A Century of Sexy Secret Rendezvous: From “Bird and Bottle Suppers” to the Liberty Inn
An erotic story–indeed any story–is liveliest when spiced with plenty of conflict, mystery and the subversion of everyday expectations. While I’ve made it a special project to portray hot sex between longtime lovers, I have to admit that an illicit affair brings built-in tension to an encounter, making the writer’s task much easier.
Naughty sex is all the spicier if your story is set in the early 1900s, when “respectable” people assumed that “respectable” sex occurred only between a husband and his lawful wife, in their bedroom, in the dark, and preferably with as little enjoyment as possible on either side. With polite society watching and judging every move, women in particular could be “ruined” by even the appearance of impropriety. In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, socialite Lily Bart’s chances at a good marriage are fatally compromised when she is observed visiting a male friend at his rooms during a two-hour stop-over in New York on her way to a house party. Naturally, disgrace and suicide soon follow.
Gentlemen were allowed more leeway with their indiscretions if they chose extramarital lovers from the lower classes and didn’t flaunt their affairs in the better part of town. The parlor house or brothel was always an option, but by the early 1900’s, the anti-vice crusaders had achieved significant success in dampening the traditionally lively urban sex trade. Besides by the early 1900s, young men and women of every class were taking advantage of vaudeville theaters, motion pictures, amusement parks, and dance halls to fraternize more freely than their parents, whose courtships were confined to the front porch or parlor. For the upper-class, the fancy “lobster palaces” in New York’s midtown, or Jack’s and The Poodle Dog in San Francisco, now welcomed respectable ladies for dinner when accompanied by gentlemen. In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz quotes a study that showed men born between 1900 and 1909 were increasingly likely to have their first sexual encounter with a girlfriend than a prostitute—for this group, sex with prostitutes declined by 50% over earlier generations.
Seduction of the more modern-minded woman needed a proper setting, and for the wealthy men of New York and San Francisco, the restauranteurs of these glamorous metropolises provided a solution: the private dining room with accommodations for after-dinner indulgence. If you’ve ever seen Doctor Zhivago, you may recall that Komarovsky meets red-velvet-clad Lara in such a private room with both a table and a velvet daybed, one of many in a fancy establishment for the soon-to-be-imperiled Russian aristocracy. Funny Girl also makes use of this setting for the “You are Woman, I Am Man” number: “Isn’t this the height of nonchalance, furnishing a bed in restaurants. Well, a bit of dinner never hurt, but guess who is gonna be dessert?” (Apparently, both scenes stuck with me, because I’m gearing up to write my own version—sans Omar Sharif!)
In the New York of the early 1900s, gentlemen with money to spend and a hankering for a double life would woo a pretty chorus girl from a Broadway play and bring her to one of the famed lobster palaces such as Bustanoby’s, Rector’s, or Cafe de l’Opera (the drawing above is from the latter in Julian Street’s “Lobster Palace Society” Everybody’s Magazine, May 1910). If the man wanted to flaunt his conquest in the later hours when decent wives were already tucked in bed, the couple would stop in the public dining room for a “bird and bottle supper” of cold champagne and hot bird, a double entrendre as chorus girls were referred to as good-looking chicken or delicious squab (Lewis Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930). After dinner, if the chemistry was right, the actress and her suitor might then retire to a private rooms upstairs.
On the other hand, an established extramarital couple would more likely head straight for the private dining room. At Jack’s in San Francisco “men would have lunch with secretary upstairs and dinner with wife downstairs.” The fancier Poodle Dog’s top three floors held sumptuous suites where “wealthy patrons could easily indulge themselves secretly in whatever whims caught their fancy.” These secret pleasure palaces were reached by a side entrance with a private elevator. (Frances de Talavera Berger and John Parke Custis, Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco, 1875 to 1915).
The American Menu, a fascinating blog for historical fiction writers, describes a turn-of-the-last-century “love hotel” called The Palette Hotel on West 52nd Street in New York City.
“A vice report in 1890 claimed that ‘only the misguided of the upper-ten (percent)’ frequented the hotel, succinctly describing its rich clientele as ‘women who in their homes, in churches and in society hold positions of honor and respect, and men whose loyalty to wife and family is believed to be absolute.’ In fact, getting into the hotel without being seen was important at a time when outward appearances greatly mattered. Following the typical pattern, a man and a veiled woman would emerge from the hansom cab as soon as it rolled up to the hotel. After running up the stoop, and quickly pushing the door bell (then a new electrical device), someone ‘almost immediately’ opened the door.”
With all of the talk of wealthy men and their mistresses, I was heartened at the suggestion that wealthy wives also explored the path of equality with regard to extramarital affairs. It would certainly make sense that fine ladies would shun the pre-coital public dining room display for a thoroughly discreet rendezvous. I was a bit surprised to learn that the same blog post assures us that hotels specializing in romantic encounters still exist. Keeping up a forty-year tradition, the Liberty Inn in the fashionable meatpacking district rents rooms by the hour for couples at a reasonable price. The photo gallery reminded me very much of the love hotels that are very common in Japan—fanciful and not a little tacky. Although who really is paying attention to the decor in such circumstances?
Although my novel only hints at erotic adventures in Paris, I can’t resist mentioning another example, mainly because of the title of the article: “Paris for Perverts: The Clitoris of Paris.”
“At Lapérouse, a romantic restaurant that still operates on Le Quai des Grands-Augustins, the tuxedoed maitre d’ took me upstairs to visit the original cozy chambres particuliers, private rooms where gentlemen could discreetly ply courtesans with champagne, delicacies, and expensive presents. The antique mirrors are still clouded with etched marks, when the ladies would test their diamond gifts by scratching them along the glass to make sure they weren’t being duped.”
Presumably, the “ladies” were determining whether their suitors had given them cut-glass or true diamonds (Remember “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, another tale of ruination? I vowed I would always ask the cost of the necklace first should the same fate befall me.)
However, we can’t really blame the gentlemen for trying to cut corners. The American Menu points out that The Palette charged more for champagne than lobster palaces and first-class hotels. Secrecy came at a price for the illicit lovers of the past.
But for erotica writers, it’s all gravy.