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.