12 Days of Books: Lovely Little Lies

by Karen Abbott (Wonders & Marvels contributor)

“History is a set of lies agreed upon,” Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, and that adage stayed with me throughout the three years I spent researching Sin in the Second City, which tells the true story of two sisters who ran the world’s most famous brothel in early 1900s Chicago. Madams Minna and Ada Everleigh operated in a world where illusion was the most valuable currency, and, like most women in their profession, they were fantastic liars—especially when asked about themselves. The sisters tried on identities the way men in lesser houses tried on whores, picking over a lineup before selecting the prettiest one.

During my research I discovered a 1989 letter from a Virginia woman named Evelyn Diment to the writer Irving Wallace, who had published a novel and an essay about the Everleigh sisters. “Dear Mr. Wallace,” it began, “In your author’s note, you write at some length about your meeting and friendship with the Everleigh sisters… almost all of what they told you was a fabrication of the truth (a total lie), I know, because these two women were my Great Aunts. The real truth of their career beginnings were sordid and they were subjected to degradation, not even spoken about ever until the last several years.”

I found this letter in 2006 and began a frantic search for Evelyn Diment in the hope that she was still alive, writing to every Diment I could find in directories, public records, and archives. I had just about given up when I received a phone call from a man who introduced himself as William Diment.

“I have Evelyn Diment right next to me,” he said. “She’s my great aunt, and she’s 85. Would you like to speak with her?”

“Yes!” I said (and silently added, “And please hurry because she’s 85!”)

And so Evelyn proceeded to fill me in on the truth—as best as she knew it—of the sisters’ real history. They hailed not from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia but from Bluegrass Country down in Louisville, Kentucky. Yes, their father had once been a wealthy lawyer, but he had lost all of his money during the Civil War. The sisters did join a traveling stock company, but they hadn’t, as they’d claimed, traded the stage for the red light district by chance. Instead their desperate father pushed them into prostitution so they could help support the family. “They made a marvelous success out of it,” Evelyn said. She concluded our conversation by saying that the sisters valued discretion above all else, and never told the truth for fear of shaming their family.

After the book was published in 2007 I heard from numerous readers who had a connection to either the Everleigh sisters or to Chicago during that time. One man told me that his grandfather was a lookout man for Big Jim Colosimo, a gangster who operated a nearby brothel and befriended the sisters. At one reading, a little old lady—she had to be in her 80s—hobbled up to me on her walker. She looked to her right, then to her left, and then leaned and said, very quietly, “My aunt was a whore.” The caretaker of St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, where the sisters are buried, grew so enamored with their story that he bought a plot for himself right next to their graves.

But my favorite stories came from a man named William Self, a prominent television and movie producer whose fascination with the Everleigh sisters began when he attended the University of Chicago in the early 1940s. He started corresponding with Minna and Ada, who sent him incredible relics from their lives: a glass ashtray imprinted with Minna’s photograph; a copy of Minna’s novel, Poets, Prophets, and Gods; and even Minna’s old bed. He tried to visit them in New York but the sisters always refused. When Minna died in 1948, Ada moved to live with a relative in Virginia. In 1957, three years before she died, the 93-year-old former madam invited Will and his wife to visit her.

During dinner in Ada’s kitchen they discussed the weather and the latest movies. Will was getting impatient; he longed to ask questions about the old days in Chicago but didn’t want to offend his host. Eventually his wife excused herself and went to bed. As soon as they were alone, Ada leaned forward and said, “I know you’ve been dying to ask me about the Everleigh Club, so this is your chance.”

Will considered what to say. He might only get a single question, so it had to be a good one. He recalled one of the most famous legends about the Everleigh Club: that Marshall Field Jr., son of the department store scion, was shot in its parlor during a fight with a prostitute. He asked, “Is it true that Marshall Field Jr. was shot inside the Club?”

Ada thought for a moment. She smiled and replied, “No, dear, but we bought all of our furniture in his store.”

It was a lie, Will knew, and the best one he’d ever heard.

Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. Her next book, a true story of four female Civil War spies, will be published by HarperCollins in 2014.

 

  • Winner!

    I would love to be your first winner!

  • Waylon Wood

    This is a fascinating story. Karen Abbott has taken us into a small, intimate story that reflects the scope of history outside it. We walk into the past with these wonderful women.

    • KarenAbbott

      Thanks, everyone! I had a lot of fun with the Everleigh sisters and their “butterflies,” as they called their girls…

  • Jen R

    Your book sounds fascinating! I love spicy histories.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mithradates Mithradates Eupator

    layers upon layers of juicy tales!

  • Madam Black-eyed Susan

    Huzzah! I love this book.

    • http://www.facebook.com/authorkarenabbott Karen Abbott

      Thanks, everyone! I had a lot of fun researching the Everleigh sisters and their “butterflies,” as they were called…

  • Sheila

    sounds like a fascinating book!

  • Ancetre7

    Sounds absolutely fascinating! I’d love to win a copy!!!

  • River

    Count me in for the drawing. I’m a Chicago resident and always excited to learn more about my city!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sallykilpatrick Sally Kilpatrick

    You don’t have to put me in for the drawing because I’ve already read the book. I just wanted to add how much I loved it! Awesome book.

  • Jill

    It would make my Christmas a bit brighter to win a great read- thanks!! Jill

  • Adam

    Please put me in the drawing, I’d love to have a signed copy!

  • Estelle Ford-Williamson

    As a historical fiction writer from Atlanta who’s also lived and written in Chicago, I’m intrigued! And I’m looking forward to following the blog.

  • Michael Sullivan

    So many delightful stories, including the origin of champagne from a lady’s slipper. I also enjoyed your “American Rose.”

  • Sizzle History Fan

    What do you have sizzling for fans next Ms Abbott?

  • Herb Baker

    Just started reading “Second City” today. Looks like it’s going to be a great read! Can’t wait for Karen’s next book about the Civil War.

  • http://twitter.com/Snufkin Snufkin

    I just saw this in a local bookstore and put it on my To Read list!

  • http://twitter.com/ladycrumpet ladycrumpet

    Enjoyed the backstories. Will definitely check out the book!

  • http://unabridged-expression.blogspot.com/ Audra (Unabridged Chick)

    Been dying to read this one — what a fabulous stroke of luck meeting Evelyn Diment — that’s the kind of twist I love in novels!

  • http://profiles.google.com/r0bb2323 Robert Beatty

    My fiancee wants to read this, so I’m in.

  • http://twitter.com/CelticLady1953 Kathleen Kelly

    I would love to read this book…sounds very interesting and definitely a topic worth reading!! Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/authorkarenabbott Karen Abbott

    Thanks, everyone! Will draw the winner’s name soon and let you know.

  • Veronica

    I happened upon this by chance, but Karen Abbot you are most definitely an author I whose work I will read. This book sounds interesting and a signed copy would be read and appreciated!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kelli-Gardner-Bell/606932034 Kelli Gardner Bell

    This sounds absolutely fascinating! Can’t wait to read it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tarotbyarwen Stephanie Arwen Lynch

    Wow. This sounds incredible.

  • Elissa Lindberg

    This looks incredibly interesting!

  • cyndi

    I would love to win this book!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mona.sydd.yma Mona Everett

    Don’t you just love it when the skeletons come out of the closet?

  • http://www.talknewstome.com/ Matthew Brown

    Wow, I hadn’t heard of this book but it sounds brilliant.

  • Leigh

    I would adore a copy of this book. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas Karen. Thank you for great reads.

  • http://twitter.com/DDisciplines Mari Miller

    I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it.

  • librarypat

    It is interesting how stories get started and the truth bent to fit or sometimes not included at all. I knew my grandfather had been a rum runner from the border near Montreal down to NYC, but the only part of that we ever heard was about his ditching the loaded car into Lake Champlain to avoid the law. My brother has been doing family history research and has dug up so many more interesting information. It really is unfortunate when there is a race against time to interview people before time takes them from us.

    It will be very interesting to find out these women’s stories from the more truthful point of view.

    I look forward to your next book. It is good that more information is coming to light about the role women played during the Civil War.

  • http://twitter.com/truebookaddict Michelle Miller

    Wow! What a great story behind the book. I love it! Nothing like history. I always say that the best stories come from history. Thanks for the chance to win!

  • emily jane

    This sounds like a thrilling read. I would love to know more about brothels in America, having only studied those in Britain

  • emily jane

    Sounds like a thrilling read! I would love to learn more about American brothels, only ever having studied those in Britain during that time.

  • joe

    Chicago history is the best history.

  • jbena27

    Looks fascinating and I always love stuff involving Chicago

  • http://www.holly-tucker.com Holly Tucker

    Congratulations, Audra!