Notorious for her connections with gangsters at the height of Prohibition, Polly Adler fought to become “the best goddamn madam in all America.” Historian Ann Millin tells the story:
Born in Belorussia in 1900 into a tailor’s family, Polly began her education with the village rabbi. Her father sent her to the United States at age 12 to be the first link in a “chain emigration” to bring the entire family to the United States. Separated from her family by the Great War as a teenager, she was raped at age 17, and lost the support of her family. She then turned to factory work until her friendship with a bootlegger created a very different opportunity for making money: using his apartment as a base for herself and women she hired to entertain his gangster friends. After her first arrest, she tried to go legit, opening a lingerie business that did not last long.
Polly went on to open a series of increasingly fancy brothels, culminating in a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the rich and fashionable vacationed. The gangsters who frequented her bordellos only added to the excitement and glamour of “going to Polly’s” during the Prohibition era when so much of America’s nightlife was underground. Frequently investigated and arrested, the unflappable madam kept her doors open through most of WWII until her last arrest in 1943 (the charges were dismissed, as usual). She then retired to Burbank, California, where she finally earned her long-delayed high school diploma, started a college degree, and wrote her scandalous memoir, “A House is Not a Home.”
Historian Judith Rosenbaum has put Polly’s determination this way: Over the years, she did what she had to do to survive, making the most of her connections and her business acumen. She was not ashamed of her work, but also did not let her reputation eclipse her other goals or the possibility that she could someday lead a different kind of life.
Read more about Polly Adler in historian Ann Millin’s article in “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” from which this introduction is adapted, and discover hundreds of inspiring stories in the Jewish Women’s Archive: jwa.org.
As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.