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Interview: Karen Abbott

By Walt McElligott

In my search for stories about the Chicago that I've lived in or around for all my 65-plus years, I discovered Karen Abbott's New York Times bestseller, Sin in the Second City, Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul,which explores the role of brothels in thecultural and political life of turn-of-the-century Chicago.

Abbott's critically-acclaimed book tells the story of Chicago’s Everleigh Club, at 2131-2133 S. Dearborn St., which from February 1900 until October 1911, was known as the “finest brothel in the land." But it's more than the story of a high-end brothel. It's more thestory of the brothel's owners, the Everleigh sisters, their fellow prostitutes, and the unsavory characters and politicians that made Chicago a “wide open town” to thedelight of the bootleggers, hookers and gangsters that occupied the once famous "Levee District".

After three years of tireless research, Abbott molded Sin into a riveting story of two sisters, onebrothel, and a culture war that rocked the nation.Sin is rife with quaint period details, photographs of the club’s gaudy extravagance, drawings that alert innocent young women to the perils of white slavery and memorable johns like theEverleigh customer who called himself Uncle Ned. At Christmas Uncle Ned would plant his feet in buckets of ice, drink sarsaparilla and order the house’s “butterflies” to circle him while they sang “Jingle Bells.”


Walt McElligott: Ms. Abbott, please tell us about yourself and your interests.

Karen Abbott: Sure, I'm over 21. I'm a journalist and live with my husband in Atlanta, where I'm at work on my next book. My hometown is Philadelphia, PA. I received my BA from Villanova University in 1995.

Some of my interests, beyond reading and writing, include: vintage furniture, complicated cocktails, 1950s pinups,gambling, sports, board games, Gypsy Rose Lee, Chicago history, politics (of the Progressive Era and otherwise), and Chicago Madams Minna and Ada Everleigh.

My interests in music embrace, Jay-Z, Outkast, The Roots, PJ Harvey, Marah, Public Enemy, Billie Holiday, Scott Joplin, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and many more.

Concerning the movies I love, the list begins with
The Deer Hunter and my shameless admission that I once belonged to a Christopher Walken fan club. My other favorite movies are: City of God, Some Like It Hot, Talladega Nights, The Birds, Errol Morris documentaries, Airplane!, Bonnie and Clyde, Splendor in the Grass, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver.

Some of my TV faves are
The Wire, Six Feet Under, Project Runway, The Sopranos, Unsolved Mysteries, and the History Channel.

My bookshelves contain work by Edgar Allan Poe, Sarah Waters, Erik Larson (White City), Cormac McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Vachss, Mary Gaitskill, Alice McDermott, Dennis Lehane, John Irving, GeorgeSaunders, Don DeLillo, J. Anthony Lukas, and Joan Didion, and others.

Walt:How did you get interested in a story and time apparently so far from you in time and distance?

Karen: The sister of my great-grandmother had disappeared during a trip to Chicago soon after the two emigrated from Slovenia in 1905. I became curious about the city and times that had claimed her. My research led me to the Levee, Chicago’s red-light district, where many missing women were said to have ended, and then to Ada and Minna Everleigh, madams of the infamous Everleigh Club. It maybe "cheesy,” but after three years writing
Sin in the Second City, by Random House, I came to think of them as family. I have pictures of them hanging up in my house right now.”

Walt: I personally enjoyed the excitement of reading your book. Would you please tell readers, who have might have missed the century-old thrills you uncovered, more about Sin?

Karen: Gladly, its official title is
Sin in the Second City, Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul. I invite readers of Sin in the Second City… to step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history, operating in Chicago’s notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century. The Club’s proprietors, two aristocratic sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons, into their statelydouble mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh “butterflies” awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Suzy Poon Tang, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser.

Whereas lesser Chicago madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and were even tutored in the literature of Balzac. Entrance was by referral letter only and clients were expected to spend a minimum of $50 per visit or face banishment (athree-course meal could be had for 50 cents at the time). Prince Henry of Prussia made a special stop at the Everleigh Club during his visit to Chicago in spring of1902. “It was more of a gentleman’s club, and it became an exclusive badge of honor just to be admitted.

Not everyone appreciated the sisters’ attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr., who was found shot at his Prairie Avenue home on November 22, 1905.

Rumor spread that one of the Everleigh butterflies had done it. The coroner’s report backed the official story—that he’d shot himself while cleaning his hunting weapon—but gossips insisted he’d been wounded during a visit to the club the previous night and was smuggled back home by the sisters.

But the sisters’ most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”—the allegedlyrampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, including the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

With a cast of characters, that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Al Capone,
Sinin the Second City is a colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation’s hedonisticimpulses and Puritanical roots, culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers. Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America’s journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity.

Mayor Carter Harrison II, who usually turned a blind eye to illegal goings-on in the Levee, was eventually forced to reckon with the reformers’ growing political power. In 1911, after a friend from outside Chicago showed him “The Everleigh Club, Illustrated,” a leather-bound brochure with national distribution, he ordered the brothel’s closure. On July 24, 1933, workers tore down the building that once housed the Everleigh Club, “heedless of the fact that they were wiping out one ofthe most lurid chapters in Chicago history,” according to a Tribune report from the time.

As for the Everleigh sisters, I estimate that after just over a decade doing business in Chicago, they’d amassed a million dollars in savings—$20.5 milliontoday—and even more in jewelry, art, and Oriental rugs. They changed their name to Lester and moved to New York, where they bought a brownstone on the Upper West Side and founded a poetry discussion group with local ladies who knew nothing of their past. Minna died first, on September 16, 1948, at the age of 82. Ada lived until 95, dying January 6, 1960, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Walt: Once more, I congratulate you on your fine first book. Am I correct that you are enjoying your sudden blessing of fame?

Karen:Thank you again. Yes, while I was also thoroughly enjoying the media brouhaha over the "D.C. Madam," Deborah Jean Palfrey, I must say that the Everleigh sisters' clients were much more savvy and discreet!

Walt: Please tell readers about your past writing experience.

Karen: I was a journalist on the staffs of
Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Weekly, and have written for Salon.com and other publications. Even beforeSin in the Second City, I've always been drawn to people's darker impulses.

Walt: In the game of chance, today known as the writing profession, I'm sure you have met many interesting people while completing your research in Chicago.

Karen: I'm a gambling girl by nature, but a short while ago I was thrilled to lose a bet. Rick Kogan, a Chicago Tribune reporter, local legend, and very dear friend, bet me that I would hit the New York Times bestseller list. If he won, I'd have to fly him down to Atlanta and treat him to an all-expenses-paid visit to the city. If I won, he'd do the same for me in Chicago. I agreed, and told him he'd had one too many bourbons.

One afternoon, after
Sin was published, my cell phone rang and I literally tripped over a mound of shoes to get to it (I'm also an incurable slob). My editor's name was on the caller I.D. Lying on my hotel room floor, dripping wet in my towel, I heard her say two words: number 17. The first person I called when we hung up was Rick Kogan.

I first met Rick in January. If you're going to write about Chicago, Rick Kogan is the man to know. He's synonymous with the city, as ubiquitous as the rattle ofthe El and the scent of deep dish pizza. And, if you respect Chicago's stories, the only man to see, now that Mike Royko has passed on, is Rick Kogan (See
windycitywriters.com archives for Walt's interview with Rick interview on his book, A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream, scroll about half way down).

Another of my favorite Chicago people was my mother-in-law, Sandy, who passed the heirlooms to me one at a time: Antique china. A mink stole from Marshall Field's. A flawless emerald cut diamond engagement ring—exactlylike my own, but several carats larger—a coincidence neither I nor my husband was aware of when he proposed. Sandy had no use for them, but her mother wouldn't have wanted such treasures wrapped in boxes, wasted and unseen. Pretty things belonged to her mother in a way Sandy, an adopted daughter, never had.

Walt: Since you spent so much time in the city, perhaps you can tell us about a favorite eating spot you discovered.

Karen:My friend, Roberta took me to a great neighborhood pizza-and-beer joint called Pizano's Pizza & Pasta at State and Chestnut Streets. The far wall is a painting, a la the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, featuring the likenesses of Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, the two brothers who own the place, Roy and Lou, and Jerry Seinfeld, who, strangely, is holding a cigarette. Roberta and I were enjoying our "refreshing summer beverage" (the actual name of their most popular drink) and we waved the bartender over.

Why, we asked, is Jerry Seinfeld the focal point of a mural dedicated to dead Rat Packers? Look closer at Seinfeld, he said. Can you tell who it used to be? Isquinted, but no hints of anyone else. Based on context, though, I guessed Dean Martin. Wrong.

After Frank Sinatra died in 1998, the bartender explained, a few regulars started a death pool. This, of course, made the brothers Roy and Lou nervous,since they were the only two people left among the living. Roy and Lou at once commissioned a painter to transform James Dean into Jerry Seinfeld,rationalizing that they needed a third live body to protect their continued breathing.

Walt: Who are those, in and out of your profession that you would like to meet?

Karen: I'm always looking to meet fellow journalists and novelists. I'm always glad to make the acquaintance of readers of my work, and especially, Windy Citydenizens, like those of the Chicago Writers Association, as well as Yankee expatriates, impertinent Southern belles, history geeks, and blackjack masters. All are invited to
meet me at MySpace.

Walt: I recall the grueling days that I spent at the Cook County Law Library doing research as a ghostwriter for my tax lawyer boss. Was your investigation into the Everleigh sisters and the Levee District equally demanding?

Karen: During the three years I spent researching
Sin in the Second City, I spent most of my time wearing ratty jeans and a baseball hat, hunkered down in the dark corners of libraries, sifting through musty old archives. I became soimmersed in the material that I would rarely break for lunch, and instead crouched in a bathroom stall and gnawed ferally on a cereal bar and rushed back to my seat so I didn't lose my train of thought. I became a bit of a recluse; most of the people I talked to happened to be dead (fortunately, one doesn't have to be alive in order to be interesting). Which is all to say that the hermit mindsetis conducive to research, but promotion — not so much!

Walt: It seems that you had tricky waters to navigate when writing
Sin in the Second City. Indeed, your research provided a historical account of the fancy and infamous Everleigh Club. But, if the Everleighs are of a different breed: smart, ethical, pure, are your heroes, then your villains must be the reformers (pastors, evangelists, pious ladies), and city officials trying to look good and eliminate the vice district and "save" the girls who had "fallen" into prostitution. Does this side of the argument also have a point?

Karen: Yes, there was a fine line not to be crossed in making the madam of a house of ill-repute the hero. There actually was a lot of horrifying stuff going on in these houses that one doesn't want to cheer for, and can't fall in love with.

Minna and Ada Everleigh were "jewel-encrusted madams" who elevated their little corner of the vice district beyond the dirty dance hall, to a level of elegance and sophistication that attracted millionaire visitors and international attention.

Clearly, Minna and Ada are characters that I love, and readers are invited to fall in love with them as well, as we follow their story from a mysterious lowly past to their glorious position as quiet, powerful queens of vice in a vicious city. There are pimps and madams that we can scorn, lesser characters who live down the street from the Everleighs, who run garbage-filled dives, beat their girls, drug their customers, and become stuck to their own floors.

As a writer, I had to ask, do I position myself with the madams, and giggle and twitter my way through the book, pretending it's all so naughty and wry, andthose stuffy old reformers are just party poopers? Or, do I put myself on the side of the reformers? To do the latter, I believe the author would expend his efforts pushing aside what is a new and interesting concept that prostitution is bad.

Hopefully, my story-telling has been smart enough that Sin in the Second City presents both of these possibilities simultaneously. This is not an expose ofthe horrors of segregated vice in turn of the century Chicago, nor is this a blushing homage to all those fabulous madams and the sexual excesses of thetimes.

I sincerely hope that those who read my book will discern that no one is exempt from criticism here. I do tell of Chicago's vainglorious preachers, andthe hypocritical politicians of the time. But, I also try to shine an unforgiving fluorescent light into the depths of vice; the strip-and-whip fights where girlslashed each other bloody for an audience, the lies, the greed, the corruption, and all of it.

I say, "No one is exempt," that is, except the Everleighs themselves. In understanding this, I began to appreciate where the moral compass of the book truly points. I believe that the sins of the vice district were black enough -- the sins of the white slavers and the opium dealers and the lower madams operating their 50 cent dives. The Everleighs, however, weren't doing anything verywrong. In shutting down their clean, sophisticated, elegant club, where the men were treated fairly and girls lined up to get jobs, where the health and well being of the harlots was a priority and the customers were treated like customers, notsinners, the authorities threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Walt: Having had such publishing success with Sin in the Second City, your very first book, I wonder whether Hollywood has come calling yet? I'd love to see Jack Nicholson as Uncle Ned.

Karen: Actually, when dining with a friend in New Orleans, this question did arise, and I'm happy to say that the answer is "Yes." However, I'm not at liberty to discuss the name of the major industry figure that owns the option on the book. All I can spill at this time is that this producer has a lot of clout and yourreaders will recognize his work. There is a better than usual chance that an adaptation will be forthcoming.

Walt: What book are you working on now?

Karen: I'm now exploring Depression-era New York, and a woman I have long beeninterested in, Gypsy Rose Lee. My still untitled manuscript is set in New York during Prohibition.

I got interested in Gypsy Rose Lee, because she was in New York just after the Everleigh sisters had retired and left Chicago. They were winding down their activity as madams and were trying to become anonymous again and disappear.

Of course, Gypsy Rose was at the other end of the spectrum, trying to gain notoriety and reach the pinnacle of her career. I’m really attracted to women who weren’t privileged enough to be born into something great. They have to make something of themselves. I think Gypsy Rose Lee, and Minna and Ada were of similar circumstances.

Gypsy Rose took this sort of tawdry and dirty profession and elevated it. She became friends with H.L. Mencken, Conde Naste, Walter Winchell and all the New York glitterati. She became this famous strip tease artist who never really stripped. You know, she took off a glove, lifted her skirt. She quoted Shakespeare and everybody just loved her and laughed.

There’s also the political aspect. Tammany Hall was about to fall, LaGuardia about to begin his assent, and FDR was running for President. I'm trying to weave all these characters in and out.

Just as
Sin in the Second City is not merely a biography of the Everleigh sisters or a history of their whorehouse, the Gypsy Rose Lee project is not a straight biography. Instead, the book largely focuses on the intersection of Gypsy Lee's life and the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, where she was a headliner. It was a bizarre moment in history: America was not yet at war but many other countries had already fallen to Germany and Japan.The fair was supposed to be about optimismin the future, yet there was a cloud overEurope and Asia.

In New York City, it was a pregnant time for gangster society and literary culture as well. I have returned to New York for more research into this forthcoming addition to "sizzle history."

Walt: Many thanks, Karen for spending some ofyour valuable time with the members of the Chicago Writers Association. We wish you continued success with Sin in the Second City and the possibility of seeing it on the silver screen, soon. As well, may you have equal triumph in completing and promoting yourbook on Gypsy Rose Lee.


To learn more about the history behind Sin in the Second City, visit:



Other publications about the Everleigh Club:

  • The Everleigh Club, Illustrated, published by Minnain 1911.
  • Come Into My Parlor by Charles Washburn.


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