Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott~★★★1/2

Author: Karen Abbott
Title: Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul
Release Date: July 10, 2007
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history---and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago's notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club's proprietors, two aristocratic (or so they said) sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons into their stately double mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh "butterflies" awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Diamond Bertha, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. Whereas lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot's earnings and kept a 'whipper' on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and were even tutored in the literature of Balzac. 
Not everyone appreciated the sisters' attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. But the sisters' most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of "white slavery"---the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America's sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, even leading to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 
With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, 'Hinky Dink' Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City is Karen Abbott's portrait of the maverick Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation's hedonistic impulses and Puritanical roots. Culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers, Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America's journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity."

Taryn's Review: I had seen this book at Barnes and Noble one evening and thought it looked interesting, yet I promptly forgot about it as I headed out of the store. It wasn't until I was moseying around the library that I saw the book again, remembered that I had wanted to read it, and into my bag it went.

The topic of this book was really intriguing. I knew nothing about this particular club or Chicago's red light district, so I delved into this book without background knowledge on the subject. The beginning of the book was really fascinating; Abbott discussed the Everleigh sisters' background and their family life as children and teens. They apparently married and moved to Nebraska, yet years later they left their spouses behind to head to Chicago (a quick Google search contradicts Abbott's information; other sites say there is no evidence the sisters were ever married). There seemed to be a rather large gap in the history of the women, since Abbott revealed that it wasn't until the sisters were in their thirties that they reinvented their identities, scoped out prospective cities for their business, and settled in Chicago. The Everleigh Club opened in February 1900 and closed in 1911.

While the book is non-fiction, Abbott wrote the book with dialogue and thoughts from the sisters, along with other characters. Abbott cited sources at the end of the book, but there were no footnotes or corresponding numbers to connect the sources to specific events or people discussed in the book. Thus, I can only assume that Abbott made up these "talking" sequences to appeal to the reader.

The middle and ending of the book took on a different tone than the beginning of the book. Abbott spent much of the text acquainting the reader with the characters from the reform movements, but the people I wanted to know the most about were the "butterflies" that kept the Everleigh Club in business. However, very few of the butterflies' histories or fates were mentioned in the book. While I can sympathize with the fact that sources might be lacking regarding the women, a sort of generalized profile of the women would have been really helpful to the reader.  Also, the content of the middle and end of the book felt less objective than the beginning had, which could be due to the fact that Abbott relied heavily on a source that turned out to be rather biased in its understanding of the Everleigh sisters.

Karen Abbott tackled a large undertaking and in her acknowledgement section she thanked authors Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen for their guidance. Both women are talented writers in the fiction community, yet the fictitious elements in this book (the conversation aspects and character thought pieces) were, in my opinion, not the best angle for this book. Ultimately, the book is a great popular history read, but it left me with more questions that the book didn't answer, especially regarding the sisters. If you're looking for an interesting popular history on a subject you may not have ever considered, this book makes for a good read. The dryness in parts of the book and the loose citations caused me to rate the book lower, but the subject definitely demanded attention from those unaware of the bawdy underworld present at the turn of the century, which when described, sounded eerily similar to those still present in large cities today.

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