Atlanta-based journalist Abbott debuts with a dispatch from the seething underbelly of old-time Chicago, where a pair of sisters ran the finest whorehouse in the land.
The most famous madams of their day, Minna and Ada Everleigh originally came from money in the South—or so they said; their accounts of their background were laced with blarney and hokum. What is fact is that in 1899, after a short stint running a cathouse in Omaha that didn’t have the high-flying clientele they wanted, the sisters found a spot with everything they were looking for: Chicago’s Levee district. An iniquitous den of vice and ribaldry on the Near South Side, the Levee offered the Everleighs a wide-open red-light district in which to ply their trade and easy access to cash-flush customers looking for good times with just a touch more class. According to Abbott’s highly engaging and personable account, the Everleigh Club was something to behold, especially in a neighborhood known for its 50-cent tricks and places called the Bucket of Blood or Why Not? It boasted a dining room paneled in mahogany, a fountain that sprayed perfume into the air, astronomic door fees and stunning women, cherry-picked from the city’s thousands of Sister Carries. (The well-read sisters were chummy with Carrie’s author, Theodore Dreiser, as well as Edgar Lee Masters.) As the Everleighs raked in money, bluenoses grew concerned about women being forced into prostitution, and local reformers pushed the (usually fictional) horrors of the supposedly widespread white slave trade, which more than one clueless do-gooder had the gall to claim was many times worse than the African slave trade. Abbott tells a reliably dramatic story, though it’s clear early on that the odds were stacked against the sisters, no matter how many powerful politicians and gangsters they befriended.
A rollicking tale from a more vibrant time: history to a ragtime beat.