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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for Americas Soul by Karen Abbot

Rita Giordano
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

It's a spare-no-detail, almost rollicking read about the Everleigh Club, an ultra-opulent brothel run by two sisters as the crown jewel of early-20th-century Chicago's vice kingdom, the notorious Levee district.

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

Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400065305
Author: Karen Abbott
Price: $25.95
Length: 384
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-07

At last, a history book you can bring to the beach.

Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City is a spare-no-detail, almost rollicking read about the Everleigh Club, an ultra-opulent brothel run by two sisters as the crown jewel of early-20th-century Chicago's vice kingdom, the notorious Levee district.

You can almost see the jerky movements on an old-time cinema screen as Abbott parades her cast of often questionable characters: the shady politicians, the criminal and political bosses, the cops, the pimps, the patrons, the troubled sons of wealthy men. With real people like on-the-take aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse John" Coughlin, who needs fiction?

And, of course, there are Minna and Ada Everleigh, self-made women regardless of what they really did or did not inherit, and as capable of reinventing themselves as they were of shaving unwanted years off their ages. Were they Southern belles who fled brutish husbands -- or was the truth even darker?

"The sisters' most pervasive truth," Abbott writes, "was that they strove not to have one."

Abbott does not romanticize the Everleighs nor does she condemn them. On the latter count, she didn't have to. Back in the first decade of the 20th century, there were plenty of Christian crusaders running around, consumed with eradicating the evil of so-called white slavery -- the duping or kidnapping of young women to force them into prostitution. They would eventually succeed in seeing the passage of the federal Mann Act, which in turn spurred the development of the FBI, according to Abbott.

Not that the Everleighs were white slavers. According to Abbott's account, they prided themselves on always having a waiting list of would-be employees. They dressed their women in keeping with their sumptuous surroundings and treated them relatively well. They made sure the women received medical care, and they paid them decent wages. The hookers were schooled to recite poetry, and their patrons included famous writers like Ring Lardner, thespians such as John Barrymore, athletes, businessmen, and, on at least one occasion, European royalty. The Everleighs called their women "butterflies," and when they made mistakes, they were given second chances. When they chose, they were free to leave.

But even if the Everleigh Club was highbrow harlotry attracting a corresponding clientele, the sisters were anything but circumspect about their business. Minna, the mouthpiece of the two, had a showman's flair, proud as she was of the club, with its gold piano, gurgling fountains, banquet feasts and themed rooms. They even had a fancy promotional brochure printed, featuring those ornate rooms. The Everleighs were out there, and couldn't escape the notice of those zealous crusaders. Not that they really tried. But that's getting ahead of the story.

And quite a story it is. Abbott, whose work has appeared in Philadelphia Magazine and on Salon.com, appears to have researched passionately. She creates a richly peopled, bustling and vibrant picture of the time and place, though readers are likely to find themselves amused by the similarities to the present. Madams with potentially damaging secrets, politicians guided by expediency, privileged people making bad choices -- rings a bell, doesn't it?

Sin in the Second City also keeps the reader glued with juicy subplots and loads of rich detail, such as how a man's drinking out of a woman's shoe originated at the Everleigh Club and how, in those car-crazed years, women would dab on gasoline in place of perfume.

Abbott has a harder time nailing down the Everleigh sisters. She had no living sources to interview about them. And while Minna in particular was a talker and chummy with reporters, she let be known only what she wanted known. Their true history, certain details of their lives, and what really made them tick other than their loyalty to each other remain something of a mystery, probably unavoidably so.

Still, Abbott has unearthed more than enough material to give a good sense of the sisters and keep their story flowing. She also does a commendable job of tying the goings-on in a place like the Levee to developments in Washington and the national consciousness.

The Everleigh Club had an 11-year run. Afterward, two sisters, Minna and Ada Lester, moved into an elegant brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They brought with them a gold piano, statues of Greek gods, tapestries, silk curtains and oil paintings of nudes. When pressed by neighbors, Abbott writes, they mentioned their "former plantation home in the South."

Eventually they "opened up" to their curious neighbors, explaining that their beloved grandfather had struck gold in California and when he died left them his prize possessions, including the nudes. They so loved the old dear, the sisters told their neighbors, they just couldn't part with the stuff.

Did the Everleighs get to have the last laugh? You'll have to read this fascinating book to find out. In the end, you may not be sure, but you will have great stories to tell your beach buddies.

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