Monday, February 6, 2023

Q&A with Debby Applegate


Photo by Beth Dixson



Debby Applegate is the author of the book Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age. She also has written The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.


Q: How did you first learn about Polly Adler (1900-1962), and at what point did you decide to write a biography of her?


A: I love the idea of reading historical books as taking a time machine. So I figured that for my second book, perhaps I could build a time machine to go to New York City in the Roaring Twenties.


I was roaming the stacks of the Yale Library looking for inspiration when a slender, crimson-colored book caught my eye. It was entitled A House is Not a Home, and it was Polly Adler’s best-selling 1953 memoir of her 25-year reign as New York City’s most famous brothel-keeper.


I’d never heard of Polly Adler but I was immediately entranced by her story. She was like the like the Forest Gump of the Jazz Age. “From the parlor of my house I had a backstage, three-way view,” as Polly put it. “I could look into the underworld, the half-world and the high.” She seemed to know everyone who was Anyone, including luminaries like Duke Ellington, Al Capone, Dorothy Parker, Joe Dimaggio, Huey Long, Winthrop Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, and Desi Arnaz.


Most importantly, she was a fabulous character in her own right. Witty, ambitious, whip-smart, and brimming with moxie, she was a good Jewish girl whose life turned upside down when she found herself stranded alone at the age of 14 in the not-so-Golden Land of America. By the age of 23, she had established herself as unorthodox businesswoman who was thriving in a man’s world.


“I had always told my girls: If you have to be a prostitute, be a good one,” declared Polly. “Well, the same applied to me. If I had to be a madam, I’d be a good madam…I was determined to be the best goddam madam in all America.”


Who could resist a story like that?


Q: The book is filled with fascinating details—how did you conduct your research, and of the various stories you uncovered about Polly and those surrounding her, are there any that you found particularly surprising or fascinating?


A: There were so many things that shocked me in the course of writing about power, crime, and sex in Jazz Age Manhattan.


But the item that literally knocked me out of my chair was Polly’s claim that she provided women for Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he was governor of New York. I knew she counted a lot of powerful men as patrons, but I’d never heard even a whisper about FDR. I spent many, many, many hours on this question, but could never definitively confirm her claim. However, there’s strong circumstantial evidence that it is true.

As for the research, well, that’s my favorite part. Hunting for clues, following hunches, and making discoveries. I was amazed at how much I was able to turn about Polly’s secret life. Clearly, she genuinely wanted to be remembered by history.


Of course, digital databases like,,, even YouTube, were extremely helpful, but I also relied on good old-fashioned books and archives.


In a great turn of luck, I stumbled on the notebooks of Polly’s ghostwriter, Virginia Faulkner, who helped write A House is Not a Home. That was a goldmine. And I was befriended by a cousin of Polly’s, Smadar Gilboa, who was – miraculously! – a master genealogist who helped me excavate Polly’s family life.


I'm sure there’s more material out there waiting to be discovered. Just last week someone sent me part of an unpublished memoir that I’d never seen, describing Polly’s glamorous parties and her sly sense of humor. It was like getting a letter from an old friend out of the blue.


Q: Your previous biography, The Most Famous Man in America, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was about clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, a very different figure from Polly Adler. How different—or similar—was it to work on this biography compared to the other one?


A: It was a much bigger leap from ministers to madams, from would-be saints to unrepentant sinners than I’d anticipated. It took a long time to shake off the mindset of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and take up the world of Damon Runyon.


But despite their very different lives, the Reverend Beecher and Madam Adler had a lot in common as characters. They were both smart, resilient, and funny, with a generous, self-deprecating sense of humor. They were bold, broadminded souls who understood human foibles, and loved the company of writers, artists, and unconventional thinkers. And they both knew a lot about the secret desires of men.


It sounds funny to say it, but I think they would have liked each other immensely.


Q: Polly Adler had a complicated relationship to the law and to the world of crime; she seemed to be constantly under investigation. How did she manage her life as it related to the police and to organized crime?


A: I was constantly shocked by the level of corruption in New York City in the early 20th century – and by the central role that illicit sex played in greasing that corruption.


One reporter summed Polly’s influence this way: “She provided a liaison between the underworld, politics, the professions, big business, and desirable women. Judges’ tips were bartered in her plush parlor. Racketeer and labor bosses formulated deals there. Police officers were broken or made, and candidates for public office gained or lost party support as a result of conferences held at Polly’s place.”


This was the source of her power, but it also meant that she had to be constantly on the alert for danger from all sides.


The NYPD served as both her sworn enemy and best customers and close pals. Polly became famous for her generous bribes to the vice squad – her “hundred dollar handshakes” she called them -- and her wild parties where bootleggers and gamblers mingled with politicians, police officers, and judges. She estimated that over the course of her career, she paid out at least half her income in bribes.


Not everyone could be bought off, however, including J. Edgar Hoover who personally directed the FBI to take her down. But Polly was wily. She was arrested dozens of times, but in the end, she only went to jail once, for one month in 1935, with five days off for good behavior. She survived long after many of her corrupt colleagues were in prison or the grave.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I worked so long on Polly Adler – 13 years! -- that I have been reluctant to start another project. I'm still resting! But I don’t think I'm ready to leave Roaring Twenties New York yet.  So I may revisit some of my favorite underworld characters someday soon. It’s a great place to visit, even if I wouldn’t want to live there.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes, actually, there is! We authors, especially biographers, spend a lot of time wondering if anyone else will ever care about our subjects. Or if anyone even reads books anymore. So I am profoundly grateful to everyone who ever picks up a book or reads a blog like this. It means the world to all of us.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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