Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age

From the parlor of my house I had a backstage, three-way view,” remembered Polly Adler. “I could look into the underworld, the half-world and the high.”

In Roaring Twenties New York City, when the nightclubs closed down, the in-crowd didn’t go home.  Everyone went to Polly’s place, the “speakeasy with a harem” run by “The Female Al Capone,” as the newspapers dubbed her. Polly “Pearl” Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels were more than oases of illicit sex, where men paid top-dollar for the company of her girls, they were also swinging salons where the culturati and high society partied with the elite of showbiz, politics and organized crime.  Polly’s pals — luminaries like Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Lucky Luciano, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, Bugsy Siegel and Desi Arnaz – made the Jazz Age roar.  

No one would’ve guessed that Pearl would become “the First Lady of the Underworld” when she arrived in America as a 13-year old Russian Jewish immigrant. But Polly’s life became a topsy-turvy Horatio Alger tale – a childhood that could be a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a wild ghetto adolescence out of a Henry Roth novel, blossoming into a glittering epic of parties and power worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Then Polly wrote her own ending, penning a memoir that shocked the squares of the 1950s and sold over two million copies. 

Applegate immerses the reader in Polly’s world and uses her rip-roaring life to unpack what made this era so corrupt, so glamorous and so transformational, showing how this riotous collision of high and low gave birth to modern American culture.

Cast of Characters

nick montana
Nick Montana was the vice entrepreneur who spotted Polly’s potential in 1920, when she was a young hustler and set her up in her first brothel at 620 West 115th in Manhattan
George McManus
“Smiling George” McManus was the professional gambler who spread Polly’s reputation among the high-rolling dice players and was accused of murdering Arnold Rothstein in 1928
NYDN Public Enemies headline
New York’s first “Public Enemies” list included some of Polly’s best customers — Waxey Gordon, Owney Madden, Larry Fay, Dutch Schultz, Billy Duffy and Ciro Terranova, June 18, 1931
George Kauffman
The playwright and Broadway director George S. Kaufman—one of Polly’s first clients from the Algonquin Round Table crowd—kept a charge account at Polly’s
Benchley & Beery
Polly’s dear friends, the actors Robert Benchley and Wallace Beery, on the set of China Seas, 1935
Izzy & Moe
Federal agents Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith were New York’s most famous “hooch hounds,” which helped when Moe was caught in a raid on Polly’s brothel in Saratoga Springs
Jimmy Walker
Polly boasted often of her friendship with the Jimmy Walker—the hard-partying “Jazz Mayor” of New York who skirmished with Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt
Benny Adler
Polly’s younger brother Benny Adler after his release from Sing Sing Prison on charges of larceny, 1925
Vivian Gordon
The murder of Polly’s associate Vivian Gordon—Broadway butterfly and blackmailer—made Polly front page news across the country
Seabury & Irving Kresel
Judge Samuel Seabury and his chief counsel, Isidore J. Kresel, relentlessly pursued Polly while investigating corruption in the police department and City Hall, 1930
Jock Whitney
The wealthy American aristocrat John Hay “Jock” Whitney led Café Society to Polly’s doorstep
Louis Valentine
New York City Police Commissioner Louis J. Valentine put Polly behind bars for a thirty-day stretch in the Women’s Prison in 1935
Winthrop Rockefeller
Winthrop Rockefeller, the black sheep of the Rockefeller family, became a target of the FBI when they discovered him calling Polly’s house
Tom Dewey
Gangbusting district attorney Thomas E. Dewey after convicting Harlem’s Jimmy Hines on charges of corruption
Garnet Williams
Polly’s best friend and fellow hustler, Garnet Williams, in the New York Daily News after her arrest for possession of heroin, August 28, 1925
Big Bill Dwyer
William Vincent “Big Bill” Dwyer—the “King of the Bootleggers”—an early patron of Polly’s whose extravagant parties corrupted a large swath of the NYPD, the Coast Guard and the judiciary
Jimmy Durante & partners
The madcap boys of the Club Durant – Eddie Jackson, Jimmy Durante and Lou Clayton – where Polly was a frequent customer
Paul Whiteman and orchestra
Celebrity bandleader Paul Whiteman—“the King of Jazz”—broke the spending record at Polly’s after dropping $50,000 on a three-day party for his Tin Pan Alley pals
Libby Holman NYPL
Libby Holman worked for Polly in the mid-1920s before finding fame as a torch singer and Café Society playgirl
Greb-Walker fight
Two of Polly’s favored customers, welterweight champ Mickey Walker and middleweight champ Harry Greb, battling it out in New York’s Polo Grounds, July 1925
Jimmy Carr Melancholy
Jimmy Carr—“The Doctor of Melody”—was Polly’s bandleader boyfriend in 1926
Andrew McLaughlin
The mercenary “Lone Wolf” of the vice squad, Andrew McLaughlin, who was accused of Vivian Gordon’s murder
Near the end of her life Polly confessed that she had provided women for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and that she was paid for her silence when Roosevelt ran for president
Tallulah Bankhead Fredrick March
Tallulah Bankhead and Frederick March were filming My Sin at Paramount Studios in Queens when Tallulah became a frequent guest of Polly’s in 1931
milton berle
Comedian Milton Berle considered Polly a good friend, a great cook and ideal fodder for dirty jokes
Woolworth Donahue
Woolworth Donahue, the flamboyantly perverse heir to the Woolworth chain-store fortune, spent many evenings drinking in Polly’s parlor
Frank Costello
Frank Costello, New York’s top crime boss in the 1930s and 40s, lent Polly the money to pay her delinquent tax bill
Charlie Barnet, Martha Raye, Gert Gottlieb and husband
Polly with the bandleader Charlie Barnet, comedienne Martha Raye, Polly’s attorney Gertrude Gottlieb and husband Benjamin
Arnold Rothstein
Arnold Rothstein—“The Brain”—gambler, grifter, and banker to the underworld who was an early mentor to Polly
Eddie & Legs Diamond Fatty Walsh lineup
Four of Polly’s early patrons were also Manhattan’s most notorious mobsters—Eddie and Legs Diamond, Fatty Walsh, and Charlie Lucky aka Lucky Luciano
Texas Guinan
Texas Guinan—“Queen of the Night Clubs”—whose chorus girls occasionally moonlighted in Polly’s Follies
Dorothy Parker NYPL
Manhattan’s wittiest woman, Dorothy Parker, was one of the first women to patronize Polly’s “speakeasy with a harem” in 1924, spreading Polly’s reputation among the Broadway literati
Duke Ellington
Sonny Greer (far left), Duke Ellington (far right) and the Washingtonians met Polly at the legendary Kentucky Club and played at many of her parties
Walter Winchell
Gossip columnist Walter Winchell was a “sexual athelete” who made little secret of his friendship with the notorious Polly Adler
Doc Kearns & Teddy Hayes
Boxing’s wiliest operators, Teddy Hayes and Jack “Doc” Kearns, helped popularize Polly in the sporting world
Polly’s nemesis on the vice squad, the double-crossing plainclothesman James J. Quinlivan
Judge Crater
Judge Joseph F. Crater’s sudden and permanent disappearance in 1930 upended both the upper and underworld of New York City
Gladys Bentley
The bawdy cabaret singer Gladys Bentley was a favorite of Polly’s patrons
Dutch Schultz
Dutch Schultz – “Beer Baron of the Bronx” – was Polly’s most important patron in the late 1920s and early 1930s
Martha Raye & Dorothy Lamour
The comedienne Martha Raye lent Polly her house in Los Angles and actress Dorothy Lamour occasionally went on dates for Polly before she hit it big in Hollywood
Jimmy Hines
Jimmy Hines, the powerful and corrupt Tammany boss of Harlem, protected the underworld until he was sent to Sing Sing in 1939
Polly and Ghostwriter Virginia Faulkner and composer Dana Suesse
Polly with her ghostwriter Virginia Faulkner, the composer Dana Suesse, and an unnamed man, while working on her memoir, August 1945