Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sin in the Second City [Review]

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, and Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul

Author: Karen Abbott (biographical information; her MySpace page; a very recent interview.)

Copyright: 2007, Random House, New York, ISBN 978-1-4000-6530-1

Length: 356 pages (including bibliography, notes and sources, and index)

Genre: Non-fiction, social history

Summary: Sin in the Second City specifically discusses the rise and fall of the Everleigh Club in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. The Everleigh Club was one of the extravagant attractions of Chicago between 1900 when the high-toned brothel opened and 1912, when a crusade against vice and white slavery forced Chicago's power brokers to close it down. Woven into the story of Minna and Ada Everleigh, the sisters responsible for both the tone and the services of the Club, is the story of the reformers who seek to eradicate vice and the corrupt politicians who patronize the Club, accepting bribes in exchange for protection while publicly outraged by its presence. Abbott thoroughly documents this happy triangle. The sisters ran a clean, professional cathouse. The reformers sang hymns in front of the brothels themselves, weeping over the the young girls who fallen into these dens of sin and degradation . And the politicians took advantage of both sides.

The author clearly sympathizes with the Everleigh sisters' shrewd business sense while raising an eye-brow at the male-dominated society that alternately condoned then condemned the sexual exploitation. She enjoys the over-the-top events at the club, such as a royal patron who, while visiting Chicago on a formal state visit, visited the house of ill-repute at midnight and sipped champagne from a harlot's slipper. She notes the likelihood of whether Marshall Field, Jr. died by a gun going off while he cleaned it in the privacy of his bedroom or died in the parlour of the Everleigh Club. Decadence, wickedness and hypocrisy make for interesting bedfellows.

Abbott's writing style is snappy. The (real) people whose lives the author follows are vividly described. She captures the human foibles that infuse this particular history while unobtrusively suggesting that there are modern parallels.

Extract: The book's official web site has an excerpt available here.

Also Relevant: According to the interview I referenced above, Abbott researched her material for three years in preparing to write about the sisters and the effort shows. As she herself notes, there are times when the factual aspects of her story are more bizarre than any fiction could make plausible. Clearly the reforms that the ministers were so eager to bring about were necessary; tales of white slavery were not entirely urban myths. But the courtesans of the Everleigh House were better cared for than any other women in the profession at that time and in that locale. But as is so frequently the case, reformist zeal was more focused on bringing about the downfall of the high-profile madams rather than those less-visible panderers completely lacking in decency.

Abbott balances fairly well between recognition of the intelligence of these two women setting out to professionalize the world's oldest career and recognition of the undeniable abuse of young women who were drawn unwittingly into prostitution by promises of gaiety in the big city of Chicago. She never lapses into the arch offensiveness of the Wall Street Journal review whose author closed out his review of Sin in the Second City this way: much larger part it was killed by the change in social temper that came with the sexual revolution. Once nice girls began giving sex away, less-nice girls who charged for it were out of work. Nice girls, though this may not have been what they had in mind, thus contributed more to social reform than all the professional reformers and other visiting firemen in Chicago and elsewhere in the world.

Yeah. Right. What's that old saying? Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

Never mind. Abbott does a good job in Sin in the Second City and the book succeeds at being both informative as well as readable.