Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott is the author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul,

From Melissa Lafsky's interview with Abbott at the "Freakonomics" blog:

Q: Could you describe the economics of the Everleigh brothel? What was the total income? Salaries for the Everleigh madams and their prostitutes? Food/decorating budget?

A: On a busy night, the Everleigh sisters could make as much as $5,000. They spent $18,000 per year in renovations alone, including the upkeep of a $15,000 gold piano and several $650 gilded spittoons. They allotted a budget of $2,000 to $5,000 a month for imported spirits. The sisters sold bottles of champagne for $12 in the parlors and $15 in the bedrooms, but never beer or liquor. They also paid about $800 a month in protection fees [to law enforcement officials].

The Everleigh Club “butterflies,” as they were called, pocketed from $100 to $400 each week—an unthinkable salary in other houses. “One $50 client is preferable to ten $5 ones,” Minna [Everleigh] advised her courtesans. “Less wear and tear.” A man had to pay $50 just to walk in the door, in an era when a three-course meal cost fifty cents. Dinner in the club’s Pullman Palace Buffet could cost another $150.
When the sisters retired, they had $1 million in cash, the equivalent of $20 million today.

Q: Tell us about the legality of prostitution. What was the stance on enforcement in the 1900s? How has it changed?

A: Prostitution was technically illegal at the turn of the last century, but it was also ubiquitous. Today’s image of the drug-addled streetwalker toiling under the menacing glare of her pimp wasn’t the norm back then. When the Everleighs were in business, every city with a population of more than 100,00 had a bustling red light district where dope fiends, pickpockets, and brawlers got their kicks next to lawyers, ministers, moguls, and, of course, politicians. Vice thrived, with municipal indulgence.

Brothels were considered a necessary evil; prostitutes kept “respectable” women safe from rape and the baser fantasies of their husbands. The Progressive-era reformers challenged this way of thinking, which led to a major culture war. The Everleighs were targeted because they were this gleaming, shining symbol of open and protected vice, known around the world.
Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Sin in the Second City.

--Marshal Zeringue