Sex-trade-positive arguments aren’t unique to the Postfeminist era, however passionately a boatload of women’s studies professors may wish to lay claim to them.
More than a hundred years ago, in 1900, the Everleigh sisters founded a high-class brothel with the aim of elevating the industry in Chicago. They believed prostitution was a viable career, one as worthy of respect as stenography or sewing. But the wives — and Evangelicals — of the city disagreed. And eleven years after opening its doors, the Everleigh Club disbanded amidst “white slave trade” panic.
My friend Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul tracks the rise and downfall of the notorious whorehouse. This excerpt, “Knowing Your Balzac,” appears with permission of the publisher.
Pulled or prompted, men came to the Everleigh Club. They came to see the Room of 1,000 Mirrors, inspired by Madam Babe Connors’s place in St. Louis, with a Ã¯Â¬â€šoor made entirely of reÃ¯Â¬â€šective glass. In Minna’s eyes, this parlor paid bawdy tribute to Honoré de Balzac’s The Magic Skin — a mirror with numerous facets, each depicting a world. They came to hear the Club’s string orchestras — the only bordello in the Levee featuring three — and its professor, Vanderpool Vanderpool, whose repertoire included a chipper rendition of “Stay in Your Own Back Yard,” one of the most popular tunes of the era…
They came to see the thirty boudoirs, each with a mirrored ceiling and marble inlaid brass bed, a private bathroom with a tub laced in gold detailing, imported oil paintings, and hidden buttons that rang for champagne. They came to eat in the glorious Pullman Buffet, gorging on southern cuisine and the creations of the Club’s nationally renowned head chef. On any given night, the menu’s specials might offer
supreme of guinea-fowl
roasted turkey, duck and goose
au gratin cauliflower
spinach cups with creamed peas
parmesan potato cubes
pear salad with sweet dressing
stuffed cucumber salad
carrots (candied or plain)
browned sweet potatoes
Minna’s favorite boys dined again after midnight on a feast of fried oysters, Welsh rarebit, deviled crabs, lobster, caviar — unadorned save for a dash of lemon juice — and scrambled eggs with bacon. For special occasions — a courtesan’s engagement, a birthday, the reappearance of a long-lost Everleigh Club client — Minna ordered the team of chefs to double the usual menu. The madam believed any event that diverted the course of a normal day was a valid excuse to host an epicurean free-for-all. They came to see the library, Ã¯Â¬Âlled Ã¯Â¬â€šoor to ceiling with classics in literature and poetry and philosophy, and the art room, housing a few bona Ã¯Â¬Âde masterworks and a reproduction of Bernini’s famous Apollo and Daphne, which the sisters had failed to Ã¯Â¬Ând in America. After learning that the original statue was at the Villa Borghese in Rome, Minna sent an artist to capture its image. She was haunted by how the exquisite nymph’s hands Ã¯Â¬â€šowered into the branches of a laurel tree just as the god of light reaches for her. A gorgeous piece, but she admired the statue mostly for the questions it posed about clients: Why did men who had everything worth having patronize the Everleigh Club? And what if the thing they desired most in this world simply vanished?
They came to see the ballroom, with its towering water fountain, parquet Ã¯Â¬â€šoor arranged in intricate mosaic patterns, and ceiling that dripped crystal chandeliers. They came to see the little oddities that made the Club like no place else in the world: gilded Ã¯Â¬Âshbowls, eighteen-karat-gold spittoons that cost $650 each, and the Everleighs’ signature trinket — a fountain that, at regular intervals, Ã¯Â¬Âred a jet of perfume into the thickly incensed air. “By comparison,” wrote Herbert Asbury, “the celebrated Mahogany Hall of Washington, the famous Clark Street house of Carrie Watson, and the Ã¯Â¬Ânest brothels in New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans were squalid hovels Ã¯Â¬Ât only for the amorous frolics of chimpanzees.”
They came to see the soundproof reception parlors, twelve in all. The Copper Room featured walls paneled with hammered brass; the Silver Room gleamed sterling; the Blue Room offered cerulean leather pillows stamped with images of Gibson girls; the furniture in the Gold Room was encrusted with gilt. And a visitor mustnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t forget the Red Room and Rose Room and Green Room, all done in monochromatic splendor.
They came to see the Moorish Room, featuring the obligatory Turkish corner, complete with overstuffed couches and rich, sweeping draperies; and the Japanese Parlor, with its ornately carved teakwood chair resting upon a dais, a gold silk canopy hovering above. (The Tribune noted that the Japanese Parlor was “a harlot’s dream of what a Japanese palace might look like inside.”) In the Egyptian Room, a full-size efÃ¯Â¬Âgy of Cleopatra kept a solemn eye on the proceedings. The Chinese Room, entirely different from the ambiguously named Oriental Room, offered packages of tiny Ã¯Â¬Ârecrackers and a huge brass beaker in which to shoot them — where else but at the Everleigh Club could a man indulge his adult and childish impulses?
“Next week,” Minna often joked, “we are contemplating putting in a box of sand for the kiddies.”
Ada, especially, grew obsessed with the Club’s maintenance. On the rare occasions when she joined Minna in the parlors, she spent half her time wiping smudges from the mirrors, straightening the oil paintings, checking the gold piano for unsightly water marks. “It was a happy day,” she said, “when we conceived the idea of using rubber washers from Mason jars on the bottoms of the glasses.”
The gold piano, Ada hinted, had become the love of her life — even when one client vied valiantly for the title. A man, whose name Ada never revealed (sex, both sisters agreed, was a subject best conÃ¯Â¬Âned to business), visited often and confessed he was wild about the elder Everleigh. AdaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s admirer brought her Ã¯Â¬â€šowers — a gesture, wrote Charles Washburn, akin to Ã¢â‚¬Å“bringing a glass of water to a lakeÃ¢â‚¬Â — and presented her with a three-carat diamond ring, which she accepted gratefully, though her jewelry collection included, among other pricey baubles, a necklace worth more than $100,000. He sent her candy, composed love notes, watched her as if she might vanish should he even brieÃ¯Â¬â€šy avert his eyes.
But her paramourÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s business called for him to relocate to New York. He wrote to Ada, inviting her to join him, promising marriage. Ada was tempted — it sounded like quite the adventure. She replied to his letter, but kept postponing the trip. The man wrote again and again, pleading his case, and Ã¯Â¬Ânally involved a newspaper reporter who happened to be a mutual friend. AdaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lover sent the journalist a copy of her letter and asked what he could do to win her over. The reporter rushed to the Club to put in a word for his friend.
“Your letter to him plainly indicates how you feel” he said. “I never read such a charming note. It’s literature; it’s sentimental — it’s everything. What’s the matter with you?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Still, Ada couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t bring herself to go. Minna had her theories as to why: Perhaps, after the antics and glamour of the Club, her sister would be bored to pieces stuck in a marriage?
That wasn’t it, Ada said.
The reporter ventured an opinion. “Maybe you didn’t care to leave your sister?”
Ada turned to Minna, and the sisters shared a wordless exchange. The reporter had come too close to the truth, an unacceptable prospect to two women who believed facts could be rewritten and improved upon. Ada’s tone lightened, and she gave an answer that sounded like something the very sister in question might say.
“I don’t think it was entirely that,” she quipped. “My sweetheart took a terrible dislike to our gold piano. He said it was feverish and unbecoming. I couldn’t forgive him for that. I would have sacriÃ¯Â¬Âced my diamonds, anything, but not the gold piano.”
To keep the piano shining, the mirrored walls intact, the rugs clean, and the perfume jets shooting, the sisters allotted $18,000 per year in renovations. It would be worth it, they reasoned, when patrons returned as eager to see the updated décor as the new selection of girls. It was time for the Gold Room, Minna’s and Ada’s favorite, to be entirely redone in gold leaf. A team of laborers replaced the gilt on everything from the goldÃ¯Â¬Âsh bowls to the spittoons. It looked stunning, Minna thought, the whole room glittering from corner to corner, but that night a guest accidentally smeared a panel. The metal was still soft, and the man left a clear imprint. This wouldn’t do, and Minna couldn’t wait until next year’s renovation to have it Ã¯Â¬Âxed. She called in a dauber right away.
“Come, I’ll show you where a man put his hand last night,” she said, leading the handyman upstairs.
He hesitated and seemed nervous. It occurred to Minna what he was thinking, but she didn’t rush to clarify. Why ruin what was sure to be a perfectly good punch line?
“If it’s all the same to you,” he replied after a moment, “I’d rather have a glass of beer.”
Literary sensations like Ring Lardner, George Ade, Percy Hammond, Edgar Lee Masters, and Theodore Dreiser came and listened to stunning creatures recite poetry classics. “Until at last, serene and proud, in all the splendour of her light,” the Everleigh butterÃ¯Â¬â€šies murmured in between sips of champagne, “she walks the terraces of cloud, supreme as Empress of the Night.” The Club entertained sports icons like James J. Corbett and Stanley Ketchel and, on one fateful night, Jack Johnson; theater celebrities like John Barrymore; a circus star named the Great Fearlesso; and gambling virtuosos, most notably “Bet a Million” Gates, who enjoyed good luck among the harlots even as he ridiculed their attempts at sophisticated discourse. “That,” he joked to the sisters, “is educating the wrong end of a whore.” Pioneers of the automobile industry came. The production of “horseless carriages” had evolved considerably since two models — the prototype Morrison electric and a gasoline-powered car from Germany — were exhibited, with little fanfare, at the WorldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Columbian Exposition. In 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a round-trip race from Chicago to Evanston, and two cars Ã¯Â¬Ânished despite the foot of snow that buried the metropolitan area. No mere publicity stunt, the race launched Chicago’s auto-manufacturing industry.
Within Ã¯Â¬Âve years, 22 local companies began building and selling horseless carriages, and by the centuryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s turn, 377 of them vied for space on the cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s clogged streets. The ensuing chaos — collisions with wagons, lax enforcement, arbitrary trafÃ¯Â¬Âc signals and laws — failed to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for cars, in Chicago or elsewhere. Crowds cheered as New York drivers raced thirty miles through the streets from Kingsbridge to Irvington-on-Hudson, north of the city; and in Detroit, a man named Ransom E. Olds invented an assembly line to churn out hundreds of his Curved Dash Oldsmobiles, sold to eager consumers for $650 each. Bicycles were passé, but cars signiÃ¯Â¬Âed money, modernity, and romance. Every man sang the new hit song “Come Away with Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile” even if he couldn’t afford to own one.
Chicago hosted its Ã¯Â¬Ârst major auto show in July 1900, Ã¯Â¬Âve months after the Club’s grand opening. After the presentations at the ofÃ¯Â¬Âcial Coliseum headquarters, the men retired en masse to the Everleigh Club. They were welcome anytime — manufacturers were known to spare no expense when wooing important dealers — but Minna and Ada, for the next eleven years, always designated one “Automobile Night” during the week of the show. Companies were welcome to set up corporate and expense accounts at the brothel for their employees. A man gained admittance only by Ã¯Â¬â€šashing an ofÃ¯Â¬Âcial exhibitorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s badge and was treated to a lavish feast at the Pullman Buffet, a bottle of wine, and a trip up the mahogany staircase.
Wealthy ranchers came to the Club from the Southwest; bankers and Broadway troupes sojourned from the East Coast; congressional committees indulged during breaks from the capital; and on March 3, 1902, royalty visited from overseas.
Prince Henry of Prussia had arrived in New York harbor in the dwindling days of February to accept a yacht built for his brother Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany, and to present the United States with his own gift, a statue of Frederick the Great. Prominent Americans viewed the princeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s trip as an opportunity to showcase the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s brightest thinkers and shrewdest capitalists, and to Ã¯Â¬â€šex its developing imperial muscle. The United States now claimed Hawaii and Puerto Rico as territories and prepared to trade with a newly autonomous Cuba. With the eyes of the world poised to judge Prince Henry’s reception, America would spare no expense. “England’s only chance to get even,” joked the Chicago Daily News, “is to send us over a live prince as soon as we have recovered from Prince Henry.”
The prince spent a few days in New York. He attended a fête in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria and lunched at Sherry’s with J. P. Morgan, Adolphus Busch, Charles Schwab, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison.
Debate raged in the Second City, meanwhile, over an appropriate itinerary for Prince Henry. Chicago’s twenty-thousand-plus German immigrants planned to line a brilliantly lit Michigan Avenue and roar as the prince traveled past, on his way to an elaborate banquet at the Auditorium Hotel. There he would dine with 165 “representative men” of Chicago, including J. Ogden Armour, Potter Palmer, Oscar Mayer, Marshall Field Jr., and Mayor Carter Harrison II. The planning committees also approved a choral festival at the First Regiment Armory, a tour of Marshall Field’s department store, a trip to Lincoln’s grave, another stop at the Auditorium Hotel for a grand ball, and a lunch and reception at the Germania Club. The visit, all told,
would cost the city $75,000.
But the committee nixed a tour of the gory Union Stock Yards (“Prince Henry probably will brush the committee aside and visit the Stock Yards anyhow,” the Daily News sniffed. “He will want to learn how Europe feeds its armies and navies”) and remained ambivalent on whether visiting royalty should enjoy the “old feudal privilege” of kissing Chicago’s debutantes. “It won’t hurt the prince,” one committeeman argued, “to get a taste of real American hero worship.”
If Prince Henry did kiss the debutantes, he never told.
The sight Prince Henry most desired to see, however, was neither discussed by the planning committee nor detailed in the press. Such discretion beneÃ¯Â¬Âted the Everleigh sisters, who in anticipation of the princeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s arrival at the Club on midnight, March 3, were in the midst of frenzied planning. None of the Everleigh butterÃ¯Â¬â€šies had heard of Prince Henry of Prussia before he announced his intention to visit, so the sisters prepared lessons — not about the German royal family (who cared?), but about how to entertain them properly.
Minna stood in front of her thirty courtesans, arms waving, a conductor nearing crescendo, and told them how it would be done. Prince Henry, she announced, was the sort of man who knew exactly what he wanted. So as Everleigh girls their job was to give him something he’d never even considered.
They would enact a mythological celebration centered around Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, agriculture, fertility of nature, and — closest to Minna’s heart — the patron god of the Greek stage. She’d contacted an old friend from her theater days and ordered real fawnskin outÃ¯Â¬Âts for them to wear, with nothing — that’s right, nothing — underneath. No petticoats, no stockings, no corsets. Not even shoes — at least not right away. Come now, they had to begin practicing. The ritual was complex, commemorating the dismemberment of Zeus’s infant son at the hands of the Titans. There would be a cloth bull and some raw meat involved.
Around midnight on March 3, Prince Henry and his party rang the ClubÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bell. A tall man, the prince had an unruly sprig of a beard and skin like a cracked egg. High, shiny black boots hugged his legs, making his pants bunch out in tufts over his knees. The members of his entourage wore sweeping capes and frowns that stretched to their necks. Expressions improved markedly once Minna greeted her boys and escorted them to the Pullman Buffet for dinner. At 1:30 a.m., Minna came to round everyone up, telling the girls the show was about to startÃ¢â‚¬â€touch up their makeup one last time and donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t forget they werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t to wear shoes. The harlots yanked pins from their hair and shook it out, slicing strands with their Ã¯Â¬Ângers, the messier the better. They rushed down the spiral staircase and into the parlor, where they found Prince Henry and his entourage at a long table. The girls whooped and swirled in circles, kicking, backs arching like drawn bows. The decisive clang of cymbals punctuated every move. One girl thrashed her way across the room, heading directly for Prince Henry, and just as she reached him she leapt, turned a half circle in midair, and landed on his lap, latching on to his neck. The others followed suit, and soon every man at the table was grappling with an Everleigh butterÃ¯Â¬â€šy. Minna dimmed the lights, the signal for the second act of the show. In rehearsals sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d used real torches but found that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d Ã¢â‚¬Å“smoked up the room,Ã¢â‚¬Â so sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d decided to improvise during the real event.
A servant wheeled a bull made entirely of cloth into the room. The girls raced toward the structure, punching its head and biting its hide, spitting white Ã¯Â¬â€šurries of cotton. Minna watched, nodding with approval. It was perfect, she thought. This was exactly how the infant Dionysus-Zagreus had been killed. For sound effects, a male butler bellowed each time a mouth clamped down on the bull. Then Minna pointed a Ã¯Â¬Ânger, and servants fetched platters piled with uncooked sirloin. For ten minutes, the harlots tore into the raw strips, ripping the meat with feral bites, their faces stained with pink slashes of animal blood. The Germans loved it.
When the platters were empty, Minna threw on the lights. She would now take their visitors for a grand tour of the Club. The harlots trooped back upstairs, changed from their fawnskins into evening gowns, pinned up their hair, wiped the blood from their cheeks. A few girls brought dignitaries to their boudoirs, eager to display other talents besides playacting Greek mythology, and hurried downstairs to join the champagne toast when their guests were satisÃ¯Â¬Âed.
Minna instructed everyone to raise their glasses, toasting the kaiser in absentia and the prince in the Ã¯Â¬â€šesh (although the kaiser, after learning of his brother’s visit to the Club, cast a mild insult by asking the vintage of the wine served). She was delighted when the prince returned the favor, comparing Chicago with Berlin, pointing out the American city’s ever growing German population. He called his new friends, Minna and Ada Everleigh, “fräuleins.” Ada, who never drank beer, showed her respect by gulping down a tall mug of pilsner.
Minna then ordered the table cleared. She had one more surprise.
Two butlers helped Vidette, the best dancer among the Everleigh butterÃ¯Â¬â€šies, up to the mahogany surface. The orchestra struck up “The Blue Danube,” and the harlot kicked again and again, her feet Ã¯Â¬â€šying higher each time, legs meeting and parting like a pair of scissors possessed. In the middle of her routine, one high-heeled silver slipper launched from her foot, sailed across the room, and collided with a glass of champagne. Some of the liquid spilled into the shoe, and a nearby man named Adolph scooped it up.
“Boot liquor,” he called, raising the slipper high. “The darling mustn’t get her feet wet.”
Without further comment, he tilted back his head, drained the champagne from the shoe, and tossed it back to its owner.
“On with the dance!” someone yelled.
“Nix,” said another guest. “Off with a slipper.” He lifted a harlot’s leg, resting it against his waist, and removed her shoe. “Why should Adolph have all the fun?” he added. “This is everybody’s party.”
Prince Henry’s entire entourage rose, yanked a slipper from the nearest girl, and held it aloft. Waiters scuttled about, hurriedly Ã¯Â¬Âlling each shoe with champagne.
“To the prince.”
“To the kaiser.”
“To beautiful women the world over.”
Prince Henry of Prussia departed Chicago by 2:00 p.m. the following afternoon, but his slipper sipping began a trend that long outlasted his visit. “In New York millionaires were soon doing it publicly,” wrote Charles Washburn. “At home parties husbands were doing it, in back rooms, grocery clerks were doing it — in fact, everybody was doing it… it made a more lasting impression on a girl than carrying her picture in a watch.”
While the Everleighs made special accommodations for European royalty, they also welcomed those from the opposite end of the social scale. Madams couldn’t be part of the underworld and entirely exclude the underworld — thieves, kidnappers, burglars, safecrackers. The sisters knew, from their own history, that those who subverted the ofÃ¯Â¬Âcial rules often created better ones, that the right sorts of lies could become the bones of truth. They believed there were two types of men, “depraved blue nosers and regular fellows.” If a member of the former group lodged a complaint, Ada was summoned to smooth things over. “There, there,” she soothed, blaming the trouble on the heat, on an inferior grade of champagne, on a girl’s lack of reÃ¯Â¬Ânement — never on the client himself. Minna handled the bruisers, the visitors who would sooner throw a punch than notice the label on a bottle of wine. “What kind of a man are you?” she’d chide. “Brace up, pardner, you’re not that sort, and we are sure you can lick any man in the house.” Then she would convince him, discreetly but Ã¯Â¬Ârmly, that he didn’t want to. Minna’s men, just like most of her butterÃ¯Â¬â€šies, were products of the lower classes and also considered on a case-by-case basis. Clarence Clay was one hoodlum who made the cut. A thief with impeccable manners, Clarence would dart down to the Cort Theater near Randolph Street, crack open a safe, pillage the contents, and return to the Everleigh Club as if he’d slipped away to use the bathroom. Minna always knew what Clarence was up to but never betrayed him. He was amiable, never hurt anyone, and spent plenty of money.
The Everleighs had to be mindful, too, of criminals among the ranks of their courtesans — some of whom weren’t as harmless as Clarence. “Honesty is its own reward,” Minna told her girls, and in her own interpretation of the concept, she meant her words sincerely. “Never have any black marks on your record. What would your future husband say if he suspected you had mistreated a man? Keep on being good girls, even if it hurts.” The sporting life wasn’t shameful, Minna emphasized, but some of the people attached to the business were. Vic Shaw, for one — no doubt livid that Prince Henry steered clear of her house during his tour — interfered with Everleigh courtesans at every opportunity, encouraging them into “vicious pathways.”
A harlot named Daisy took such a detour, sneaking a notorious bank robber — one who had not been approved by Minna — through the Club’s doors. He carried two fat satchels and checked them with a servant. Daisy escorted the robber upstairs to her boudoir and commented, casually, that she had never seen a thousand-dollar note before.
“Send for either one of the two satchels checked downstairs and I’ll show you,” said the thief, perched halfway up on his elbows. “They’re Ã¯Â¬Âlled with big bills.”
Daisy pushed the intercom button in her room and asked a servant to fetch the bags. The servant surmised what was happening and decided this was a situation that called for Miss Minna. Together they climbed the stairs to Daisy’s room.
Minna Ã¯Â¬â€šung open the door and saw the thief prone on the bed. Daisy was removing a container of powder from her dresser. “Excuse Daisy for a few minutes, please,” Minna said, sighing.
Daisy stepped out into the hallway.
“No knockout powders in this house, you know that,” Minna whispered in the harlot’s ear. “And I’ll give you ten minutes to get your friend off the premises. We do not cater to his kind. He’s nervous and suspicious. He’ll go quietly. Tell him anything.”
The thief took his satchels of cash and left. Daisy disappeared. She didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t report for work that week, or take dinner in the Pullman Buffet, or tell the servants which gowns to clean. Minna and Ada wondered, between themselves, if the girl had met a bad end with her bad man. They never heard from her again, but they did get news about the bank robber. He was found in a Levee alley, not far from the Everleigh Club, his skull lopsided, his forehead frayed open like the petals of a Ã¯Â¬â€šower. A few hard blows from a hammer.
No one paid much attention to the murder, but the cops came to the Club and sat in the parlor. Could the sisters offer any insights into the case?
Minna shrugged. “I do not know,” she said, “of any hardware dealers among our patrons.”
The Everleighs were relieved that whatever transpired between Daisy and her robber had done so outside of the Club. No gossip for the sisters’ enemies to gather and collect, or false footnotes to ink beside their venerable name. But two madams couldn’t guard all four corners of every parlor, and Daisy wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the only harlot tempted by vicious pathways. Some butterÃ¯Â¬â€šies were limited simply by their inferior bloodlines and coarse histories; Longfellow’s poetry would never mean more than a stream of memorized words.
Myrtle, from Iowa, whose rear end was “of the slapping kind,” as one man put it, was common in every way but her looks. She loved to show off her gun collection. Any john who was lucky enough to climb the stairs with her heard about which trinket she’d bought in which pawnshop, how much it had cost, how pretty she looked cocking it.
“I think I’d be the happiest girl in town if I could Ã¯Â¬Ând a diamond-studded revolver,” she told one wealthy customer, and he promptly had one made for her.
One night, Myrtle decided to have a showdown among her most devoted admirers. She ordered them to choose a gun from a secret drawer in her boudoir and then meet her downstairs, in the Gold Room.
Myrtle shook her bottom one last time, for emphasis, before lounging on a chaise.
“Fight over me, boys,” she teased. “I love it.”
Growls and threats and curses gathered in an angry chorus and Ã¯Â¬Âltered down the hallway, attracting Minna’s attention. The men were a fumbling knot of gray silk and derby hats. Something gleamed silver, quick Ã¯Â¬â€šashes that played hide-and-seek amid the vortex of bodies. Minna had to look twice to be sure. Revolvers — two, three, four, Ã¯Â¬Âve of them.
Her body tightened; a mufÃ¯Â¬â€šed pounding Ã¯Â¬Âlled her ears. She Ã¯Â¬â€šung a hand and found the light switch and made the room black.
“Gentlemen,” she cried into the dark, “you are in the most notorious whorehouse in America.” This was no time to measure words. “How would it look to your relatives and friends to see your names splashed across the front pages tomorrow morning?”
After turning up the lights, she gathered Myrtle’s guns one by one. The men bade one another a good evening and left, properly, through the front door.
After Myrtle’s antics in the Gold Room, the sisters, understandably, became wary of guns. When trouble came, as the sisters feared it would, it didn’t knock at the mahogany doors. Instead it waited, lying dormant inside heads and silent inside mouths until it passed, undetected, into the Club. And then it was too late. On May 25, 1903, a balmy spring night, a woman named Helen Hahn went out driving with Larry Curtis, a bookmaker and investor. Earlier that day, Curtis had a streak of luck at the racetrack, winning $4,500,and Helen was helping him celebrate. A stenographer at the Chicago Opera House, she lived in a modest home on the northwest side, and was curious about the way life moved outside of her own. “As we were returning toward town,” Helen said, “I spoke of the fascination slumming had for me.” Curtis asked her if she might like to see some of the parlor houses along the Levee, perhaps a certain place in particular — “one of the most gorgeous establishments that ever prospered in a red-light district.” Within minutes they arrived at the Everleigh Club, and navigated clusters of laughing couples until they reached the Japanese Parlor. Corks popped in quick succession, a muted series of Ã¯Â¬Âreworks. Roving plumes of incense smelled by turns musky and sweet. “I found myself in a close little room, luxuriously furnished,” Helen later said, “with colored servants going softly to and fro. There was music coming through the palms which hid what I afterward learned was the ballroom, and everything was much different than I expected… Suddenly the sliding door between the two rooms was thrown open and a man in evening dress entered.”
Later, on the police record and in newspaper reports, the man’s name would be given as William H. Robinson. Levee gossips whispered that he was from Chicago and the son of a well-known millionaire — so well-known that during his foray into the Levee district, he announced he was “traveling incognito” under a pseudonym.
Whatever his real name — and the Everleigh sisters, of course, would never say — Robinson had started the evening accompanied by a friend and two showgirls. After dinner, the foursome ventured to the Everleigh Club.
The sisters were busier than ever. Six months earlier, Ã¯Â¬Ânal renovations within the “New Annex” at 2133 were completed. The additional parlors, boudoirs, alcoves, music and dining rooms generated more trafÃ¯Â¬Âc, but with it came a greater potential for trouble. Neither Minna nor Ada was near the Japanese Parlor when Robinson pulled open the sliding door. No one to suggest to Robinson that he shoot off Ã¯Â¬Ârecrackers instead of his mouth, no one to remind Curtis that he wasn’t the sort to respond.
“I was sitting at the piano,” Helen said, “but just drumming with the soft pedal on, and not playing so it could be heard out of the room,” when Robinson lurched in and said something “ugly” about her, so ugly that she turned her head and pretended not to hear.
“[Curtis] sprang up as the man entered,” Helen continued, “but he was so startled by the man’s remarks that he did not say a word for half a minute. The intruder started for me and I turned around. The Ã¯Â¬Ârst thing I saw was a revolver and an instant later it went off.” Curtis looked at the gun in his hand as if he’d never seen it before, a strange and sudden appendage, smoke curling up from the barrel.
Elsewhere in the Everleigh Club, its proprietors froze in midstep and quieted in midsentence, and then rushed toward the aftermath of a sound they never wanted to hear.
Robinson lay on the Ã¯Â¬â€šoor of the Japanese Parlor, unconscious. A ring of blood bloomed above his heart. A young woman sat at the piano nearby, weeping meekly into her palms. The sisters arranged for Robinson’s transportation to People’s Hospital on Archer Avenue and told a group of courtesans to summon the 22nd Street police. Two detectives stopped Curtis from making a getaway in a closed carriage.
Robinson’s heart was spared, but the bullet embedded between his ribs, possibly puncturing a lung. He was revived and his wounds dressed. The following morning, he told police he was “too weak” to proceed with prosecution.
It was a lucky break for the sisters, and not the only one. Scandal, especially one involving gunshots and a millionaire’s son, could dull the shine of a high-class resort, dilute all their talk of decency and uplift. Their journalist friends reported the story — they had to — but kept the coverage shallow and benign. Salacious mentions of “wild midnight orgies” in a “resort of considerable notoriety” didn’t hurt the situation, and the Everleighs were not asked to comment at all. Hinky Dink Kenna was a doll, furnishing $1,200 for Curtis’s bond. The two showgirls who had accompanied Robinson were Ã¯Â¬Âred, and his friend vanished altogether. Helen Hahn threatened to kill herself until learning that Robinson survived, then returned to her quiet life as a stenographer. Her urge to go slumming was sated for good.
Robinson became incognito once again. “The police,” the Daily News pointed out, “show little interest in the case.”
But one person in particular was very interested. Ten houses north on Dearborn Street, Vic Shaw asked discreet questions and took careful notes, built a cache of possibility in her mind. She wouldn’t confront the Everleighs directly — “Silence,” she often said, “is louder than a brass band” — and she hoped her quiet skulked behind those sisters all day long, seeped into their dreams. Next time a millionaire playboy met with trouble in the Levee, Vic Shaw would collect all the words she had stored up, and set them into motion.