This post is the second about exiles in New York. It will deal with the Scarlet Sisters and a dragon lady.
The Everleigh Sisters
Exiles of a rather special kind were two sisters who came to New York and in 1913, using the name Lester, bought a brownstone at 20 West 71st Street and resided there for many years. Neighbors had no idea who Minna and Ada Lester really were: the Everleigh sisters who from 1900 to 1911 had run the fanciest brothel in the country on the near South Side of Chicago. As they told it, their father was a prosperous lawyer in Kentucky who had sent them to private schools and given them lessons in elocution and dancing, following which they married two brothers named Lester and left them after a year, Minna complaining that her husband was a brute who tried to strangle her. They then joined a traveling theatrical troupe, performing in melodramas as they toured the country, until, in Omaha in 1898, they came into an inheritance that let them quit acting and launch a new venture: a bordello to accommodate visitors to the Trans-Mississippi Exposition opening there that year. According to the sisters, they were strictly madams and had never offered their charms to the patrons. When the exposition closed and business fell off, they took their earnings and moved to Chicago to establish the fanciest bagnio on the continent, which they were sure would lure customers from far and wide. There, from 1900 to 1911, the Everleigh Club on South Dearborn Street flourished as the most luxurious and profitable house in the country, patronized by men of great wealth and pliant morals, of whom there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply.
|Ada in 1895. She achieved the wasp waist.|
Such was their story, prior to coming to New York as the Lester sisters. But in many respects they had stretched the truth, even mangled it. The 1870 census reveals that they were the daughters of a farmer named James Montgomery Simms of Greene County, Virginia. That they attended private schools and had lessons in elocution and dancing I find doubtful. Feminists have hailed them as liberated women of their time, which they certainly were, but recent scholarship suggests that they were never married. Stranded by a theater company in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1895, they opened a brothel there, then opened a second one for the 1898 exposition. Portraits commissioned by them in 1895 are suggestive, and publicity for the 1898 exposition includes a print showing Minna posing in a corset on an ornate brass bed and looking much less like a hard-nosed madam than a seductive courtesan offering her charms to whoever could afford them. Just how two respectably raised young Southern ladies transitioned to this profession remains a mystery that even their nephew, with whom I once corresponded, could not explain.
|Minna in 1895. Just a madam???|
|The Everleigh Club, 2131 and 2133 South|
What is not in doubt is their having operated the luxurious Everleigh Club in Chicago and its immediate success. The club had twelve soundproof parlors (the Gold Room, Moorish Room, Red Room, etc.), an art gallery featuring nudes in gold frames, a dining room, a ballroom, a music room where a “professor” fingered the keys of a $15,000 gold-leaf piano, and even a well-furnished library where, to the sisters’ surprise, some of their patrons settled down comfortably with a book, probably glad to be away from their wife and kids. There were silk curtains, damask easy chairs, oriental rugs, mahogany tables, gold cuspidors, and perfumed fountains, and in the girls’ rooms upstairs, luxurious divans, gilt bathtubs, and warbling canaries.
|The Japanese Throne Room, as shown in the brochure.|
|The Blue Bedroom, as shown in the brochure.|
The Everleigh “butterflies” had to be attractive and healthy, free from drugs and drink, adept at small talk, and experienced but ladylike. The patrons had to dress and act like gentlemen; rowdy behavior was not tolerated. To get in, they needed a letter of recommendation from an existing client or an engraved card, and once in they had to spend freely, sometimes as much as $200 or even $1,000 a night; the club was no place for the budget-minded. The sisters were said to gross $15,000 a week, a generous amount of which went to corrupt aldermen and state legislators to guarantee their continued operation. Among their reputed guests were J. Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, and Prince Henry of Prussia, the Kaiser’s brother. In 1905, when Marshall Field II, heir to his father’s vast department store fortune, died of a gunshot wound, allegedly while cleaning a gun at home, rumor had it that he had been shot by a girl at the Everleigh Club, following which the sisters had the body smuggled out to his residence, or he himself, unaware of the seriousness of his wound, managed to get home by himself. This story some have dismissed, while others even today deem it credible. Yet another theory is that his death was a suicide.
What happens when the census taker comes to a whorehouse, especially the plushest one in the nation? Because I once did considerable research on the sisters, in preparation for a biography that I later gave up on, I can answer precisely, having combed the census records of 1900 until I found the entry for 2131 South Dearborn. When the enumerator called on June 6, 1900, Minna gave her age as 29 and Ada as 26, thus shaving 5 and 10 years off their ages respectively. As for the twelve “boarders” counted, not one confessed to being over 29. And their occupations? Artist, bookkeeper, cashier, seamstress, dressmaker, dry-goods clerk, milliner, saleslady, actress, cashier, and cook, plus one blank, probably the most honest answer of the bunch. Did the census taker know he was being lied to? Almost certainly , this being the city’s red-light district, with numerous “boarding houses” with only female boarders.
The Everleigh Club achieved national, even international, fame, but in time all good things come to an end. Anti-vice crusaders had long campaigned to close not just the Everleigh Club but the entire Chicago red-light district, but the Club’s reputation, and the sisters’ generous pay-offs to local politicians, had protected it. Then, in 1911, the sisters published a brochure entitled The Everleigh Club Illustrated, describing the club and illustrating it with photographs of its sumptuous interior. The brochure came to the attention of Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who took offense at it and ordered the police chief to close the Club once and for all. Having amassed a fortune, the sisters accepted his decision and threw a wild closing-night party to end things with a bang. They then sold the place, traveled a bit, and in 1913 moved to New York, taking some of the furnishings with them.
Many people come to New York in search of opportunity and excitement, but the Everleigh/Lester/Simms sisters came to it for a quiet retirement and theater. And so, having left their glory days behind in Chicago, they lived quietly on West 71st Street for years, attending theater, joining some women’s organizations, presiding over a poetry reading group, and visiting relatives in Virginia once a year. Perhaps the only one who knew of their past was Charles Washburn, a Chicago Tribune reporter whom they had known back in Chicago, and who would visit them once a year to share a bottle of champagne and reminisce. Drawing on information gleaned from these sessions, in 1934 he published Come into My Parlor: A Biography of the Aristocratic Everleigh Sisters of Chicago, a readable but undocumented biography that presents uncritically whatever they told him and is therefore not too reliable a source. When Minna died in 1948 at age 82, Ada sold the brownstone and went to live with her nephew, James W. Simms, in Charlottesville, Virginia, taking with her some of the furniture from the Everleigh Club – “beautiful furniture,” the nephew assured me later in a letter. She died there in 1960 at age 96. When we corresponded in 1981, Mr. Simms assured me that his aunts, whom he had visited in New York, were “two of the kindest, most caring people I have ever known.”
And how did I first hear of the “Scarlet Sisters” and their posh establishment? The way any son of the Midwest would have heard of them: discreetly, from his father, in the absence of any women. Long after their Club had been closed, its legend was passed on from father to son for decades.
The next exile to be mentioned here was a woman who cast an exotic spell not easily resisted. According to those who had dealings with her – diplomats, generals, statesmen – she was the brainiest, sexiest, most charming, and most ruthless woman they had ever encountered: Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
The daughter of Charlie Soong, a wealthy Chinese businessman and former Methodist missionary, she had been raised a Methodist and educated in this country, graduating from Wesleyan College, and so spoke fluent English and had a good grasp of American society. As the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang, with whom she had a long but stormy relationship, she was viewed and celebrated here as the First Lady of China, especially when Japan invaded China in 1937, and even more so after we went to war with Japan in 1941. Indeed, she and her husband, the Generalissimo, were embraced by us as the heroic leaders of China in the war against Japan, with little awareness of their opponents, the Chinese Communists. If the Generalissimo, standing stiffly in official portraits with his chest bemedaled, struck us as a Great Stone Face, distant and reserved, his wife exuded charm and used it skillfully in enlisting support for her husband. From first to last, svelte, well-tailored, and possessed of a seductive smile, she was into politics up to her lovely ears.
Her fame in the U.S. peaked in 1943, when she came to this country to get more support for the Chinese Nationalist cause. She drew crowds of thousands, appeared for the third time on the cover of Time magazine, and became the first Chinese national and second woman to address a joint session of both houses of Congress. There was then great sympathy for China, our wartime ally long ravaged by the Japanese invaders, and she personified that ally, masking her husband’s authoritarian ways with her charm and her talk of democracy. The Methodist church in Evanston that I then attended was especially supportive of her, a fellow Methodist, there being many Methodist missionaries in China, and the daughter of our local Congressman told a group of us of meeting and talking with her personally. What I chiefly remember of her account was how, when Madame Chiang dropped something, she quickly picked it up herself, not wanting others to do it for her. Needless to say, the girl was absolutely charmed by Madame Chiang.
|With the Generalissimo, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Cairo, 1943.|
The Generalissimo rarely left China, but this conference was important.
After the war things changed. The Nationalists, locked in a losing civil war with the Communists, were compromised by corruption; some of the money meant for the war against Japan had gone into the pockets of the Chiangs. When, in desperation, Madame Chiang came again to our shores to plead her husband’s cause, she was not as well received; her presence, in fact, was an embarrassment. When the Nationalists lost the mainland in 1949, she and her husband went with them to Taiwan, where they continued their struggle against the Communists. When the Cold War developed, they regained favor in this country as allies against the Soviets and Communist China, inaugurating a relationship that would have many ups and downs.
My own attitude toward the Nationalists and Madame Chiang changed when, in Evanston in 1950, I met a longtime friend of my mother’s, the YWCA’s official observer at the U.N. in New York, who viewed the Chiangs as despotic and corrupt. She told of a conversation with Madame Pandit, Nehru’s sister and India’s ambassador to the U.S., who recounted a meeting with Madame Chiang. Madame Chiang had stressed the importance of appearance; every morning, when she was dressing, Madame Chiang said she thought about what she would be doing that day, whom she would meet, and what impression she wanted to make. For her, clothing and appearance were an integral part of politics. Madame Pandit felt a bit overwhelmed by this unsolicited advice, and one suspects that Madame Chiang considered Madame Pandit just a bit dowdy. (How any woman in a sari could be dowdy I can’t imagine; personally, I find saris superbly elegant and attractive.)
As the Grande Dame of Taiwan, Madame Chiang made several trips to the U.S.in the 1950s to lobby the U.S. government against admitting Communist China to the U.N. As the Generalissimo’s health deteriorated, control of the Nationalist government passed to Chiang Ching-kuo, his son by a previous marriage. Madame Chiang and her husband had no children of their own, and she was not on good terms with his successor. When the Generalissimo died in 1975, Madame Chiang left Taiwan and established herself in New York in an Upper East Side apartment overlooking Gracie Square, and on an estate on Long Island. Though she lived here in semi-seclusion, when Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, she returned to Taiwan to support her old allies, but her influence had waned and she soon returned to New York. Here she was guarded by a team of black-suited bodyguards who cleared the lobby of her apartment building whenever she entered or left. She received few visitors, grew flowers, did calligraphy and drawings, read. Though hard of hearing as she aged, she was still quick-witted and read the Bible and the New York Times every day. She died in her apartment in 2003, age 105, having lived in three centuries, and is buried in New York State.
The Everleigh sisters lived quietly here, seemingly without regrets. How Madame Chiang felt while residing here, now wielding a pen and brush, when she had once manipulated statesmen and generals, I do not know. Surely she nursed some bitterness toward this country, once her staunch friend and ally, whom she blamed for the loss of China. She was a fascinating woman, a nest of contradictions, an enigma. We won’t see her like again. Regrettably, she never wrote her memoir.
A note on Chester Kallman: A viewer of this blog informs me that he briefly knew Kallman (post #119) in Athens in the 1960s or early 1970s. Invited for dinner, he and two friends arrived at Kallman’s apartment to find Kallman unprepared for guests … at least, dinner guests. After a delay Kallman emerged from the bedroom, disheveled and “quite messed up,” with two burly and surly young men. Embarrassed, Kallman explained that he had forgotten about the dinner date and asked his guests to come back the following evening. Kallman, it seems, had a liking for “rough stuff” from the junior ranks of the military junta then in power. The guests returned the following evening and a good time was had by all. But I hold to my personal conclusion that Kallman’s life was not, on the deepest level, a happy one.
Coming soon: Two more posts on Exiles in New York: a pianist with five Steinways; an anarchist with a compact; a future emperor; a renegade priest with a talent for seduction and debt; a would-be proletarian who loathed the capitalist U.S.; and a keeper of the flame with orange hair.
© 2014 Clifford Browder