Synopses & Reviews
The compulsively readable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the twenties roar — from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Most Famous Man in America.
Simply put: Everybody came to Polly's. Pearl Polly Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels in the Roaring Twenties became places not just for men to have the company of women but were key gathering places where the culturati and celebrity elite mingled with high society and with violent figures of the underworld — and had a good time doing it.
As a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe, Polly Adler's life is a classic American story of success and assimilation that starts like a novel by Henry Roth and then turns into a glittering real-life tale straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She declared her ambition to be the best goddam madam in all America and succeeded wildly. Debby Applegate uses Polly's story as the key to unpacking just what made the 1920s the appallingly corrupt yet glamorous and transformational era that it was and how the collision between high and low is the unique ingredient that fuels American culture.
“Effervescent writing….A rollicking examination of one of the country's most sensational hostesses.” Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Madam, Debby Applegate's tour de force about Jazz Age icon Polly Adler, will seize you by the lapels, buy you a drink, and keep you reading until the very last page. Applegate's brilliant research and cinematic prose made me feel I was peering over Adler's shoulder, watching her drift through the parlor of her brownstone establishment, wisecracking with the Mob and paying off the cops. Madam is a judicious exploration of the dark side of the American Dream, and Applegate is a lively and knowledgeable guide. A treat for fiction and nonfiction fans alike.” Abbott Kahler, New York Times bestselling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park
"A vividly detailed social history of Manhattan's netherworld, peopled by gangsters and bootleggers, bookies and racketeers, corrupt policemen and politicians, and a seemingly endless stream of 'working girls.’...An animated, entertaining history." Kirkus Reviews
"'[Polly Adler's] wit and charm made her America's most famous queen of vice in the Roaring Twenties — and roar they do in Debby Applegate's fascinating new biography....Madam rollicks like no biography has rollicked before." T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The First Tycoon and Custer's Trials
"Sometimes notoriety has it all over fame. I lost count of the aliases, the addresses, and the arrests. You can't lose sight of Polly Adler: Whether charming Robert Benchley, discussing abortionists with Tallulah Bankhead, or comping Desi Arnaz, she nearly leaps — 116 pounds of hard-boiled chutzpah — from these pages. Adler knew about first-class treatment and gets it in this splendid biography, rich with color, exhaustively researched, and bursting with energy." Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Witches and Cleopatra
About the Author
Debby Applegate is a historian and biographer based in New Haven, CT. Her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. She is a graduate of Amherst College and was a Sterling Fellow in American Studies at Yale University where she received her Ph.D.