Tag Archives: Karen Abbott

A Journey to the Center of the Earth

ROW Check in!

The To Do List: 

  • Finish First Draft of Women’s Fiction Piece – Write at least 4x week and complete 4-10 pages at least each day.
  • Read On Writing by Stephen King– First book of my Catch up on Craft Initiative
  • Read 2 Fiction Books a Month– I have 3 books going right now, so I need to skedaddle!
  • Prepare for Summer Vacation – Joe and I are planning a road trip out west in two weeks, so I will need to get blog posts prepped ahead, stock up on sunscreen, do the laundry that is mounding in my closet, and corral all the camping gear up in the next weeks.
  • Read Suze Orman’s Women and Money– I’s working on my savings!!!  *jingles piggy bank*
  • Be a Role Model and Cheerleader in my ROW80 Sponsor Role

The Rundown:

I’ll completely fess up that the whole page count goal and specific titles to read did not happen.  Not for lack of want, but just other interferences.  You might let me off the hook if I told you I led 4 full day trainings, made two trips out of town and worked a 15 hour day to complete a Fine Jewelry reticketing project.  Basically when I got home, I ate and then fell asleep on the couch in my work clothes.

I promise to have new pages to show by the next check in.  If I don’t, you have permission to publicly flog me.

What I Did Accomplish:

  • I was reading!  I finished both Blessings by Anna Quindlen and Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovich.  Got 2 entries in my library’s adult summer reading program!  Made great headway on These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf and started American Rose by Karen Abbott!
  • Also managed to cross off one more thing on the Summer Bucket List!  Joe and I visited Niagara Cave in Harmony, Minnesota!

Look how excited I am!!!

Excuse me, your flow rock is invading my blog post…

  • I am working on blogging ahead so when Joe and I are on vacation you won’t forget me!  I’ll be able to read and comment from my phone easily enough, and with 5 hours in the car, I’ll have time to hit up more blogs, which means more ROW cheerleading!!!
  • Other big news for the week is my fangirl dreams came true when New York Times Bestselling author Karen Abbott agreed to do an interview with me on my blog!  I would love for you guys to pop over and meet her; she’s been fabulous to work with!  Plus, she’s offering a FREE copy of her new book American Rose:  A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee!  Leave a comment here and enter to win!

Your turn!  How have you kept busy this past week?

Interview with NYTBS Author Karen Abbott: Why She’s a Better Writer Than Lifeguard

I’ve been hinting at it for weeks now.  And the day is finally here!  I’m so pleased to welcome New York Times Bestselling Author Karen Abbott as a Featured Writer on the Happiness Project.

Karen is author of the historical nonfiction hits, Sin in the Second City and American Rose.  Now, I’m a big fan of history as it is, but if you ask me, Karen has some of the coolest stuff around illustrating her research and her passion for this genre!  Her websites are some of my all time favorites!  There’s KarenAbbott.net, SinInTheSecondCity.com, and AmericanRoseTheBook.com.  Just look at her book trailer for American Rose!  She’s got blurbs from authors Kathryn Stockett (The Help) and Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.)

Before I reach total fangirl overload, I better let you meet Karen for yourselves.

*****

Describe yourself in three words.

12th House Pluto (it’s an astrological aspect in my natal chart–I’m a bit of an astrology buff). But if you read the descriptions it’s very fitting… 
Tell us about your first job.

I was a lifeguard for a small pool at an apartment complex when I was in high school. I was easily the worst lifeguard ever–more interested in reading and tanning than in potentially saving lives. I got fired after a resident called to complain that I was “rotating with the sun.” My first real job (in journalism) was as a listings editor at a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia. 
What led you into journalism?
I’d always wanted to be a lawyer, but during my junior year I got an internship at Philadelphia magazine, and fell in love with journalism. I worked as a journalist in Philly for six years before trying my hand at book-length narrative nonfiction.
How’d you come across the story of Ada and Minna Everleigh?  
As a journalist in Philadelphia, I wrote about crime, murder, sex, shady politics, and plenty of characters with charismatic sleaze—but never about history. My interest in the past began with a piece of family lore: in 1905, my great-grandmother and her sister emigrated to America from Ljubljana, Slovenia. One weekend the sister boarded a train for Chicago and was never heard from again. On a whim, I began going through that year’s archives of the Chicago Tribune, and stumbled upon the murder of department store scion Marshall Field Jr. When I read the rumor that he’d been shot in a luxurious brothel called the Everleigh Club, I forgot all about my missing relative and started researching the Club’s enigmatic proprietors, sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh, and the national culture war that erupted when a motley crew of reformers tried to shut them down.
You must have had an amazing time doing research!  What kinds of fun places did you go?

One of my favorite collections was at the University of Illinois at Chicago–it’s called the “Lawrence J. Gutter Collection of Chicagoana,” and it includes the “Vic Shaw Family Album.” (Vic Shaw was another madam in the Levee district and the Everleigh sisters’ greatest nemesis; she tried to frame them twice for murder.) The album features a picture of Vic Shaw’s “whipper”–the person in charge of disciplining the prostitutes. Her name was “Lil the Whipper” and she looked more like a prim headmistress than a savage enforcer: hair in a bun, horn-rimmed glasses, thin, tight-lipped smile. But the caption beneath reads: “Lil the Whipper: Beat 1,000 prostitutes bloody.” Apparently it was a badge of honor. 
I’m convinced the Everleigh sisters were feminists of their day!  What do you think made them so successful?

I think both the sisters and Gypsy Rose Lee tapped into a fundamental element of human nature: we’re always going to want most what we can’t have. The sisters, for example, were the first cathouse proprietors to apply the inverse formula for success: The more difficult it is to gain entry to an establishment, the greater the number of people who vie to do so. And Gypsy, of course, because famous for being the “Intellectual Stripper” whose act was more tease than strip. I first became intrigued by Gypsy from a story my grandmother told me. Her cousin went to see Gypsy perform in 1935. “She took fifteen minutes to peel off a glove,” the cousin reportedly said, “and she was so damn good at it I would’ve gladly give her fifteen more.” Who else but Gypsy could make the simple act of peeling off a glove so compelling that one would be willing to watch it for a full half hour? 
You made the city of Chicago just as much a character as the Everleigh sisters.  How did you go about defining place so descriptively in your book?

I’d never been to Chicago before I began researching Sin in the Second City, but I fell in love with the city right away. I spent countless hours in the historical society and the library, going through archives and old newspapers. I also walked around the city, looking for locations I mention in the book. The former address of the Everleigh Club is now the site of the Hillard Homes, a public housing project.
You’re also a contributing writer for the Smithsonian.  How’d you get involved with them?

They approached my friend, author Mike Dash, who writes really fantastic, incredibly researched historical narrative nonfiction. They needed another blogger, and he very kindly suggested me. I really enjoy writing for them. It gives me a chance to explore little pockets of forgotten history that would probably never work as a full-length book. 

Your newest book tells the story of burlesque sensation, Gypsy Rose Lee.  You were able to actually connect with both her son, Erik Preminger, and her sister, June Havoc.  What was that like?  (See full story here.)

Erik was really generous with his time and insights, telling me anecdotes that had never been published before. For example, Gypsy’s memoir contains a scene in which her mother accidentally shoots a cow while they’re camping. Erik implied that it wasn’t actually a cow at all but someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time… And talking with June Havoc was like time traveling back to the 1920s. The first time I met her she was 96 and had been bedridden for years; I couldn’t imagine how frustrating it must’ve been for someone who had been dancing since the age of two to lose the use of her legs. She had her white hair done up in these little pigtails and was eating her favorite snack of Oreos and milk. She was still gorgeous but fierce; I had the feeling that, if she were so inclined, she could leap up from that bed and strangle me with her bare hands. She shared many stories about her relationship with Gypsy–they were sort of death bed confessions. I was the last person to interview her before she died, and it was truly an honor. 


Were you nervous to write about such legendary women – the Everleighs and Gypsy?


There are always moments when I feel like the project is impossible. I think it’s inevitable for any writer. Some days you just wake up and feel like a fraud.
What was most rewarding about depicting these women’s prodigious lives?

Bringing them back to life, even for just a little while. I wish I’d been able to live their lives, but writing about them is the next best thing. 
You’ve achieved every writer’s dream – New York Times Bestselling Status! What was your first thought when that happened?

My editor immediately called me and just said one word, “Bask.” I tried to do that as best as I could, but I’m not a natural bask-er. I did have some champagne, though–before noon!–and got the page framed.
 
How do you stay up to date on our rapidly changing industry?

When I’m in the midst of drafting a book, I try to unplug from that as much as possible. If I get too caught up in the business aspect of publishing, I just end up obsessing over things I can’t control. The book is the only thing I can control. 
What writers/bloggers are you currently following?

I’m immersed in Civil War material–just finished 1861 by Adam Goodheart. It’s a fascinating, multi-layered perspective of the first year of the war. 
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

This, from novelist (and fellow former Philly journalist) Jennifer Weiner: Write to please yourself. Tell the story that’s been growing in your heart, the characters you can’t keep out of your head, the tale that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning. Don’t write something just because you think it will sell. Tell the story you want to tell, and don’t give up. 
What writers have you met on your career that have been the most inspiring?
Probably Erica Jong. She’s brilliant, a feminist icon, and also so warm and supportive and generous. The Everleigh sisters and Gypsy would’ve loved her. Also Erik Larson. Knowledgable about journalism, history, and the best way to make a martini. 

What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment to date?


Professionally, hitting the printed New York Times bestseller list. Personally, managing to keep my husband (and college sweetheart) around for 16 years…
What’s next on your goal list?

Currently I’m trying to polish up a draft of the year 1862. One of my spies has just been arrested. Another, disguised as a man and serving in the Union army, is falling in love with a fellow soldier. 
What’s the best joke you know?

I found this joke while researching American Rose. When NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called burlesque “entertainment for morons and perverts” he was referring not only to striptease, but also to burlesque comedy. Here’s an example of a typical burlesque joke (warning: it’s neither lewd nor funny!) 


MAN: Baby, when are you gonna marry me? 

WOMAN: I can’t marry you–it’s Lent!

MAN: Well can’t you get it back for a few days? 

*cue groaning* 

In the 1980s, shortly before he died, burlesque impresario Morton Minsky wrote a letter to the New York Times saying he wished LaGuardia had lived to see what happened to Times Square in the 1970s: the live sex shows, the open prostitution, the general seediness, etc. He said the mayor might have then reconsidered his complaints about burlesque. He had a point…
Any lasting words of advice?

Get out of your own head as much as possible.
 
*****
Karen Abbott is the author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose, both New York Times bestsellers. She is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for Disunion, the New York Times series about the Civil War. A native of Philadelphia, where she worked as a journalist, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter. She’s at work on her next book, a true story of four daring (and not entirely scrupulous) Civil War spies who risked everything for their cause.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings!  Karen is offering one lucky commenter a FREE copy of

American Rose!  

Leave a comment before Thursday, 5pm CST, and winner will be announced on Friday’s post!

Oops, there’s Vic Shaw, guess the party’s over!  See you in the comments section!

For more fun, check out Karen’s interview with Beauty and the Book owner, Kathy Patrick!  They go vintage shopping together!  Learn how to make your own Gypsy Rose Lee outfit!

Madams, Ministers, and Playboys

Allow me to transport you back in time to the early 1900’s when cities were just sprouting up around the country all vying to make a name for themselves.  And the charming Everleigh Sisters, Minna and Ada, were in search of a place to set up shop.  So begins our journey into New York Times Bestselling biography, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul.

     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 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, Suzy Poon Tang, 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 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, including 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 colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic 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.

If we’re going to be discussing a book about brothels, we’ve got to set the tone a little.  Maestro, la musique!

Due to an increase of work travel I’ve had, I picked up this historical gem at my library (who will be hosting it as part of their Chapters Book Discussion, but not until May 2012 and I couldn’t wait that long to read it).  So, I grabbed the audio copy and let the daring, and need I say, revealing story of the Everleigh sisters unfold.

Ada and Minna Everleigh

We’ll start at the beginning.  Ada, the elder sister, though she’d never say and lied for many years about the truth of her age, was the quiet and intelligent brains behind the brothel.  She was relied upon to always have just the right words to use when interviewing wishful new courtesans, making deals with the police, and escorting gentlemen out of the club when their checkbooks became sparse.  Minna dealt with promotion of the The Everleigh Club, disciplined the harlots when necessary, and mingled in the parlor with “her boys.”

What the Everleighs, also known as The Scarlett Sisters, set out to do was never before seen or heard in any levee district of its time.  They traveled to all the top brothels and spoke to the best madams.  They listened to the advice of those who had come before them, and then they shaped it into the destination of choice for all men of money, including royalty.

The Japanese Thrown Room

They chose a two-story house in the middle of the Levee District of Chicago, an already notorious town for it’s moneymakers and fine tricks.  Every room was lavishly decorated.  Rich fabrics, fresh florals, a gold piano.  Fountains of the god Dionysus, whom the sisters felt a close kinship to.

Every man who entered went through more security checks than current airport scans.  The Everleighs requested bank statements from their guests, and charged scandalous rates that offered them their dream’s desires.  They catered to big shots like Marshall Field Jr., Lionel Barrymore, and even the Prince of Prussia.

As for the girls, the Everleigh club was not one to house aging, pick-pocket queens with too much rouge and fishnet that barely concealed.  Minna and Ada made sure their courtesans wore evening gowns, ate gourmet meals, were seen by a physician, and even received an education while living in the mansion.  Minna dubbed them “the Everleigh Butterflies” as she was so fond of the creatures’ ability to transform into something beautiful.

Portrait of Minna Everleigh

Of course there were bound to be bad apples and snafus in the road to pleasure infamy.  Before the Everleighs came to town, the Levee District was run by Madam Vic Shaw, an overly-plump sourpuss who bribed “butterflies” to share information, plant evidence, or come to her club instead.  Twice Vic Shaw tried to pin murder on the Everleigh’s, and with one dead body of retail heir, Marshall Field Jr., things looked bleak.

Young Madam Vic Shaw

But Shaw wasn’t the only problem.  With the rise of human rights issues brought about by the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reformers were now demanding change against “white slavery.”  Newspaper stories and court trials flared up speaking of kidnapped girls, sold girls, raped and forced to pay for debts that shouldn’t be their own. Women would do well not to leave their homes and families unescorted and to never partake of the drink, lest they be drugged and wake up finding themselves far from home in one perverted prison.

The Everleigh Club

But the Everleigh sisters did not run that kind of brothel.  They actually agreed with the raising of the legal age for consent from 13 to 16.  And they made sure their courtesans would want for nothing, keeping them paid well above their competitors so that these women might be able to support those that depended on them.  Minna and Ada gave explicit directions about what to eat and when to eat, keeping their butterflies looking as young and healthy as possible.

Despite their field of business, Ada and Minna were incredibly smart businesswomen.  They kept up with current events, who the competition was, and they were trendsetters.  One example that you may have heard of is sipping champagne from a shoe?  It became custom at all the noteworthy venues of Chicago’s 1900’s after one Everleigh Butterfly lost her shoe dancing on the table for the Prince of Prussia.  When one of his men picked up the shoe that had tipped his champagne glass and spilled inside it, he cracked a joke and sipped the bubbly out of the shoe, proclaiming himself most fortunate to drink from the shoe of such an exquisite dancer.  Soon every man at the party was tearing off the shoes of the nearest courtesan and pouring their champagne inside them to drink.

Karen Abbott

As for the author, Karen Abbott lives in New York and credits “sixteen years of Catholic school, a tenure that gave her a freakishly photographic memory, a tendency toward rebellion, and a finely tuned sense of guilt” to helping her write this book.  Her website is full of fascinating links to all things burlesque and history.  Her second book, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee picks up where she left off, in the roaring 20’s and looks equally titillating.  I highly recommend checking out the book’s trailer on the page I linked to.  I’m giddy with excitement.  I’m definitely adding this title to my “to read” selection.

What’s your opinion?  Do the Everleigh Sisters sound like colossal businesswomen or strumpets of the night?  Would you want a chance to go back in time and meet an Everleigh Butterfly?  Would you drink champagne from a shoe?

I love hearing from you!  What’s on your mind?

***And be sure to tune in again on Friday for the Life List Club’s First Ever Milestone Party!  All contributors are giving away some awesome prizes to commentors, sharing our progress on our goals, and we want to hear what life lessons and accomplishments you’ve achieved so far!  Be there or be square, my pretties!***

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