In 1953, a madam by the name of Polly Adler wrote a tell-all best seller about her 30 years in the brothel business, “A House is Not a Home.”
It created a sensation. (I was too young to apply for a real estate license; but I do recall my parents talking hush hush about Polly, while I tried to listen, glass to the bedroom wall, for Good Housekeeping details.)
I was 13 when I got an inkling that something was more than “a miss” on my own city block. An older guy about 20 asked me if I knew where the “party girls” – said with a wink – hung out. “You know, kid. The whore house.”
(I hadn’t a clue why he hit on me for the info. Maybe he was nearsighted and thought I looked butch, or sexually precocious beyond my prepubescent years. I learned later that the bordello was around-the-corner. The Hickory House Restaurant. Short ribs. Long rubs!)
At 14, I delivered groceries for Samhat’s Market, a Muslim brothers-owned store, where I also learned a smattering of Arabic: Keef-hollic? (How are you?) Nish-good Allah! (Praise Allah!) Fee-kee honi. (Best left untranslated.) I also found myself, one scary evening, ducking behind counters during a bang-bang armed robbery. But that’s another story.
One hot summer afternoon I saw my first “sex worker.” Miss Blond Bombshell answered her door in a see-through nightie. I dutifully surrendered my bread, milk, cheese. And, not knowing what else to do, bowed. Instead of a tip I got a cleavage peek. (I would have preferred the tip.)
I’m sure her intentions were meritorious – to help me earn my Boy Scout Badge for exploring unknown, impregnable terrain. To be truthful, I wasn’t much interested in her kind of Tenderfoot instruction. (My boyhood motto: To light a fire, rub two sticks together. Long enough. Hard enough.)
Probably the most famous 20th century brothel was Salon Kitty. Established by German Gestapo in the fashionable west end of Berlin at the onset of World War ll. It was a high-class operation catering to horny Axis diplomats (German, Italian, Japanese), war heroes, politicians.
Kitty’s workers were glamorous machen, motivated not by sex for fun and/or profit but by a sense of patriotic duty to the Vaterland. Heil Hitler! Deutschland uber alles! (Germany over all. Or, more accurately: Germany on top of everyone!)
Kitty Salon was electronically bugged. The girls were trained to tease, titillate, twist classified information from clients. Fascist Italy’s Prime Minister, Count Ciano, was a frequent guest. He was rated an “indolent lay” by staff. Biff! Bam! Scram!
Few earthshaking diplomatic secrets were ferreted out at Kitty Salon, but everyone had a helluva good time – at least until the Soviet Rooskies came and raped and ravaged the city up one end and down the other.
As far as the spy brothel business goes, we Americans did the Germans one better. We set up a male brothel, operated patriotically, cost efficiently, also wiretapped, run by the FBI. (Somebody’s gotta do it, Mary, er, J. Edgar!)
The brothel (or “peg house” as it was called) was located near – no big hello! – Gay Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Reports the late, prolific writer Isaac Asimov, who dug up this steamy tidbit for his “Facts & Figures” collection: “the decor was nautical.” (But nice!)
“The house was staffed with multilingual agents for the purpose of extracting shipping information from foreign sailors. The FBI later claimed it had been a very successful operation.” (Especially for those sailors on the multilingual pegging end of the business.) Ship, ship ahoy! Turn over, and out!