Polly Adler

Pearl "Polly" Adler (April 16, 1900 – June 9, 1962)[1][2] was an American madam and author of Russian-Jewish origin, best known for her work A House Is Not a Home, which was posthumously adapted into a film of the same name.

Polly Adler
BornApril 16, 1900
Yanow, Belarus
DiedJune 9, 1962(1962-06-09) (aged 62)
OccupationMadam, author

Early life

The oldest of nine children of Gertrude Koval and Morris Adler, Polly was the daughter of a tailor who travelled throughout Europe on business. Her early education was from the village rabbi.[1][3][4] Polly Adler emigrated to America from Yanow, Russia, near the Polish border at the age of 12 just before World War I. The war stopped her family from joining her. She lived for a time with family friends in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she cleaned house and attended school, and at age 14, she began working in the local paper mill; the following year she moved to Brooklyn, living for a time with cousins.[1]

She worked as a seamstress, at clothing factories, and sporadically attended school. At 19, she began to enjoy the company of theater people in Manhattan, and moved into the apartment of an actress and showgirl on Riverside Drive in New York City. It was at this apartment that she was introduced to a local bootlegger and gangster, who offered to pay Adler if she would allow him and his girlfriend to use her apartment. She began to procure for him and his friends, and became successful as a madam.[1]

Bordello owner

She opened her first bordello in 1920, under the protection of mobster Dutch Schultz and a friend of mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano. One building in which she plied her trade was The Majestic at 215 West 75th Street, designed by architects Schwartz and Gross and completed in 1924 which contained hidden stairways and secret doorways.[5] Her brothel's patrons included Peter Arno, Harold Ross, Desi Arnaz,[6] George S. Kaufman,[7] Robert Benchley,[7] Dorothy Parker,[7] Milton Berle,[7] John Garfield,[7] New York City mayor Jimmy Walker, and mobster Dutch Schultz.[8] It has been theorized[9] that the New York State Supreme Court justice Joseph Force Crater, missing since Aug. 6, 1930, died in Polly Adler's brothel.

Adler was a shrewd businesswoman with a mind for marketing. She determined that gaining publicity would be to her advantage, and she cultivated newspaper coverage by dressing flamboyantly, making grand appearances at nightclubs, and drawing attention to her beautiful employees. She also made large bribes to city and law enforcement officials to keep her business open.[1]

In the early 1930s, Adler was a star witness of the Seabury Commission investigations and spent a few months in hiding in Florida to avoid testifying. She refused to give up any mob names to the Seabury Commission[7] when apprehended by the police. She survived by providing half of her income to her underworld safety net, and closed her business.[7] She retired in 1944.

Adler attended college at age 50, and wrote a bestselling book, ghost written by Virginia Faulkner, A House Is Not a Home (1953), allowing her to live off the proceeds. She died in Los Angeles in 1962. A House Is Not a Home was made into a movie two years later, starring Shelley Winters as Adler. Her notoriety led her to be included in Cleveland Amory's 1959 Celebrity Register.[10]


The world knew Polly as a madam, but her friends knew her as an intelligent woman, fun to be with, and a good cook.
Milton Berle[7]

Spring 1935

During Fiorello La Guardia's time as a mayor, Polly Adler and three of her girls were brought to court. She pleaded guilty and was subsequently sentenced to 30 days in jail (of which she served 24, scrubbing the jail floors in May and June 1935) and paid an additional $500 fine.

"A plea of guilty was entered for Polly Adler in Special Sessions yesterday to a charge of possessing a 'motion picture machine with objectionable pictures' in her East Fifty-fifth Street apartment when it was raided by the police last March 5."[11]

"Another unexpected plea of guilty to maintaining an objectionable apartment at 30 East Fifty-fifth Street blocked in Special Sessions yesterday the trial of Polly Adler[12] on that and another charge that she kept an 'obscene motion picture film' in the suite last March when it was raided." [13]

January 1943

"Polly Adler is in the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital, it became known yesterday, awaiting a hearing for the seventeenth time for maintaining a house of prostitution."—"Polly Adler Seized Again; III in Bellevue Hospital Awaiting Hearing for 17th Time". The New York Times. January 16, 1943. p. 28.

"A charge of keeping and maintaining a house for prostitution against Pearl Davis, better known as Polly Adler, was dismissed by Magistrate Thomas H. Cullen in Woman's Court yesterday after the court ruled that police had failed to establish a case."—"Polly Adler Is Freed; Court Holds Police Failed to Establish a Case". The New York Times. January 27, 1943. p. 23.




Television and film portrayals

Shelley Winters portrayed Adler in the 1964 film version of Adler's book.[7] The 1989 Perry Mason TV-movie Musical Murder revolved around a faux-musical based on Adler. Adler was portrayed by the actress Gisèle Rousseau in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.[14] The television show M*A*S*H episode "Bulletin Board" features a party/picnic called the "First Annual Polly Adler Birthday Cook-out Picnic and Bar-B-Que", with all proceeds going to Sr. Teresa's Orphanage. The picnic scene climaxes with a tug of war between the officers and enlisted men; in the episode "Goodbye, Cruel World", Colonel Potter asks "Why does my company clerk's office look like Polly Adler's parlor?" after Corporal Klinger does some redecorating with items sent from home.


After twenty five years working as a Madam, Adler died of cancer in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. At 62 years old, she left her mother and brother behind, as well as rumors of an unfinished sequel to her book.[15]


  1. Sicherman, Barbara; Carol Hurd Green (1980). Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Harvard University Press. p. 7. ISBN 9780674627338.
  2. "Polly Adler Dead". pqasb.pqarchiver.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-10. Retrieved 2017-10-22.
  3. "Polly Adler". Jewish Virtual Library. Archived from the original on April 19, 2015. Retrieved April 18, 2015.
  4. J. B. Litoff; J. McDonnell (1994). European Immigrant Women in the United States. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9780824053062.
  5. Jacobs, Lisa (Winter 2002). "Majestic Towers' Dirty Little Secret". 215 West 75 Street building newsletter. Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2008-09-17.
  6. Schwartz, Ben (5 April 2016). "The Double Life of Peter Arno, The New Yorker's Most Influential Cartoonist". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on 4 May 2016. Retrieved 7 May 2016.
  7. John Baxter (10 February 2009). Carnal Knowledge: Baxter's Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Sex. HarperCollins. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-06-087434-6. Archived from the original on 27 May 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2011.
  8. Dorothy Parker Society, "Polly Adler's Brothel" Archived 2008-10-12 at the Wayback Machine, Dorothy Parker Society
  9. Richard J. Tofel (October 2004). Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York He Left Behind. Ivan R. Dee. ISBN 978-1566636056. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  10. Tanenhaus, Sam (December 12, 2009). "Tiger Woods and the Perils of Modern Celebrity". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 26, 2019. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
  11. "Polly Adler Enters a Plea of Guilty". The New York Times. April 16, 1935. p. 9. Archived from the original on July 22, 2018. Retrieved April 19, 2015.
  12. photos dated March 5, 1935 Archived September 13, 2012, at the Wayback Machine and March 14, 1935 Archived September 13, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  13. "Polly Adler Makes a New Guilty Plea". The New York Times. May 7, 1935. p. 10. Archived from the original on July 22, 2018. Retrieved April 19, 2015.
  14. "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)". Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on 2016-04-21. Retrieved 2018-07-01.
  15. "POLLY ADLER DIES OF CANCER AT 62: Madame of '20's and '30's Later Wrote Best Seller". New York Times. June 11, 1962. ProQuest 115754692.

Further reading


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