The extra profitable Polly grew to become, the extra hounded she was — by the police, by Tammany Corridor, by the Broadway mob. Her brothel was distinguished by good hygiene and well-selected “ladies.” (When the Despair hit, Polly was capable of flip away as much as 40 younger ladies for each one she employed — an acceptance charge analogous to that of the Ivy League lately.) However because the enterprise developed, her brothel additionally provided much less tangible companies: It took on the looks of a literary salon, with drink from the most effective bootleggers, meals from her non-public cooks and good firm from Polly. It grew to become the after-hours place not just for gangsters, lowlifes and politicians, but additionally for the Algonquin Spherical Desk and for writers at The New Yorker. (Dorothy Parker and Polly would chat whereas the boys availed themselves of the companies.) Right here, an typically unexplored exploitation haunts Applegate’s narrative: Polly, who has claimed the American dream and sits sipping drinks with the celebrated Parker, can be the one who procured these younger, largely working-class ladies.
Having well-known mates additionally meant that Polly grew to become the topic of gossip columns, jokes and banter, which added to her renown. However not all the things was so peachy; her gangster mates have been simply as more likely to fleece or beat her as they have been to commerce laughs and prepare dinner up schemes along with her. In fact, misogyny was hardly the only real purview of the underworld; the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who used Polly’s companies extensively, balked when an up-and-coming bandleader fell in love along with her. Winchell objected that the bandleader, who may have had any lady he desired, was courting a “broken-down previous whore and an unpleasant one at that.”
Replete with accounts of Polly’s many courtroom battles, newspaper headlines, mobster dealings and society gossip, “Madam” is a breathless story instructed by way of extraordinary analysis. Certainly, the galloping tempo of Applegate’s guide generally makes the reader wish to pull out a white flag and wave in give up — begging for her to decelerate. The mob violence, political corruption, social approbation and multitude of johns that Polly confronts at her ever-changing brothel places are each spectacular and unrelenting. And whereas Polly appears to be within the thick of the motion, those that encompass her typically additionally outshine her. Within the guide’s final pages, Applegate makes a forthright case for why Polly is worthy of a biography by noting this injustice: It was not Polly however “her male prison colleagues who grew to become Twentieth-century cultural icons.” “Intercourse employees usually … are sellers in phantasm,” she writes, and People don’t prefer to see the curtain pulled again to disclose the mechanisms, not to mention the banality, of their goals.
Now, Applegate suggests, with the appearance of social actions round intercourse and energy, we would lastly be prepared. However elsewhere, she stakes Polly’s declare for fame on her proximity to males who made historical past (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), wittily narrated it (Robert Benchley), created its soundtrack (Duke Ellington) or violently upended it (Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond). But the takeaway for this reader at the least is that Polly deserves our consideration as a result of her life reveals how ladies who want to transcend their standing should turn out to be skilled practitioners of chameleonism. That can be what makes Polly on some degree a irritating topic for a biography. As Applegate concedes, Polly “hid way more of her story than she shared, even from herself.” In different phrases, the very trait that made Polly Adler survive and succeed can be what makes her defiantly elusive. Applegate, armed with formidable expertise, stands out as the biographer who can come closest to revealing her.