The Karen Abbott Interview

I'm not the only writing Zulkey. My Mom has published some op-eds in the Chicago Tribune, regularly writes long research papers for her book club and has tried her hand at penning a children's book. My brother also has done some writing, working on comic books. I assumed that was the extent of it until a few years ago when my Dad told me that he had published a feature article in the Chicago Tribune magazine in 1979 about Chicago's infamous brothel The Everleigh Club. He claimed he had just 'forgotten' to tell me about it up until that point but was reminded by it when Erik Larsen's "The Devil in the White City" was hitting its stride.

So I was very excited to hear about today's interviewee's book Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul, which goes more in-depth into the Everleigh Club as well as Chicago politics and history at the dawn of the 20th century. A Philadelphia writer, she's now working on a book about Gypsy Rose Lee, who coincidentally is the subject of one of my Dad's and my favorite musicals (OK, that's not really a coincidence.) But I wanted to bring this intro back to my Dad, since when I contacted the author for an interview, she told me she remembered coming across his article in her research, so now the entire Zulkey family has taken her to heart.

The Karen Abbott Interview: Somewhat Under Twenty Questions

What originally inspired you to write "Sin in the Second City"?
It's actually a very personal story. My great-grandmother and her sister immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in 1905. One weekend, the sister took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was always intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and when I began researching Chicago, and learned all about the 'disappearing girls' around the turn of the century, those tales really captured my imagination. Chicago was a fascinating city at the time but also very dangerous. There were entire guidebooks that warned visitors about which streets and establishments to avoid. They had these vivid, melodramatic titles: 'Chicago and Its Cesspools of Infamy,' 'The White Slave Hell: With Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago,' etc. It was easy, especially during my research trips to the city, to imagine my relative falling victim to some nefarious force. Of course I also imagine that she might have become a 'sporting girl,' so to speak. And I would hope that she was Everleigh Club material!

Which sources of yours turned out to be the most interesting (other than my Dad's article, of course!)?
The Chicago History Museum has a fabulous collection for Ernest Bell, the minister reformer in SIN IN THE SECOND CITY. He kept all of the correspondence from his Midnight Mission-letters, meeting minutes, finance records, pamphlets featuring pictures of men and children suffering from syphilis. He also kept his personal effects: correspondence with his wife and family, diaries, prayers and poems he'd written, pill bottles, money clips, souvenirs from trips. It was very personal to handle these things and know that this man lived a hundred years ago, that his sweat was on this leather diary. It was like I was going through his pants pockets. My other favorite collection was the Vic Shaw Family Album at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She had a picture of her "whipper"-this prim, schoolmarm-looking lady with horn-rimmed glasses and a high collar and tidy bun. The caption read; "Lil the Whipper: Beat Up Over 1000 harlots."

I've seen your book linked with "The Devil in the White City": what do you think it is about Chicago's sordid history that's captured more than the local imagination?
Chicago at the turn of the century was called "the most American city," and I think that's true. It was constantly striving, trying to improve itself, reinventing and updating its image. Chicago was a microcosm of the turbulent changes America was experiencing at the time. As for the "sordid" parts, Chicago just lucked out! One of the joys of writing SIN was learning about the pre-Capone underworld. His legacy sort of overshadows everything, and it was fascinating to learn about the gangsters, like big Jim Colosimo, who were directly responsible for bringing him to the Second City.

If I may inquire about business matters, I read on a blog of yours that Random House expected modest results from the book: was it because of Devil in the White City, like they expected that lightning wouldn't
strike twice, topic-wise?

No, it really had nothing to do with The Devil in the White City. It was just a quiet acquisition, with a very modest advance. I think that's partly because I was an unknown commodity; SIN is my first byline in about five years! I really wanted to focus exclusively on the writing and research; you only get to have your first book once. Erik Larson, of course, was already a bestselling author. I think the other factor was that my proposal for the book differed substantially from the end product. In the proposal I concentrated solely on the Everleigh Club, and hadn't yet figured out the political, religious and cultural themes-all of those parts of SIN that still resonate today.

What was your MO for writing the book, in terms of when it was time to research and when it was time to write?
I researched for a year and a half just working on the proposal, and after the book sold I alternated between researching and writing. I'd write as much as I could, and then I'd see where I needed to fill in the gaps and quickly got myself on a plane back to Chicago (and I was always happy to get back to Chicago). The writing always went much better after a research trip there; it was incredibly empowering to walk the streets my characters walked, to hear the El rattle, to see buildings they would have seen.

What were the 'subplots' that you came across in your research "SITSC" that most intrigued you?

Two of my favorite characters (aside from the sisters, of course) are Vic Shaw and Clifford Roe. On one hand, Vic Shaw was so cartoonish-her antics, her persona, her plots against the Everleigh Sisters. I couldn't have made her up. On the other hand, I identified with Vic Shaw more than anyone else in SIN. She was scrappy and relentless, but she was not uptown. I know where she's coming from, and if I were her, I would have hated the Everleigh sisters, too. I found Clifford Roe's naked ambition both terrifying and fascinating. The incident involving his mother's death, and how he subsequently handled that, said more about his character than any other passage in the book.

How were you able to discern history from legend when you were researching the book?
I think I got as close to the Everleigh sisters' real truths as possible. I used census reports, a book about their family's genealogy, and talked to their great niece, who was immensely helpful. That said, those sisters were wily characters, and hard to pin down. If they were easy I wouldn't have found them nearly as interesting.

For those who want to do a "Sin in the Second City" Chicago tour, which areas that you reference still maintain some historical reference (or at least aren't all condos or Walgreens?)
The site of the Everleigh Club is now occupied by the Raymond Hilliard homes. They're two tall, imposing towers, standing side by side, with these ornate honeycomb windows-I think, in some strange way, that they evoke the sisters. Dearborn Street station was rumored to be a prime hunting ground for white slavers. The Pacific Garden Mission, with which Ernest Bell was affiliated, is still around, though I think in a different location.I really wish the Coliseum were still standing-the night of the 1908 First Ward Ball is one of my favorite scenes in the book. The Levee really knew how to throw a party. I know there was a college bar called the "Everleigh Club" awhile ago-I hope someone will bring it back. Chicago needs another incarnation of the Everleigh Club.

What was your perception of Chicago before you wrote the book? How did it change, if at all?
I didn't know much about Chicago at all before I began my research, but I quickly fell in love with the city. It has that same ambitious, striving, can-do attitude that it had 100 years ago. The people are unfailingly generous, friendly, and helpful. The architecture is stunning. And The Green Mill and the Billy Goat Tavern are now two of my favorite bars of all time. I miss the city; I can't wait to get back there for Part II of my tour this October.

For those who haven't read your book yet, what would have typified the ideal Everleigh "butterfly"?
Ada Everleigh conducted rigorous examinations of all Everleigh Club applicants. A girl must have a pretty face, she insisted, and look well in an evening gown.
She must not drink to excess, nor do drugs. Girls who have experience in a high-class house were preferred; novice "sporting girls" were too likely to run off and get married at the first opportunity. Minna offered some sound advice to new Everleigh Club hires: "One fifty dollar client is preferable to ten five dollar ones. Less wear and tear"-definitely a philosophy that wasn't shared in "lesser" whorehouses. The Everleigh girls were encouraged to practice "French" techniques (a euphemism for oral sex) almost exclusively-a girl could make more money this way, and also be safer from disease, according to the Everleigh's house doctor. Some of the Club's best clients didn't want to have sex at all. One of my favorite anecdotes in SIN is about a john named Uncle Ned, who would come once a year around the holidays. He ordered two buckets of ice, into which he thrust his bare feet,and instructed all of the Everleigh courtesans to circle him and sing, "Jingle Bells."

After researching the book, do you have an opinion of how prostitution was handled by major cities a century ago compared to how it is today?

I think the Everleighs were definitely onto something. The world's oldest profession isn't going to go away; why not regulate and tax it? An argument can be made that legitimizing the business would keep its practitioners safer from physical abuse and disease. It seems to work in Nevada.

Which contemporary women do you think have the potential to live lives more like Everleigh employees, exotic dancers or prostitutes? It seems that while prostitutes perform the service, exotic dancers might be prone to having a more comfortable life.
I'm torn on whether or not sex work-whether as a prostitute or an exotic dancer-is inherently empowering or exploitive for women. I tell all of these fun anecdotes in the book, but, truth be told, a lot of the women entered the sporting life - even Everleigh Club girls - for tragic reasons. Their husbands deserted them, and they had small children to support. Their parents died, and they had younger siblings to take care of. Some were considered promiscuous and kicked out of their homes so they figured, why not get paid? Many Everleigh girls married well and went on to live 'respectable' lives, and others met unhappy endings. One committed suicide, and another was found dead in an alley, her hands severed at the wrists so her killer could take her diamond rings. It's a perennial question: if this is the only choice you have, is it really a choice
at all?

Is there anything in particular about you that draws you to subjects like the Everleigh Club and Gypsy Rose Lee, or is pretty much "Duh, who doesn't like history and sexy ladies!"?
I'm really fascinated by how cities are shaped, and I hope I can make New York as much a character in this book as Chicago is in SIN. Aside from Gypsy, the cast of characters includes H.L. Mencken, Condé Nast, Lucky Luciano, Abbott and Costello, Fanny Brice, and Fiorello La Guardia. It was a really dynamic time in New York's history. Tammany Hall was about to fall, F.D.R. was jockeying to run for president, prohibition was in full-force, the literary scene was flourishing. I'm also drawn to women who make their own lives, who aren't privileged enough to have their lives handed to them. In that respect, Gypsy Rose Lee is very much like the Everleigh sisters.

Can you share with us something unexpected you've learned about Gypsy Rose Lee?
I am at the very beginning stages of my research, but I'm starting out in an intriguing place. Gypsy Rose Lee was a woman who never knew her true name or birth date. She was a pure blank canvas, and she was able to become the most publicized woman in the world with, as she put it, "no talent at all."

Do your neighbors in Philadelphia and Atlanta demand to know why you're not writing about your former and current home towns?
No one has given me grief yet... Philly reminds me of Chicago in many ways; it's a city full of character and soul. If you read "Paper Trails," by Pete Dexter (a compilation of his columns from the Philadelphia Daily News) you'll see what I mean. Both Philly and Atlanta have rich histories, and I might very well mine them in the future.

What's the fun itinerary you have planned for Rick Kogan's visit to Atlanta?
Kogan, the only sure thing on the itinerary is a trip to the Claremont Lounge. They have a 60-year-old stripper there who is nationally renowned for crushing beer cans with her breasts. It's not the kind of place you want to frequent too often-you have to burn your clothes the next morning-but I think Kogan would enjoy it.

How does it feel to be the 190th person interviewed for
Great--I appreciate the interest. Word of mouth means everything to a first-time author. And it's always nice to connect with someone who shares an interest in Chicago history, so thanks for having me.

More interviews here!