The more successful Polly became, the more hounded she was — by the police, by Tammany Hall, by the Broadway mob. Her brothel was distinguished by good hygiene and well-selected “girls.” (When the Depression hit, Polly was able to turn away up to 40 young women for every one she hired — an acceptance rate analogous to that of the Ivy League these days.) But as the business evolved, her brothel also offered less tangible services: It took on the appearance of a literary salon, with drink from the best bootleggers, food from her private cooks and good company from Polly. It became the after-hours place not only for gangsters, lowlifes and politicians, but also for the Algonquin Round Table and for writers at The New Yorker. (Dorothy Parker and Polly would chat while the men availed themselves of the services.) Here, an often unexplored exploitation haunts Applegate’s narrative: Polly, who has claimed the American dream and sits sipping drinks with the celebrated Parker, is also the one who procured these young, mostly working-class women.
Having famous friends also meant that Polly became the subject of gossip columns, jokes and banter, which added to her renown. But not everything was so peachy; her gangster friends were just as likely to fleece or beat her as they were to trade laughs and cook up schemes with her. Of course, misogyny was hardly the sole purview of the underworld; the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who used Polly’s services extensively, balked when an up-and-coming bandleader fell in love with her. Winchell objected that the bandleader, who could have had any woman he desired, was dating a “broken-down old whore and an ugly one at that.”
Replete with accounts of Polly’s many court battles, newspaper headlines, mobster dealings and society gossip, “Madam” is a breathless tale told through extraordinary research. Indeed, the galloping pace of Applegate’s book sometimes makes the reader want to pull out a white flag and wave in surrender — begging for her to slow down. The mob violence, political corruption, social approbation and multitude of johns that Polly confronts at her ever-changing brothel locations are both impressive and unrelenting. And while Polly seems to be in the thick of the action, those who surround her often also outshine her. In the book’s last pages, Applegate makes a forthright case for why Polly is worthy of a biography by noting this injustice: It was not Polly but “her male criminal colleagues who became 20th-century cultural icons.” “Sex workers in general … are dealers in illusion,” she writes, and Americans do not like to see the curtain pulled back to reveal the mechanisms, let alone the banality, of their dreams.
Now, Applegate suggests, with the advent of social movements around sex and power, we might finally be ready. But elsewhere, she stakes Polly’s claim for fame on her proximity to men who made history (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), wittily narrated it (Robert Benchley), created its soundtrack (Duke Ellington) or violently upended it (Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond). Yet the takeaway for this reader at least is that Polly deserves our attention because her life shows how women who wish to transcend their status must become expert practitioners of chameleonism. That is also what makes Polly on some level a frustrating subject for a biography. As Applegate concedes, Polly “hid far more of her story than she shared, even from herself.” In other words, the very trait that made Polly Adler survive and succeed is also what makes her defiantly elusive. Applegate, armed with formidable skills, may be the biographer who can come closest to revealing her.