From Belarussian “Balaboosta” to Broadway Madam

by | Dec 15, 2022 | Book Reviews

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

 Debby Applegate

 553 pp

 Doubleday, 2021

Frank Sinatra, Walter Winchell, Lucky Luciano, Dorothy Parker, Duke Ellington, Dutch Schultz, Robert Benchley, Desi Arnaz—and likely FDR. This is just a partial list of Jazz Era writers, celebrities, musicians, gangsters, politicians, and other notables who had one thing in common—they were all friends and sometimes clients of Polly Adler, a penniless Jewish immigrant who became the most famous Manhattan madam of the early 20th century.

Polly’s story begins in Yanow, Belarus where Pearl Adler is born sometime around 1900 and raised to be a traditional, Jewish homemaker or balaboosta. In that role, Pearl is expected to run the household and provide her future husband time to study at the local Yeshiva. When Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement becomes untenable due to pogroms and wars, Polly (her Americanized name) travels alone to the U.S. with little more than the clothes on her back.

Although Debby Applegate centers her narrative on Polly’s life, this extensively researched biography provides the reader with a deep dive into one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history as urbanization, Prohibition, World War I, and women’s suffrage combined to upend traditional American society and morality. If you think the ’60’s impacted American moral standards, wait until you read about the ’20s!

Ironically, Prohibition was a driving force in these changes. Prior to ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, New York society was separated by race, religion, profession, and economic status. Prohibition created fabulously wealthy bootleggers and left many ordinary citizens united in their rejection of government-imposed morality. Individuals from all walks of society gathered in speakeasies where artists, writers, musicians, politicians, cops, gangsters, and New Yorkers of all races joined to create new social standards. The resulting ferment gave us flappers, jazz music, expanding drug use, and more publicly open sexuality.

Readers may be surprised to learn that in the first decades of the 19th century, many of the most prominent brothels were run by Jewish women from the old country. At that time, Jews made up roughly 20% of New York City’s population, but Jewish women operated an estimated 50% of the “houses of ill repute.” Applegate theorizes that, “The shtetl tradition of the balaboosta—the cheerful, efficient wife who ran the home and family business while her husband studied Torah—developed in many Jewish women the rare combination of practical financial sense and homey hospitality” needed to run a successful bawdy house.

Because of the nature of Polly’s business and the crude, often sexist and racist language of her era, Madam begins with a warning that some readers may be offended by its content. However, Applegate’s use of the “slanguage” of that time helps immerse the reader in Polly’s world and never comes across as gratuitous.

Occasionally, the narrative bogs down a bit as the author seems compelled to share all the results of her extensive research, though readers will be fascinated by the ongoing parade of fabulous historical characters. Readers will also come away with a deeper understanding of the Jazz Era and an appreciation of the role of the Old World balaboosta in this truly revolutionary period in American history.

Skip Sacks is a native of Norfolk and is Virginia State Counsel for Stewart Title Guaranty Company. Sacks has served as an adjunct professor at ODU and occasionally reviews books to honor the memory of his father, Hal Sacks, who wrote hundreds of book reviews for this publication.

Reviewed by Skip Sacks