Chapter 8: Lib
Knowed Lib?” said Flow. “I’ll say I knowed her. I knowed her when she opened her first house on south Main Street in 1876, sellin’ beer for a nickel a glass. I knowed her when she went out o’ business in 1915, sellin’ it for a dollar a bottle. And I knowed her when she died in 1923, worth a million and a half – and every cent of it made in the sportin’ house business.”
Flo’s estimate of Lib’s wealth is a trifle generous, but her knowledge of Lib herself is based upon a long and devoted friendship. For fifteen years their maisons de joie nearly adjoined each other. Throughout this extended period of friendly competition they gossiped, exchanged vigorous if unorthodox views of religion and philosophy, complained about the scandalous misbehavior of their more boisterous patrons, borrowed butter and eggs from each other, and wrangled over nothing, as good neighbors always do.
Lib was a truly a magnificent woman. Tall, of fine figure and carriage, coarse of feature and robust of voice, inclined in her later years to an impressive embonpoint, and possessed of a splendid dignity. Her hennaed hair, in a massive and rolling pompadour, rose high over her flashing eyes. And her statuesque bust emerged triumphantly from the frilled and ruffled elegance of the gowns of a generation ago.
Only the spacious and leisurely Nineties could have produced Lib in her full glory. Life was easy, good-natured, unhurried. Shade trees still lined Main Street. Horse-drawn carriages rolled slowly along dusty unpaved avenues. Bands played in the Library Park on summer evenings. Hofbrau-Haus and been garden served foaming brew to thousands who sluiced it down grateful throats without consciousness of mortal sin.
The movies and the radio had not arrived as yet. The old Victoria Theatre was virtuous and deadly dull; and the Casino, playing melodrama and burlesque, was just as dull and almost as virtuous. The local sporting gentry got an occasional kick when stranded carnival troupes showed to men only in the dingy upstairs fraternal hall on Jefferson Street.
Ladies were ladies, in billowing skirts which swept the ground – and an ankle was an event. Gentlemen were gents. They parted their hair in the middle and wore sweeping curled moustaches. Sartorial elegance demanded poke collars, Ascot ties, round cuffs, tight pants and pointed patent-leather shoes.
Vice was an alluring crimson secret – a forbidden subject throughout respectable society. Now and then purity thundered from the pulpit, and an occasional newspaper editor yawned as he listened to the plaintive appeals of Methodist Committees who wanted to see lust exposed in the public prints. But Righteousness, garbed in black sateen adorned with cameo brooches, and escorted by rusty-black frock coats and white-string ties, had not as yet become uncontrollably militant.
The Line flourished. There was Lib herself. And there were Cleo LaBelle, Ferne De Marr, Fay Fontana, Flo Dowdie – these and more than a dozen others. Opulent ladies, with opulent if over-gorgeous tastes. There was nothing furtive about them – their names were lettered boldly upon the red-glass transoms of their front doors. They chaperoned sin openly. They lived high, wide and handsome. They were rough, tough and ready.
And they were generous to a fault – generous not only in their fullness and glory, but also in departing this vale of tears. Ferne De Marr’s will made bequests to most of her best customers – and a leading citizen found himself the embarrassed heir to a horse and buggy.
Lib was in her early twenties when the Civil War was fought, and thus much of her history is shrouded in the mists of time. She married some time during the Sixties, but after a few years her spouse departed unostentatiously, leaving her to shift for herself.
This she did at first by entering domestic service in the home of a prominent barrister of the day. But the narrow confines of such a career were scarcely suited to Lib’s native talents, and in 1876 – “the year Goldsmith Maid won the sweepstakes at the County Fair,” as Flo put it – Lib opened her first bordello.
That she had found her appointed sphere became apparent immediately, for she prospered from the very start. She had a flair for attracting the carriage trade. Her elegant manners, the florid luxury of her house, the alluring charms of her carefully selected maidens – all these appealed strongly to the gentlemen of the fashionable world. The bucks and dandies of the day flocked to enjoy her genial hospitality.
Within a few short years she had accumulated enough capital to erect the lavish palace of sin which she occupied during the greater part of her career. Located conveniently close to the center of town in what was then a substantial residential district, it was a many-gabled house of red pressed brink, trimmed freely with elaborately carved white stone. Lib named it the Bon Ton Hotel.
Through its parlors there passed, for more than a generation, not only the gay young blades of the town, but – more discreetly and perhaps less frequently – leading citizens of more mature years. Bankers and merchants, judges and lawyers, city officials and the politicians who had made them. Lib welcomed them all, with a deference nicely shaded to their wealth and importance in the community.
The money rolled in, and it developed that Lib had a shrewd sense for investment. She bought real estate here and there throughout the town, being possessed at one time of more than a hundred pieces of property. She became the owner of a large block of stock in one of the street railway companies. And she is also said to have invested substantially in one of the leading mercantile establishments.
This last-named venture occasioned some surprise locally, as the proprietor of the business was a devout pillar of the church. It is probable that he experienced some preliminary qualms about accepting Lib’s scarlet-tinted dollars. But perhaps he felt assured, after resorting to counsel from above, that the purity of his own business methods would cleanse Lib’s ill-gotten shekels – especially if he would see to it that some of them, when fumigated, found their way into the coffers of the Lord.
With the turn of the century, it became apparent that the Righteous were increasing their power and that their chief objective was the overthrowing of Lib and her professional sisters. It pained Lib considerably to note that several of her former customers, some of whom still owed her money, were appearing on committees which were frankly out to do away with sin, and were apparently making some progress in what they thought was that direction. She was irked, too, by the increasing severity of police regulations: the first step in the reform campaign. But she never violated any of these regulations, and indeed could be counted on by the police to see that the other madams lived up to them too. Her retirement came in 1915, when the Hosts of the Lord swept the field triumphant and the chief of police ordered the houses closed. As set forth in the preceding chapter, most of the madams fought the order until subdued by repeated police raids. But Lib closed immediately.
She spent her declining years in the now silent and darkened Bon Ton Hotel; lived to see the farce of Prohibition begun; and remarked that if the world was getting that crazy she was ready to leave it. She died in 1923, mourned privately by many of the private citizens, and publicly by none of them.
Three local business magnificoes – for a fee of seventy-five dollars each – appraised her estate. It amounted to approximately half a million dollars – an estate which was distinguished among other fortunes not only by its size, but by the rigid honesty which attended its accumulation.
The Bon Ton Hotel was characterized by an almost overpowering elegance. Behind its stately brick façade there lay a number of parlors whose furnishing scheme may perhaps be best described as early Pullman. There was a wealth of massive mahogany and red plush. Ball-fringe curtains and bamboo portieres hung in the doorways. The inlaid Brussels carpets displayed a profusion of exotic and overblown flora; and to further cushion the feet of the customers there were rugs which depicted in their designs the charming gambols of very small children and very large Newfoundland dogs.
The art treasures which hung upon the walls were selected primarily on account of the opulence of their elaborate gilt frames. And if their subjects were inclined to display rather freely the generous curves of Oriental anatomy, it must also be said that at crucial points the wind-tossed drapery indulged in gestures of Puritan modesty.
Whatnots stood in the corners, amply stocked with sea shells and ruby-colored pressed-glass goblets, etched with the romantic words “Niagara Falls.” Statuary abounded – the coy shepherdess, the sweet-faced boy eternally dangling the bunch of grapes, and the turbaned Nubian slave.
Through this magnificence moved Lib, each word and gesture in the grand manner. She greeted her patrons in florid style, ushering them ceremoniously into one of the parlors, summoning her girls as a couturier does his models, admonishing one of the colored maids with a single frigid glance. She dressed always in what she assumed to be the height of the fashion – sweeping gowns, frilled, ruffled and bespangled. And she made her girls dress in the same way. The kimonos which prevailed widely in similar establishments were barred in her house. When the curtain rose on the evening festivities the gentlemen callers found their hostesses arrayed in the gaudiest creations of the day.
Lib insisted on an atmosphere of refinement in whatever gayety was afoot. Coarse language and bawdy goings-on were prohibited in the parlors. One memorable occasion several of the young ladies were entertaining the patrons by attempting to kick the chandelier. One of them, in the enthusiasm of her effort, was overtaken by a gusty anatomical breach of etiquette which was still reverberating through the parlor as Lib, sumptuously gowned in plum-colored velvet, appeared in the doorway. She raised the lorgnette which she affected, slowly swept the room with a haughty stare, and asked, with a drawl which would have been the envy of any dowager, “W-h-a-t l-a-d-y d-o-n-e t-h-a-t?”
But there were also occasions when she could be as tough as circumstances demanded. And when inspired, her language could put a cavalry sergeant to shame. One unfortunate gentleman was so careless as to refer to one of Lib’s girls, who had but recently passed to her reward, by a term vulgarly applied to ladies of that profession. Lib overheard him and marched into the room with a heavy poker in her capable right hand. After a searching verbal exposition of his parentage, morals, tastes and net worth to the community at large, she promised to brain him on the spot if he didn’t get down on his knees and apologize to every girl in her house – an alternative which he accepted with well advised alacrity.
Now and then Lib took her elegance abroad. On Monday nights it was her custom to occupy a box, together with several of her most ornamental young ladies at the Casino. On sunny afternoons, especially if her corps of young ladies had been recently augmented by a new and charming face, a two-horse Victoria rolled through the main streets in leisurely grandeur, occupied by Lib and two or three of her girls – the cynosure of all sophisticated eyes, though the recipients of few if any bows. These outings very happily served a double purpose. They provided enjoyable recreation for the inmates of the Bon Ton Hotel; and they also afforded that establishment dignified but effective publicity.
It was even suggested that Lib and her girls, together with a model of the Bon Ton, occupy a float in the grand parade during the city’s centennial celebration. Lib took the suggestion quite seriously and considered it at great length. But she finally rejected the idea as being a gesture too garish for the dignity and standing of herself and her house.
Related to her love of finery and display was Lib’s equally keen interest in persons of wealth and prominence. The youths of the wealthier families of the town always received at her house a welcome whose warmth did not arise entirely from the probable extent of their largesse. When there was a wedding in fashionable society, Lib was all agog, regardless of the fact that if often meant losing, at least for a time, one of her valued customers.
The high point in her social career was reached on the night when some of the local worthies brought to her house no less a luminary than John L. Sullivan, of imperishable fame, who was at that time barnstorming the country in company with Mr. William Muldoon. Lib welcomed them with queenly graciousness, paraded her girls in their very best, and engulfed them with a lavish outpouring of wine. Cultured and refined discourse held sway. The only regrettable incident of the evening occurred when the immortal John committed an indiscretion involving Lib’s kitchen sink, whereupon she added a piquant flavor to her hospitality by treating him to what was probably the worst tongue-lashing of his career.
Two city officials and two powers behind the political throne were at another time Lib’s guests on a trip to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And there is even a legend to the effect that a diphtheria quarantine placed on Lib’s house held incommunicado for ten days no less a dignitary than the mayor of the city.
It is altogether probable that Lib was a trifle short on both faith and hope; so that at this moment she may not be enjoying the ineffable bliss of the Methodist heaven. But there can be no doubt that she was long on charity, whether it involved public philanthropy or private generosity.
In respect to money matters, she was, like all great ladies, both large and small. In the morning she would spend an hour at a little dry-goods store near the Bon Ton haggling over the price of a spool of thread and a few yards of muslin. In the afternoon of the same day, with no ceremony other than a little good-natured profanity, she would give five hundred dollars to some worthwhile charity.
When the city suffered disaster by fire and flood, Lib was one of those called on for a subscription by the relief committee. She swore loud and long, bewailing the fact that the Bon Ton Hotel and fifty-one other pieces of her property had been in the area of the greatest damage. The committee wisely let her blow off steam. Finally she subsided. “Well, I suppose there’s others a lot worse off than me, so I guess I’d better do somep’n for ‘em. But you ain’t go’n to get much. I’ll give you two thousand dollars, and not another God damn cent.” The average subscription from other well-to-do citizens of the town had been somewhat less than a quarter of that amount.
For some years she made substantial donations to one of the hospitals. But eventually the hospital, controlled by the pious, adopted a policy prohibiting the admission of any of the girls from the Line. From that day forth her benevolence sought other channels.
When the Y.M.C.A. campaigned for a new building, Lib made a very generous subscription, which was accepted promptly though without public acclaim by the high priests of Christian Fellowship. In this case, however, it may not have been pure altruism on Lib’s part, as she remarked in making her donation: “Sure I’ll give something, and I’ll give all I can too: because lots o’ them boys down there is good customers o’ mine.”
Her generosity again displayed itself when the Y.W.C.A. conducted a similar campaign. She probably entertained a special sympathy for this organization, feeling that she too was conducting a home for girls. But this sympathy cooled somewhat in later years. It was rumored that when a young lady living at the Y.W. was indiscreet enough to slip into moral dereliction, she was promptly thrown out bag and baggage. Lib claimed that one of two of these, having been unable to reinstate themselves in the strata of a highly moral society, had applied for admission to her house. “Why, God damn it,” said Lib, “they talk about me runnin’ a whore house. I say they make whores down there.”
Wisdom and generosity tempered the administration of her own house. In the first place, she always wisely refrained from adding any local talent to her staff, keenly aware of the complications which might arise from such a practice. In the second, she always refused to receive into her house any girl who was not obviously a professional. Applicants who retained even a vestige of their amateur standing were not only refused admission, but in addition were regaled with a soul-searching sermon on the wages of sin which probably did them more good than a year’s regular attendance at Christian Endeavor rallies.
Lib treated her girls extraordinarily well. She set a lavish table. She never allowed them to get into debt to her; and she made them save their money. She gave them presents of clothes and jewelry. When they were ill she paid their doctors’ bills – and their hospital bills too. And when they died she buried them – elegantly, and in a cemetery lot which she had bought and dedicated exclusively to that purpose.
It was when one of her girls left the Bon Ton Hotel to enter into the holy bonds of wedlock that Lib’s benevolence reached its greatest height. She would say: “Now dearie, with you getting’ married and all, the first thing you need is a home. And I’m go’n to see that you get one.” Together they would select a house from the many that Lib owned. Then Lib would find out how much the prospective bridegroom could afford to pay for a home, and how fast he could afford to pay it. These things determined, the three of them would call on Lib’s attorney and enter into a contract of sale which usually transferred to new home at a price so low as to bring tears to the eyes of any honest realtor.
It is rather unlikely that Lib would look on the current estate of the city’s morals with any great measure of approval. She would find something highly offensive about the clandestine manner in which the present-day daughters of pleasure pursue their profession. Furtive gentlemen, slipping quietly into presumably respectable apartment houses and tapping gently on anonymous doors, would meet with her outspoken and profane disapproval. She would be shocked by the amorous sophistication of young ladies whose tender years, in her day, would have been considered a sufficient guaranty of chastity. And the complacent satisfaction which the Righteous feel in the present triumph of purity would arouse her deepest scorn.
But perhaps Lib is otherwise and more pleasantly concerned. Somewhere along one of the broad and sweeping boulevards which traverse the Elysian Fields there probably rises the astral counterpart of the Bon Ton Hotel. It is ablaze with light. Rabelaisian laughter is heard within, and the roaring chorus of a tavern ballad as the wassail bowl is passed from hand to hand. Benignly majestic, Lib sweeps through the many spacious parlors. And maidens ever young and ever beautiful bestow languishing glances upon the carousing patrons. Indeed, these patrons probably constitute a most distinguished company, including more than one of those whose names and deeds are emblazoned boldly upon the imperishable pages of the city’s history.
Return to "Big Town" Contents Page