Saturday, February 2, 2008

Review: Sin in the Second City

Summary: Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history–and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago’s notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club’s proprietors, two aristocratic sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons, into their stately double mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh “butterflies” awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Suzy Poon Tang, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. Whereas lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac.Not everyone appreciated the sisters’ attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. But the sisters’ most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”——the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, including the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City is Karen Abbott’s colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation’s hedonistic impulses and Puritanical roots. Culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers, Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America’s journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity. - and bookjacket

Although I read a lot of books, I usually find myself picking up fiction ones. Occasionally, I want to actually read something that is true and that's what led me to SIN IN THE SECOND CITY by Karen Abbott. I have heard some good things about the book, and I must admit that I thought the premise of the book sounded very interesting -- madams, ministers, playboys and the battle for America's soul. Needless to say, I was not disappointed!

Call me naive, but I had no idea that Chicago's Levee district was such a huge business in the early 1900s. A commission which reported in 1911 claimed that there were no fewer than 1020 brothels in Chicago and at least 5000 full-time prostitutes (that didn't include thousands of streetwalkers or girls who hustled on the side.) I found the major characters in the book to be very interesting -- proving that truth may indeed be stranger than fiction. Minna and Ada Everleigh, the owners of the most famous brothel in American history, were fascinating and very much ahead of their time. I was actually impressed by the background research and marketing they conducted as owners and managers of their exclusive "resort." The stories of the other characters in the Levee district were also quite amusing, especially those involving the Everleigh's competitors. As the story unfolds, the religious and political figures who want to shut down the vice businesses are also quite intriguing. I really enjoyed learning about Chicago in the early 1900s and the games that were played by the different factions involved in the "white slavery" controversy.

I was also very impressed with Ms. Abbott's writing style -- the way the book was factual, yet read like a novel. I think she started out with a wonderful story and colorful characters, but it is obvious that she conducted a great deal of excellent research to make this a very good book. I was touched by the author note at the beginning of the book explaining why she was so interested in this topic. Ms. Abbott's great-grandmother lost her sibling on the way to America from Slovenia and would never discuss it. I imagine she was never the same wondering what happened to her sister. Many of these "lost" girls ended up murdered, raped and in places like the Levee district in Chicago.

There are a lot of issues in this book which will make it an interesting non-fiction selection for bookclubs. The reading guide poses many questions including ones about ethics, morality, religion, sexual change, personal identity, and women's rights. There is also a SIN IN THE SECOND CITY website with more book reviews and information on the characters and Levee district. Once you are there, you will also find how to contact the author and invite her to "visit" with your bookclub. If you are looking for an entertaining non-fiction book which also has some thought-provoking issues, I highly suggest checking out this book.

Also reviewed at:
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore


Dewey said...

I have this book and am planning to read it this month! Thanks for the reading guide and website links.

Katherine said...

My review of this book can be found here: