When Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other members of The Roundtable left the Algonquin Hotel, they could often be overheard saying they’d be “going to Polly’s” later that evening. To the untrained ear, it might have sounded like they were headed to a friend’s for a dinner party.
In a way, that was true: the Polly of whom they spoke was Polly Adler, and she did throw lavish parties almost nightly, entertaining not just writers like Parker and Benchley, but celebrities, mob bosses and other New York City elite. The parties, however infamous, were very exclusive: they took place at Madam Adler’s bordello at 215 West 75th Street.
Their friend Polly was the most well-known madam in New York City, and ran not just one, but several high-end brothels in New York City. But who was this woman and how did she find herself at the height of NYC social life as a house mother to the city’s prostitutes?
Polly was born in Belorussia in 1900, but was sent to America as a young woman ahead of the rest of her family, who planned to immigrate. When she arrived she spoke practically no English, had very few work-related skills and with the exception of a few extended family members, knew no one. She was able to get a job working in a shirt-making factory, but was raped by the foreman.
When she discovered she was pregnant, she was forced into the city to find someone to perform an abortion. Thrown out by her relatives, she moved to Manhattan with a few girls from the factory. What she didn’t realize was that the girls were heavily involved in the sex industry, and they immediately introduced her to their pimp.
When she started in the sex industry, Polly quite naturally developed her skills in procuring girls and organizing them. She was also fearless when it came to standing up against clients to protect her girls. When Polly realized that she could be successful as a procuress, she proclaimed to her roommates that she wanted to be “the best goddamn madam in all of America.” Pretty soon she was making $1,100 a week.
By the early 1920s, Polly had established her first brothel. It quickly became the center of the city’s night life, in large part because it wasn’t only about the girls: there was always plenty to eat and drink, a library stocked with books from Parker and Benchley, who were dear friends, and parties that centered as much around music and dance as they did sex. Polly’s, as a destination, was truly “a party house” in every sense of the word.