Authors: Irving Wallace
Copyright by Irving Wallace, 1989
Chet Foley was awed by what he was seeing and hearing.
It was a chilly spring afternoon in the last week of March in 1903, and although Foley had already spent his first week in Chicago, this was the moment he had been waiting for.
They were walking on the cobbled sidewalk of South Dearborn Street, scrawny young Foley in step with his older, huskier companion, Thomas Ostrow, veteran City Hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Ostrow had been assigned by the managing editor to show their new feature writer around.
Foley straightened his jacket as they proceeded. He was wearing his very best suit. It was a grey and black English worsted with a finely cut boxed coat. He had put on a red cravat and his shiniest lace-up shoes. It was an outfit he wore only for special occasions with young ladies, and he wore it now hoping that it would impress the charming young women he would meet today.
‘We’re almost there,’ Ostrow said, less concerned about his baggy, worn blue suit with two cigarette burns on the rumpled jacket.
Foley nodded with anticipation.
‘This is the notorious Levee district,’ Ostrow went on. ‘You’ve heard of it, of course.’
‘Yes, sir, I have.’
‘It got its name just before the Civil War,’ Ostrow continued, ‘when steamboats came up right near here and discharged southerners who wanted to go to the gambling places and enjoy sex shows and orgies in houses of ill fame. It hasn’t changed in all the years since, just gotten wilder. It is not a large area. Only four or five square blocks, but there are over
200 whorehouses crammed into this space. However, you’re only interested in seeing one of them.’
‘Yes, just one.’
They strode in silence another thirty feet, and then Ostrow abruptly halted.
He waved his hand towards the three-storey building to their left. ‘Here you are, Chet. Here it is. This is 2131 South Dearborn Street. This is it.’
Foley looked at the building - one broad stone mansion -with its smooth stones, solid lines, grand windows and its broad flight of steps leading up to the entrance.
‘The Everleigh Club itself,’ Ostrow announced. ‘Actually, the most famous and elegant whorehouse in the entire world.’
‘I heard of it many times in Peoria.’
‘Just as everyone knows about it in New York, London, Paris, Berlin. What do you think?’
Foley gulped. ‘I … I wonder what it’s like inside.’
‘You’ll know very soon. I called Minna and Aida Everleigh and told them I was bringing you over to introduce you. I explained that you are our newest reporter on the Tribune. They love the press, and they can’t wait to meet you.’ Ostrow took the younger reporter by the arm and pointed him towards the stairs. ‘Let’s go in and meet the ladies. What they have to show you will be something you’ll never forget.’
Inside the Everleigh Club, behind the oversized rosewood desk in the richly appointed study that served as her office, Minna Everleigh was having her usual late breakfast while awaiting her visitors. Her sister Aida was seated across the desk, reading aloud from the Chicago Examiner.
Nibbling at her sturgeon and truffles, Minna stood up to pour another glass of Mumm’s Extra Dry champagne for herself from the bottle nestled in her monogrammed ice bucket.
Even standing straight, Minna was diminutive. She was five feet two, unstylishly slender (no corset necessary), 106 pounds, with auburn hair that had been brushed and curled high and adorned with sparkling rhinestone crescents. Her grey-blue eyes were small and intense. She was wearing a pale-pink taffeta blouse cut dangerously low, her favourite butterfly pin ringed with diamonds, a high-waisted skirt of dark cheviot serge and a maroon elastic belt. The skirt barely touched the tops of her high pointed kid shoes.
Across the desk, Aida, taller, heavier at 124 pounds, was definitely wearing a corset to accent her hourglass figure. She was more conservatively garbed in a Havana-brown cloth dress trimmed with silk braiding. She was reading aloud from the newspaper story about the mayor’s latest reelection speech.
Listening, Minna took in her study to see that it was in order for her expected visitors. She knew that the study was an eclectic mix, and purposely so. Basically, the furnishing was Louis XIII, which Minna regarded as the most opulent of the French Revival styles. The high ceiling was gilt, panelled with elaborate swirling leaves designs. On the walls hung imported tapestries, colourful, costly. The chandelier had recently been converted from candlelight to electricity.
Viewing the study, Minna felt that the room had true elegance. Across the way was the fireplace, its white-veined marble mantel bearing a miniature bronze statue of Minerva, a vase overflowing with yellow daffodils, a tall German clock of the darkest, richest oak. On either side were bay windows. From each ebonized cornice descended embroidered lambrequins with tassels, behind which hung damask curtains, lace undercurtains, and muslin roller shades. On the Aubusson-styled rug sat two comfortable upholstered mahogany chairs - one covered in crimson leather, the other with a trellis back - and a mahogany sofa with spiral arms and lion’s paw feet. Between her desk and the sofa stood a carved drop-leaf centre table.
Having decided that the room was very much in order, Minna resumed sipping her second glass of champagne and began to revive. As was their custom and the habit of the thirty girls on the premises - both Minna and Aida Everleigh had slept all morning and had just finished breakfast at two o’clock in the afternoon.
There was a brisk knock on the office door, and Edmund, their mulatto valet, put his head in. His hair was short, wiry, grey, his nose straight and long, his complexion light brown, set off by a perfectly fitted dark-blue valet’s uniform. ‘Miss Everleigh,’ he addressed Minna, ‘two members of the press here to see you, Mr Ostrow and Mr Foley. Mr Ostrow said that you were expecting them.’
‘I am,’ said Minna. ‘Show them in.’
Seconds later Edmund opened the door again and held it open as Ostrow and Foley entered.
Quickly kissing both Minna and Aida on a cheek, Ostrow brought his companion forward. ‘Ladies, I want you to meet our new reporter on the Tribune. This is Chet Foley. He just moved here from Peoria. His dearest wish was to see your Club.’
Minna extended a hand to Foley. ‘How’s my boy?’ she said.
Momentarily dumbfounded, Foley shook her hand, and then Aida’s hand. He swallowed. ‘I am honoured.’
Minna turned to her sister. ‘Aida, give him your chair. Why don’t you and Tom sit back there on the sofa?’
Briskly, Minna signalled Foley to the seat across from the desk. ‘First, let’s lubricate you and Tom,’ she said, pouring champagne for each of them. She served one glass to Foley and took the other to Ostrow.
Returning to the desk, Minna sat down and smiled brightly at Foley. ‘So you want to know more about the Club,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you want to ask what every newcomer always asks first, “How did Aida and I get into this?” How did two classy sisters become madams? Am I right, my boy?’
Feeling more at ease, Foley could not resist a thin smile. ‘You’re quite right, Miss Everleigh …’
‘Make that Minna.’
‘Yes, Minna,’ Foley said, nervously. ‘But if you’re tired of that old question, I can wait…’
‘I’m never tired of that question,’ said Minna. ‘My sister is more reticent, but I love to talk about our past. How did we wind up opening the Everleigh Club? It’s a long story, but I’ll make it short and sweet.’
Minna swallowed the last of her second glass of champagne, and poured herself yet another. She settled back comfortably in the velvet-covered chair.
‘Aida and I were raised in the bluegrass country of Kentucky,’ Minna began softly. ‘We still have relatives there, aristocratic, genteel, and struggling. Our brother Charles and his two children are our main family. Charles was once a successful lawyer like our father, and he would still be one if he had not suffered a stroke. He had to give up his practice and is having difficulty holding on to the family house and farm. We’ve tried to help him, but he doesn’t like taking money from us.’ Minna poured, then continued more cheerfully. ‘Anyway, his daughter is marrying into riches. Charles wrote to us recently that our niece, Cathleen, whom we haven’t seen since she was a child, is engaged to marry the son of Harold T. Armbruster, the Chicago meat-packing king. Anyway, to get back to Aida and myself. Our father was a well-off lawyer. We were both sent to a Southern finishing school. Later on, we both fell in love with two handsome brothers and were wedded to them. Very fancy. But our husbands turned out to be spoiled brats, and not above being violent with us. Wouldn’t you agree, Aida?’
From across the room, Aida piped up in a small voice, ‘You know they were worse than that, Minna. Some of my bruises never went away.’
Minna addressed Chet Foley again. ‘When you get to know me better, Chet, you’ll know I’d never stand for anything
like that for long. So I just upped and left my husband, divorced him, and went to Washington, D.C. A short time after, Aida did the same and followed me to Washington. At finishing school, we’d both studied elocution and play-acting, and so for want of anything else to do, we decided to become actresses. I must say, it didn’t hurt that we were fairly good-looking.’
‘You both still are, Minna,’ Ostrow called out from the rear of the study.
‘I agree,’ Foley said with enthusiasm.
‘Well, thank you, boys,’ said Minna. ‘Soon after we joined up, Aida and I found jobs in a stock company and travelled across the country. While we were on the road, our father died, and we inherited $35,000. We learned about this when we reached Omaha, where the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition was taking place. We wanted to leave the stock company - it was miserable work - we wondered if we could invest our money in something more lucrative and pleasant.’
‘And this was your first idea?’ asked Foley.
Minna thought about it. ‘No, not really,’ she said. ‘We thought of becoming hat makers or tearoom hostesses. But then something happened. One day we overheard another actress say that her mother thought that being an actress was no better than being a prostitute. Aida and I looked at each other as if to say - hey, why not? We never became prostitutes, but we liked the idea of becoming madams. Business women, to be exact. I was always good at handling people, and Aida was efficient at handling finances and details.’
‘So just like that you became madams,’ Foley said.
‘Right then and there,’ Minna affirmed. ‘Remember, Aida?’
Aida was remembering. ‘It was a memorable decision.’
Addressing Foley once more, Minna went on. ‘We acquired a rundown house, redecorated it with our own money, and opened it up to the free-spending males swarming over the
fair. By the time the fair wound up, our $35,000 holdings had doubled to $70,000. Without the fair, we knew that Omaha couldn’t do much for us. We needed a bigger city. Also, equally important, we needed the fanciest, most unforgettable house in the United States. Then Aida and I had the same idea at the same time. To take a trip. Travel around and see the best brothels in Europe and the U.S.A. to pick up hints from them. So that’s what we did. We spent a year visiting the most luxurious houses and meeting the most successful madams. We learned what we could before going into our own business once more. By the time we returned from our travels, Aida and I had a fairly good idea what a perfect brothel should be.’
‘All we didn’t know was where to put it,’ said Aida.
‘That’s right,’ agreed Minna. ‘So I wrote again to Cleo Maitland in Washington, D.C., and said we’d like to visit her and get some advice. And that’s what we did. Aida and I checked into the Willard Hotel, and we found Cleo at - what was it? - yes, 1233 D Street, a brick row house. Cleo was posing as a landlady, and the six girls living there were her female boarders. Cleo was most cordial. I told her we had finished our research, and now we needed a city, a big city with plenty of wealthy men, a city with no luxurious houses. Immediately, Cleo had the answer to that. “Chicago, Illinois,” she told us. “A city rich with millionaires, a well-protected red-light district, and without one high-class beautiful bordello.” She said, “I even know the perfect house you can get for yourselves in Chicago. It’s really two adjoining three-storey mansions with fifty rooms at 2131 South Dearborn Street. It was built by a madam, Lizzie Allen, for $125,000 for the World’s Columbian Exposition. After the fair, Lizzie decided to retire. She leased the house and sold its furnishings to Effie Hankins, another madam. Recently, Effie wrote to me that she wanted to retire too, and told me to keep an eye out for a possible buyer. Well, ladies, there’s your seraglio in Chicago - $55,000 for the furnishings,
with the girls already on the premises, the goodwill, and a rental price of $500 a month on a long-term lease. I’d look into it right away.” So Aida and I hurried to Chicago, and looked over the house. It couldn’t have been more perfect. We leased it at once.’
‘Already - just like that,’ Foley marvelled.