People & Events: Minna (1878-1948), Ada Lester (1876-1960), and the Everleigh Club
Jane Addams wrote of the turn of the twentieth century, "Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs." Addams found it difficult to occupy herself, but she had an education and supportive parents to fall back on. Many young women found they had only one thing to sell -- themselves. Prostitution was not illegal in America, and it became a common profession for young women coming into Chicago. In a very few cases, women were able to use the commerce of sex to their advantage.
Ada and Minna Lester were sisters born in Virginia, in 1876 and 1878. They told biographers that they had been to finishing school and had proper social debuts. After two failed marriages, and the death of their father, the sisters took their $35,000 inheritance and opened a house of prostitution in Omaha, Nebraska. As madams, they took the new surname "Everleigh," adapted from their grandmother's correspondence ("Everly Yours," she would sign). In a year, they had doubled their money and were looking for a new location. Chicago was where the money was.
bought a brothel at 2131 Dearborn Street, fired all the women and completely redecorated the entire building with the most luxurious appointments available. Silk curtains, damask easy chairs, oriental rugs, mahogany tables, gold rimmed china and silver dinner ware, perfumed fountains in every room, a $15,000 gold-leafed piano for the Music Room, mirrored ceilings, a library filled with finely bound volumes, an art gallery featuring nudes in gold frames -- no expense was spared. While the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson thought the $57 gold spittoons in his café were worth boasting about, the patrons of the Everleigh Club were obliged to expectorate in $650 gold cuspidors.
Gourmet meals featured iced clam juice, caviar, pheasants, ducks, geese, artichokes, lobster, fried oysters, devilled crabs, pecans and bonbons. Musicians played constantly, usually on the piano accompanied by strings. Publishing houses would publicize new songs by having them played at the Everleigh Club. The house was heated with steam in the winter and cooled with electric fans in the summer.
The Everleigh sisters had standards for their employees. "To get in, a girl must have a pretty face and figure, must be in perfect health and must look well in evening clothes." The sisters provided training: "Be polite and forget what you are here for. Gentlemen are only gentlemen when properly introduced.... The Everleigh Club is not for the rough element, the clerk on a holiday or a man without a check book."
Certainly not at their prices. When Everleigh House opened, admission was $10, dinner was $50, a bottle of champagne $12, and then, if you wanted to spend private time with one of the girls, it was another $50. The prices only went up from there, until it was difficult for a caller to leave without spending at least $200. This while a decent working wage was $6 a week. The sisters determined that their girls should work less but for more money, and sell as much wine and food as they did sex. After all, "Contemplation of devilment was more satisfactory than the act itself."
In 1911, after a vice commission report, Mayor Carter Harrison Jr., son of legendary Mayor Carter Harrison, ordered the club closed. Minna responded philosophically, "If the Mayor says we must close, that settles it.... I'll close up shop and walk out with a smile on my face." And so they did.
Ada was 35 years old, Minna 33. They took a trip to Europe. With $1,000,000 in cash, $200,000 in jewelry and a $15,000 gold piano, they returned to New York, changed their names back to Lester, and spent the rest of their days going to the theater and hosting poetry reading circles. Minna died in 1948, Ada in 1960.
Minna, the outspoken one, said, "If it weren't for married men, we couldn't have carried on at all, and if it weren't for cheating married women we could have made another million."
Although the Everleigh sisters and their employees earned good money in luxurious circumstances, most prostitutes worked in very different situations.
White slavers would bring teenage girls to Chicago where they would be repeatedly raped before being sold to a brothel. In 1907, an 18-year-old reported that she had been drugged and raped continuously for three days before she was sold for $50, the cost of a meal at Everleigh House.
Many whores worked for 25 cents at a time. Others were shop girls or factory workers who worked a few nights a week to pay their bills or to buy a few luxuries. The Everleigh sisters were savvy and lucky. Most others were not.
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