Be still my Midwestern heart.
(Just to clarify, I’m unfortunately not Midwestern. Just my heart.)
Long known as ‘The Windy City’, Chicago escorts’s rich history of flesh trading, bossing, madaming, and pandering, has spectators instead calling this famed metropolis ‘The Lusty City’. As I stared out of my train window at the wondrous fields, towns, and cities of Illinois in late Summer, I wondered if I wasn’t holding the exact same hope as every young woman come to that city by train—to be taken into it, to be a part of a greater something, to be repurposed. In Chicago, more than any other city, I was the ultimate voyeur—watching the intimate bustling from a safe distance— no doubt irreparably changed by the salacious history of the city’s bawdy pastime.
My fascination with the sordid history of Chicago starts at The Everleigh Club on 2131 South Dearborn Street, in the heart of the old red light Levee district. Shuttered in 1911, the Everleigh Club was not only Chicago’s most famous high-end brothel, but also the first known sex club to have been owned by women. The industrious Everleigh sisters, Ada and Minna, came from an aristocratic (and debatably fictitious) background, having inherited considerable wealth after their father died in the early 1890s. They opened their first brothel in Omaha, Nebraska and doubled their investment. The took that money to the more affluent Chicago to open a club so luxurious and opulent that America’s upper crust would be forced to patronize it.
After purchasing the house in February of 1900, the sisters “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.” (Herbert Ashbury, Gem of the Prairie.)
Needless to say, the sisters spared no expense for the opening of their new club.
Similarly, the girls hired to provide entertainment were held to high standards. According to the 2007 book by Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, girls were expected to adhere to the following requirements: have a pretty figure and face, be in perfect health, look well in evening clothes, be at least 18 years of age, and have come to work for the sisters of their own free will; Ada and Minna did not do business with slave traders, pimps, or parents looking to sell off their daughters.
The Everleigh Club served as the watering hole for some of the worlds’ biggest and brightest, and customers could expect to spend a minimum of $200 for a night of scintillating entertainment, which today would total about $5,500 for an evening! Frequented by senators, movie stars, and even royalty (in 1902 Henry of Prussia visited the Club while in the United States to retrieve a ship built for his brother, German Kaiser Wilhelm II), the Everleigh Club was a dazzlingly raucous joint comparable only to the legendary parties thrown by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s larger-than-life character, Jay Gatsby.
The Everleigh Club was forced to close in 1911 when city mayor Carter Harrison Jr. cracked down on sex trafficking and gambling, much like the changes Rudy Guiliani made in the 1990s in New York City. Walking away with an estimated one million dollars in accrued wealth, the Everleigh sisters changed their last name to Lester, moved to New York, and retired at the ages of 45 and 47. The original building that housed the lucrative Everleigh Club still exists, though the city of Chicago currently has no known tours of the establishment. However, if you hold your hand up to the magnificent walls of this Midwestern gem, you can almost feel the piano music vibrating on your palm, the sweet sounds of a beautiful escorts whispering in your ear, and the taste of champagne (drunk from a slipper) on your tongue. Chicago has so much to offer the adventurous voyeur besides the stunning monochrome of Lake Michigan, the rich history of grass roots organizing, and the gastronomic delights of hot dogs and deep dish pizza. The Lusty City moans to you with the voice of a thousand voices, and calls to you with the seductive croon of a metropolis rife steeped in scandalous past.
Interested in learning more about the Everleighs, Chicago’s Levee district, and the flesh trade industry? Here are some resources for you:
- Hermann, Charles H. (1945) Recollections of Life & Doings in Old Chicago: from the Haymarket Riot to World War I
- Hibbeler, Ray (1960) Upstairs at the Everleigh Club.
- Kanin, Garson (1980) Smash.
- Masters, Edgar Lee (1944) "The Everleigh Club" in: Town & Country, April 1944
- Washburn, Charles (1936) Come Into My Parlor: a biography of the aristocratic Everleigh Sisters of Chicago.