Pub­lic domain pro­vid­ed by the Pol­ly Adler Col­lec­tion, cour­tesy of Eleanor Vera.

It is an odd phe­nom­e­non, the way Jew­ish gang­sters have been embraced by Amer­i­can cul­ture. Scoundrels like Bugsy Siegel, Mey­er Lan­sky, Dutch Schultz, and Arnold Roth­stein have become cul­tur­al arche­types, whose lord­ly ambi­tions and trag­ic flaws are con­sid­ered essen­tial to under­stand­ing our nation­al char­ac­ter. So it seems odd­er still that few Amer­i­cans remem­ber their sis­ter-in-sin Pol­ly Adler, the most noto­ri­ous madam of the Jazz Age.

From 1920 to 1945, Pol­ly reigned as New York’s queen of the under­world.” Madam Adler’s word was law among those who lived with­out the law,” as one reporter put it. The tabloids dubbed her the Female Al Capone,” the Jew­ish Jezebel,” and the Empress of Vice.” But Pol­ly pre­ferred to cast her­self as a top­sy-turvy Hor­a­tio Alger heroine.

A cyn­i­cal per­son might say my life had been a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can suc­cess sto­ry,” she observed tartly:

From the arrival at Ellis Island up the lad­der rung by rung — five dol­lars a week, ten dol­lars a week a hun­dred dol­lars a week, a mink coat, a bet­ter address — from neigh­bor­hood trade to an inter­na­tion­al clien­tele — from a nobody to a legend.

Even as a girl in the Russ­ian shtetl of Yanow, mod­ern-day Belarus, Pol­ly had grand ambi­tions. Born in 1900 as Pearl, she was an unusu­al­ly clever and self-pos­sessed child, who was deter­mined to get an edu­ca­tion in a cul­ture where girls received lit­tle for­mal school­ing. But as the old say­ing goes: Man plans and God laughs.”

Pub­lic domain pro­vid­ed by the Pol­ly Adler Col­lec­tion, cour­tesy of Eleanor Vera.

When Pearl was thir­teen, the Adlers decid­ed to immi­grate to Amer­i­ca. As the old­est, she was the first to leave, land­ing on Ellis Island in Decem­ber of 1913. She lived with fel­low lands­men while wait­ing for her par­ents to arrive. Six months lat­er, Europe was engulfed in war, cut­ting off all trav­el from Rus­sia and leav­ing her strand­ed with strangers. From now on, she would have to chart her own path.

No one starts out to be a whore,” Pol­ly lat­er observed. She cer­tain­ly did not. But for a teenag­er alone in the city, with no edu­ca­tion or skills, sell­ing sex seemed like the answer to all her prob­lems. I am aware that in the judg­ment of the stra­tum of soci­ety which decides these things I should have drawn myself up and said, No thank you, keep your dirty mon­ey! I’d rather sew shirts for five dol­lars a week,” she said defi­ant­ly. But I am not apol­o­giz­ing for my deci­sion. My feel­ing is that by the time there are such choic­es to be made, your life already has made the deci­sion for you.”

Pol­ly opened her first broth­el in 1920 — a self-styled house of assig­na­tion’ in a two-bed­room apart­ment across from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. But she had grander visions. If I had to be a madam, I’d be a good madam,” she declared. I was deter­mined to be the best god­dam madam in all America.”

By 1925, her house had become a favorite oasis for the boot­leg­gers and gam­blers who cir­cled around Arnold Roth­stein; it was the late-night hang­out for the wise­crack­ing Broad­way bohemi­ans of the Algo­nquin Hotel, includ­ing Dorothy Park­er, Robert Bench­ley, and George S. Kauf­man. The show­biz crowd soon fol­lowed; she proud­ly count­ed George Gersh­win and Har­po Marx among her clientele.

She cul­ti­vat­ed gos­sip colum­nists and influ­en­tial news­pa­per­men and patron­ized the chic night­clubs with a rotat­ing posse of glam­our girls. She was a sharp busi­ness­woman, a finan­cial brain,” remem­bered one cus­tomer. You had to be some­body to go there, and you had to pay plen­ty, no mat­ter who you were or how well you knew her.”

Among the cognoscen­ti it was said, that if a bomb explod­ed in Pol­ly Adler’s house, the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al life of the city would be wiped out.” Top exec­u­tives in the gar­ment indus­try, motion pic­tures, and adver­tis­ing employed her girls to woo clients. Wall Street traders passed along stock tips on their way to the bed­room. Crooked cops made her place their home away from home. Rack­e­teers used her par­lor as an infor­mal head­quar­ters where they could con­fer with politi­cians and judges. She once con­fessed that even Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt had employed her services.

In 1953, Pol­ly capped her career by pub­lish­ing a mem­oir. A House is Not a Home became a run­away hit, sell­ing two mil­lion copies and vault­ing her to inter­na­tion­al fame. Yet, even then, she did not achieve the icon­ic pos­ter­i­ty of male crim­i­nal colleagues.

But don’t count her out. I have always been a fight­er and hope to Christ I nev­er stop till cur­tain time,” as she put it. Per­haps Polly’s moment has final­ly arrived, as a new gen­er­a­tion grap­ples with the inter­sec­tion of sex and pow­er, eager to pierce the con­spir­a­cies of silence that pro­tect pow­er­ful peo­ple from bear­ing the full cost of their desires.

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.