I mean it was the only . . . You know women did not run industry. They were not masters of their domain. This was the only industry I think where women could actually assume a position of power, and the Everleigh sisters were very powerful in that regard. They dictated who was allowed in their club and who wasn’t. They had a very specific set of rules. You know and the men paid dearly for that, and I think the sisters felt if anyone was being exploited it was the men in this equation; especially in light of the fact of the way they treated their women and made sure their woman were never abused by these men or mistreated by these men. I can’t say the same for other . . . for other brothels. I think that especially when the men were in charge, you know, there were . . . the exchange of power was much different, so . . . Vic Shaw was one of my favorite characters. She was the rival madam – the rival madam to the Everleigh sisters and was the queen bee madam until they came to town; and you know had worked her way up and had spent quite a bit of time and effort really establishing herself in Chicago. And she was this scrappy, relentless woman who was not uptown. You know she didn’t even know what uptown looked like, and she did not at all appreciate these two sort of aristocratic sisters sauntering in with their fine airs and sort of taking what she thought was rightfully hers. And the fact that she tried to frame them for murder twice is . . . It was . . . I mean I just couldn’t have made her up. And I always say if there was ever a film adaptation, Bette Midler has to play Vic Shaw. I actually sent Bette Midler a copy of the book, but you know I’m sure she’s gonna call me any minute now and wanna do that. But you know I really enjoyed Vic Shaw.
Recorded On: 1/22/08
Abbott's book started with a lost great-great aunt, and ended with an exploration of the Everleigh sisters and the politics of sex in turn-of-the-century Chicago.
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