Donna George Storey
In February, I posted a photo of my writer’s “room of my own” immediately after it was painted a serene sky blue. I promised an “after” photo in March, but, as always with home improvement projects, it took us much longer to get everything back in place and photo-ready.
Now I am back at work in my sunroom, with the addition of a cozy IKEA rug and the subtraction of a lot of clutter. I’ve also purchased some decorative boxes to hold the letters I decided to keep, a nice upgrade from the shoe box where they lived, mostly forgotten, for decades.
In February, I was expecting the love letters written to me would be of the most use for writing inspiration.
I was wrong.
Sure, it was amusing to read letters from three different young men who told me that I’d taught them the meaning of “real” and “mature” love, knowing the jejune course of the relationships’ end. The letters even brought back a few warm memories—my first attempt at erotic writing for an audience of one, for example, and the encouraging reception of my efforts. I thank him for that. I kept my draft of my sexy letter tucked in with his reply—I’ve gotten a lot better at erotica, but I can see the raw talent and fearlessness in my nineteen-year-old self.
The real treasure, however, is the extensive collection of letters sent to me by a dear female friend I met at college. I appreciate now why I kept all of them, more by far than from any other correspondent. My friend does not consider herself a Writer, but her letters are brilliant examples of storytelling. Honest, intimate, with an impeccable sense of comic timing, they bring me right back to those days of youthful emotional intensity. My friend always knew when to inject irony and humor, even as we both floundered around looking for love, for a man who appreciated us as much as we appreciated each other.
More amazing is the realization that both of us would set aside hours of our day, at least once a week, to pour out our hearts to each other when we were separated by summer vacations and, after graduation when I lived in Japan, an ocean. Does texting or even old-fashioned email encourage such care in composition? Do these modern forms of communication encourage the same self-reflection involved in sitting down to craft a letter intended for a most sympathetic audience?
As I may have mentioned, my historical novel will include letters between “friends” who will, through that form of connection, become more (since my novel will be clearly labeled a romance, I don’t expect I’m giving anything away by this admission).
So, in fact, my female friend’s letters are proving to be a richer source of inspiration than the official “love” letters.
Tidying up can indeed reward you with unexpected pleasures.
We live in an age when gender is an ongoing question, not a comforting binary: boy or girl. My neighbor who lives a few houses down the street, Judith Butler, introduced the concept of gender as performance, or “doing” rather than “being,” in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
“We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman…we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time.” (Applications of gender performance, Social constructions of gender, Wikipedia)
Butler argues that gender performance is generally out of the individual’s control, but in some settings, a person may attempt to control gender performance quite consciously, as Butler acknowledges, most obviously in drag performance.
In my research for my novel, I came upon fascinating examples of gender as performance due to the popularity of cross-gender impersonation on the stage in the early twentieth century. This openly recognized “performance” entranced audiences who lived in a time when gender roles were already being challenged by mass media, the suffrage movement, and new technology. Let me add that behavior outside of society’s strict gender expectations most definitely did not elicit the same delight off stage, in particular male homosexuality and “fairy” boys. But in a strictly controlled fantasy environment, “men” acting as “women,” and “women” acting as “men” brought the house down.
In my novel, our charming, yet darkly mysterious love interest will take our plucky heroine to a vaudeville show, a form of entertainment specifically designed to be respectable enough for your sister or sweetheart—in contrast to the bawdy entertainment for men only that predominated during the nineteenth century.
In spite of its family-friendly aspirations, vaudeville was always pushing the limits of propriety, aiming to titillate just enough to keep the audience humming.
After much study of New York vaudeville, I’m certain that the playbill for the show our couple attends will feature one cross-dressing act, because this form of entertainment reached the height of popularity in the 1910s.
For a taste of what a cross-dressing act in 1910 might offer, you’ll find interesting information and even better photographs as seen here in Anthony Slide’s Great Pretenders: A History of Female and Male Impersonation in the Performing Arts.
Perhaps our couple will enjoy the talents of a male impersonator in the tradition of the premier such artist on both sides of the Atlantic, Vesta Tilley, known as “The London Idol.”
Tilley hailed from Worcester, England, and was born in 1864 as Matilda Alice Powles. She had an easy entree onto the stage because her father worked as the master of ceremonies at St. George’s Music Hall. Tilley first appeared in male dress on stage in 1869 at the age of five. In her 1934 autobiography, she explained humorously: “I concluded that female costume was rather a drag. I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.” (Slide, 62)
Actually, as someone who gets rashes from makeup, is allergic to metal jewelry and is crippled by high heels, I can relate.
While Tilley could sing a fine song, such as “Following in Father’s Footsteps” or “Jolly Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier,” her true genius was her jaunty carriage.
Will M. Cressy described her magic in The Green Book Magazine (March 1916): “If Vesta Tilley could not sing a note nor speak a word, she could walk her songs successfully. There has never been a player who could paint a character more clearly by word or note than she can by her walk.” (Slide, 61)
Tilley toured the US in 1906 and 1909, but turned down a 1912 offer because she didn’t want to work on Sundays. She retired from the stage in 1920 when her husband decided he wanted to be an MP, and it wouldn’t do to have a wife on the stage. For a better sense of Tilley’s performance, check out this homage, or get a sense of a male impersonator’s act in this clip of Julie Andrews from Star! (1968).
Or perhaps our New York-savvy hero will take his lady friend to see the greatest female impersonator of the day, Julian Eltinge, in his turn in the musical comedy, The Fascinating Widow, which was playing in Manhattan the fall of 1911. In a plot that prefigures Some Like It Hot, Eltinge begins the play as Hal Blake, but is forced to pose as the widow Mrs. Monte—I haven’t yet found a full plot summary, but one source described it as similar to Charley’s Aunt.
Eltinge reportedly took two hours to put on female makeup and costume, including shaving his fingers. When he performed vaudeville, he would remove his wig at the end of his act to reveal the trick to the audience, many of whom were taken by complete surprise.
Great Pretenders was published in 1986, and while I learned a lot from it, I do have a gripe about the author’s full support of the common wisdom that men can impersonate women more effectively than women can impersonate men.
“There is, of course, a basic problem, and that is that women simply cannot adequately disguise themselves as men. There are not only the obvious physical problems with the hips and the breasts, but, more importantly, a woman’s face does not lend itself to makeup as a man. Even the greatest male impersonators such as Vesta Tilley and Kitty Doner could not fool anyone away from the spotlights of the stage.” (Slide, 67)
Slide follows in the tradition of Japanese kabuki critics who maintain that the female impersonator elevates femininity to a higher level than any mere biological female could manage.
But how many drag queens can survive close scrutiny out of the spotlight?
Slide doesn’t seem to have met the decent number of biological females with boyish or muscled figures, deep voices and Vesta Tilley’s confident carriage. Besides, if you view this clip from later in Julian Eltinge’s career, I can’t say I’m fooled.
I do agree with Slide when he notes that a man dressed up as a woman is “always good for a laugh” because he is seen to be losing status, which is arguably the foundation of comedy. However, when a woman plays a man, she is “reaching above her station in life,” especially in 1910.
I agree even more with Carolyn Heilbrun writing in The New York Times (January 16, 1983), “Men playing women, if they don’t camp it, can be very moving, whereas women playing men is always a bid for freedom.” (Slide, 67)
Vesta Tilley and other popular male impersonators were among the few women of their time who could achieve both self-expression and popular acclaim while wearing male clothes. Women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fettered by layers of underwear and corsets, petticoats and long skirts. In trousers and solid shoes a body can swagger, run, and take possession of the space around it without the same fear of exposure and danger as in a corset, skirt, and heels. No wonder a woman would enjoy such a show—to see one of her own move through the world with power and ease.
Perhaps our heroine will see in the male impersonator her own vision of freedom—not too many years before women would be able to wear trousers in public, at least the daring ones in casual settings.
For women in 1910, the road to freedom stretched from the vaudeville stage into the future. What a journey it has turned out to be for us all.
As part of my home organization project, I’ve been going through my heavily laden bookshelves. I’m donating books that don’t really fit my life right now. However, I’m also rediscovering some that definitely spark joy. Of course, I am keeping all the books in which my own work appears!
I came upon one such volume that was published a few years ago: Exposed: Hollywood Glamour Caught Off-Guard edited by Philip Krayna and Susan Kuchinskas. Susan approached authors who’d read at her Dirty Old Women series at the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland about working on this interesting project. Writers would take black-and-white images by the 1960s glamour photographer Edward Braslaff as their inspiration for an original story. I actually wrote two for the anthology, but “Scent of an Angel,” inspired by the photograph above, is the more erotic of the two. (And the model is holding a perfume atomizer, not a cell phone, although it certainly looks that way!)
I don’t think of myself as someone who likes to write from other people’s prompts, although admittedly writing for themed anthologies puts you in the service of the editor’s vision. But I have avoided writing games and dictated assignments because I feel I have plenty of my own sources of inspiration to keep me busy. And yet, I surprised myself with how enjoyable it was to craft a story of less than 750 words exploring the world of one of these photographs. The restraints actually proved to be liberating for my imagination, and I was able to bring some of my historical research on San Francisco nightclubs into the mix.
So if inspiration is flagging, you might consider taking out a book of art or photographs. Find one that speaks to you and weave your own story around that image. The experience is likely to be heavenly!
SCENT OF AN ANGEL
Eddie gave her the perfume the night before he shipped off to Korea.
“When you wear it, I’ll be with you,” he whispered.
It was a whirlwind romance, but Shirley had really liked Eddie. She liked his patience, the heat of his skin when he held her close, his deep sigh when he first slipped inside. And she liked his letters saying how he ached for those long mornings in bed together, laughing and loving her. He made her feel as if she really meant something to him.
He hadn’t written in some time.
Shirley studied the elegant bottle and wished that she remembered more French. A perfume smelled different on each woman, or so they said. Maybe she should give it a name of her own? Eau de Eddie?
No, she could do better than that.
The truth was, she didn’t mean to take Eddie along with her tonight. She just needed to smell nice for work. For the real work, after the show, when she had to make the fellow at the table feel that God had made her just for him, even if it was only for an hour. Men were better at putting reality out of their minds when the lights were low, but a girl could never forget the way the world worked. Put simply, if he won, she lost–unless she managed to get something out of it for herself. For Shirley, it was never money or perfume. She wanted a man to see her. A few did. Like Eddie.
A soloist in the youth church choir and the lead in the school plays, Shirley easily found a place in the chorus when she came to the city. But her agent warned her she’d have to work hard to get the starring roles. “You have the pipes, baby, but you don’t have the face. Now I’ve got just the gig for you at my buddy George’s place over on Kearny. You’ll have your own act, and you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Trust me, it’s high-class. Just remember to show him some of that leg of yours.”
George had given her a cool once-over, but after one verse of “I Wanna Be Loved,” he signed her on the spot. He didn’t mind that she had her standards. Shirley was his star. Half the boys in the place had tears pouring down their cheeks when she sang “The White Cliffs of Dover.” You’d think they wouldn’t ask for the sad old songs given where they were going, but they did.
The men had their types. Some went for the cover-girl beauty, some for the girls fresh out of high school. Some were too drunk to care who was at the table as long as she wore a cocktail dress. Shirley had her type, too: the ones that said what Eddie said the night they met, “My God, you sing like an angel.”
But would Eddie really want to be there at the table with her when her new admirer of the evening leaned in and cooed, “I love your perfume, sweetheart, don’t you smell pretty?” She wondered if the fellow tonight would write, too, and then stop without a word of explanation? Shirley decided she didn’t want to know why. She put all her feelings in her songs and let them float off into heaven.
When she went on stage tonight, it would be like heaven. She’d have no past, no burdens, no doubts. The voice of the piano would entwine with hers, like the bodies of a woman and man when it’s so nice between them. With the lights in her eyes, she couldn’t see the audience, but she would feel them intimately like her own breath. She’d give them everything she had then. She always did.
Shirley squeezed the bulb of the atomizer gently. The cool mist settled on her neck and shoulders. To her surprise, the fragrance calmed her. She knew she was strong enough to take Eddie with her and still touch each man in the audience with her own gift, lifting every last one beyond the yearning, the fear, even the awful war taking them so far away from home, maybe forever.
She had a name for his perfume now. She’d call it “Scent of an Angel.”
We’ve lived in our house for 28 years, and with both kids in college, we decided to give the entire inside of the house a much-needed fresh coat of paint. Our project has also given us the opportunity to take stock of our belongings and clear out things that are moldy and rusty and definitely don’t spark joy. I know Marie Kondo is getting both love and hate these days, but I first read her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, back in 2014 and am finding it useful for this massive home overhaul.
This is a photo of the office where I do my writing, cleared of everything but the heavy furniture. The walls, once beige, are now sky blue, and I plan to perk up the room with a colorful rug to replace the old gray carpet. I’m looking forward to getting back to work in my refreshing new environment!
As I cleaned out the filing cabinet, I was expecting to toss a lot of files, but the biggest surprise for me was the rediscovery of a pink shoe box of love letters written to me over the years, some dating back to the 1970s. I was thinking I would recycle most of the early letters, but once I got to reading through a few, I realized they were gold for an erotica writer. One correspondent in particular seemed a perfect match for a character I’m developing in my novel. Both are older men who swerve dramatically between protestations of love and patronizing scolding of the younger women for our “ruthless” innocence. I hadn’t intended to model my character on an actual lover, but the emotional manipulation clearly impacted me back then, and I drew upon it to create a character who was both glamorous and frustrating. When I read the real letters from, let’s call him “Art,” I immediately thought, “This is just what my character Charles would do!”
So Art’s letters are not going into the recycling bin quite yet. Instead a voice from forty years ago will inspire a character living in my fictional world of a century past.
I will post a photo of the reassembled office next month so you can see the finished space. As for the manipulative older man—my character will now glow with authenticity. Of course everything is material for an erotica writer, but if you’re contemplating a deep office clean, you, too, may discover hidden voices from the past to enliven your writing.
The New Year is starting off right for me with two appearances at ERWA. In addition to this column, I have the honor of being this month’s ERWA Awesome Author. Choosing a story and writing an updated bio got me thinking about why I love erotica writing and ERWA, which has been and continues to be an awesome group of writers. Thus, I decided to take a break from time travel and talk about the power of point of view.
The story I chose, “Frank and Eva” published in Alison Tyler’s Sudden Sex, presents a sexual encounter from the different points of view of each partner. I think many readers enjoy experiencing the same situation through the eyes of different narrators—I certainly do. My appreciation of that approach in erotica dates all the way back to 1997 and one of the very first literary erotic anthologies to inspire me to write: The Mammoth Book of International Erotica, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. In the story “Watching,” by J.P. Kansas, we first take the husband’s perspective as he comes home early from work to discover his wife masturbating to one of his pornographic videotapes (hmm, maybe we are going back to the distant past after all?). The husband watches, thinking he is unobserved, but in the second part of the story, we learn from the wife’s perspective that she knew he was watching and in fact was performing for him. The couple’s responses to pornography and their curiosity about the other’s responses are explored to fascinating and humorous effect.
She-said-he-said stories are often assumed to present mutually exclusive versions of the truth of an event. We think we must somehow take sides—one person is more “right” than the other, or at least their worldview fits more closely to ours. But a story like “Watching” reveals that when we experience the sensibilities of both partners in an encounter, the result can be as rich and layered as two people making love.
“Frank and Eva” was really fun to write. I don’t often write stories from the male point of view, but when I’ve dared to do so, I’m always particularly engaged in the task. It’s exciting to imagine what it’s like to be another person with different experiences, all the more so in intimate circumstances. Of course, I always check my male POV stories with a male friend for any glaring inaccuracies just in case I’m way off base!
The challenge of crossing that distance reminds me of the discussion of “social distance” in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. In his exploration of they ways groups feel alienated from each other in our society, author Christopher Hayes identifies two types of social distance: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal occurs between people of roughly equal social station. The examples he gives are members of different races or religions who might live in the same city but occupy different worlds. Vertical social distance is the gap between those in authority and the people who are affected by their policies and decisions. These days many people, whatever their political views, feel our leaders are out of touch and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. (Twilight of the Elites, 184-186)
However, Hayes’ model doesn’t really capture the special form of social distance between different genders. We live in close proximity, often intimately, yet male privilege and the very different ways genders are socialized mean there is always a distance in how we experience the world.
She-said-he said stories are a way to cross that distance in the reader’s and writer’s mind. If we approach the exercise with empathy and sincere curiosity, I believe we help close that distance between us. Why not give it a try?
Happy New Year and best wishes for a creative year ahead!
“You’ve got the world to discover here in San Francisco, boys, every size, shape and color of woman you can imagine.”
Joe’s uncle asked the old bartender to tell you and Joe a thing or two about having a good time on the Barbary Coast, and this fellow sure has plenty to say. It’s your first night on the town after your first whole week of work. You wired half of your wages back home this morning and felt pretty fine about being able to help the family. You had been planning to spend the evening at the boardinghouse catching up with the newspaper, but Joe’s uncle insisted on treating the two of you to a few rounds.
“Chinese girls, Japanese girls, French girls, Mexican girls, girls from back east and everywhere else in between. You can find ‘em all here, boys, and you don’t even need a passport!”
Joe leans forward. He’s always up for adventure. “Where do we go to find the pretty ones?”
“All the girls on the Barbary Coast are pretty—and mighty friendly. Just look for the lines on a Saturday night and that’ll lead you right to the prettiest ones. Walk on by the little row houses in every alley of the Coast and if the girl is free, she’ll be hanging out the window dressed in something frilly—or hardly dressed at all—calling out to you. But everyone says you can’t go wrong with the Municipal Crib over on Jackson Street. It’s a whole big building full of the best girls in the city. If there are no ladies on the trolley, the conductor hollers, ‘All out for the whore house!’ and every man clears out as if it’s the end of the line. I’ve seen it many a time. The police’ll send you there, too, if you ask ‘em where to go for a good time. Half the profit goes into the pockets of the City Council is why. But that means the boys in blue won’t ever give you any trouble when you go there.”
“How much does it set you back?” Joe asks. You’re happy just to listen. This old fellow’s giving you quite an earful.
“Well, now, it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Over there at the Municipal, they’ve got four stories. The basement has the Mexican girls for twenty-five cents. They always have a shrine to the Virgin in their sitting rooms, but you don’t have to see nothing like in the back where you do your business. The Negresses are up on the fourth floor—fifty cents with a discount for two or more, which is why it pays to take a friend. It’s seventy-five cents on the second floor, and a dollar on the third. Most all of those are the French girls. Seventy-five cents will get you the French special. You have to try that at least once to see how you like it.”
“What’s that? The ‘French special’?” you ask. Your curiosity is getting the better of you.
“You are green, sonny! Why, they use their mouth on you instead of the usual way. Like I said, you have to try it once. Most fellows don’t settle for just once.” He winks.
You try to put that dirty image from your mind. Seventy-five cents is half a day’s wages. But then again, it doesn’t cost a cent to think about it, you suppose. You’ve never met a French girl. They must be real pretty. Dainty like a doll.
“Now the guys with money in their pockets, they favor the red-headed Jewesses. They say they’re the most passionate girls on earth. A fellow who knows these things says there’s a young beauty with auburn tresses to her knees who just arrived at the Municipal. The line outside her door winds down the stairs and wraps around the block. She’ll run you two dollars at least, but she won’t let you dawdle. Five minutes tops—but five minutes you won’t forget.”
Your mind is really painting pictures now as fast as the bartender can prattle. You see yourself standing in a long line, waiting for your time with that beautiful red-head. Florence Riley back home had a reddish glow in her hair in certain light, but you’ve never seen hair you’d call full red. Yet wouldn’t it be queer to know that the man in front of you and the man behind you would be sharing the same girl?
“Two dollars? That’s awfully dear,” Joe says.
“There’s pleasure for every wallet in the Barbary Coast, boys,” says the bartender, handing you both another round. “If you’re looking for something you can’t find back home, the Chinese girls will give you a ‘lookee’ for fifty cents. If you’re brave enough to prowl around the darkest corners of Chinatown, you can get the same for one dime.”
“Now you have to explain that to us country boys. You know we’re green as the grass in springtime,” you say.
“Every man is curious, don’t you know, to see if those Chinese girls are made the same as the whites. They’ll show you for a price. Look, but don’t touch. Touching will cost you more.”
“Are they made different?” Joe asks.
“Well, now, there was a professor who made a careful study and published his findings in a magazine. I forget now if he said they were the same or different. I reckon you have to see for yourself!”
“At least you won’t get the clap,” Joe says.
“Good news, boys! You don’t have to worry about the clap in San Francisco. There’s a clinic the city opened just last year. The girls have to go every week to be checked by a special doctor and they have a book the doctor stamps to show they’re healthy. No one gets sick in San Francisco these days, and the special wards for the scarlet women have plenty of free beds. It’s well nigh a miracle.”
Joe says. “So you can be sure all the girls are clean?”
“As sure as a man can be, sonny. But you still have to be careful. There are all kinds of crooks in the Barbary Coast. The Municipal is safe, that’s why I tell everyone to go there. If you wander around looking for fun on the cheap, you might be sorry. Here’s a tip for you. The honest crib girl won’t let you take off anything but your hat. Not even your boots. They put oilcloth on the bottom of the bed, so your boots don’t dirty the sheets. But an honest girl will make you keep everything else on you. And if a girl tells you to take off your clothes and hang ‘em in the closet, you turn right around and run right out of that crib. Because she’s got her pimp waiting on the other side of the wall and while you’re lost in your business, he lifts your wallet, and maybe even your boots, if they’re new. He takes all your hard-earned money and replaces it with nothing but a shiny new dime for your trolley fare home.”
Now your mind conjures a shady character lifting your wallet, taking out the money you sweated so hard for. Suddenly you realize it’s gotten mighty late. You stand and put a nickel on the bar as a tip. It was sure nice of Joe’s uncle to treat you, but you’re feeling the weariness of a long week.
“Heading out, boys? You have yourselves a fine time tonight and tell them at the Municipal that Harvey sent you. If you can’t find what you want in San Francisco, it doesn’t exist. This is the wickedest, wildest city on earth,” says the bartender. “Now, remember 620 Jackson Street is the Municipal. The conductor will let you know. ‘All out for the whore house!’ You see if I’m not telling you true.” The man laughs. “You all come back next Saturday and tell me how it goes.”
Joe nods and you both head out into the street.
“You wanna go over and see what there is to see?” Joe asks.
Truth be told, he doesn’t sound that keen to go.
“I’m going back to hit the hay. But you can go and tell me what there is to see. Maybe you’ll get a look at that new girl with the red hair,” you say.
“Nah, I’m mighty tired, too. Maybe next week?”
You nod, thinking that was quite a tale that old man told you. Was it true that the Coast was full of girls from every country in the world, all of them clean and willing? Did the trolley conductor really yell out the stop for the whore house without a speck of shame? And did a long line of fellows really wait for hours for five minutes with a pretty red-haired girl? Maybe next week you’ll just go to see, but not touch.
One thing you know for sure–life in the big city is sure different from back home.
Historical Note: All advice about a working man’s choices for a good time in San Francisco in 1912, including the racism, comes from The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury.
The photo of “higher-class cribs with indoor plumbing” is courtesy of Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose (p. 170). Prostitutes in San Francisco, New Orleans and other cities rented specially constructed “cribs”—much like small partitioned rooms where prostitutes ply their trade in Amsterdam’s red light district today.
It’s been a while since you treated yourself to a night in the district. Work’s been busy and you’ve been watching your pennies. You know enough to go equipped with the proper change: a dollar to treat the girls in the parlor with wine, four quarters for the mechanical piano, a two-dollar bill for the girl you take upstairs, and two fifty-cent pieces for “extras.” You’ll see your Maker before you see them make proper change for any service in brothel.
Still, your blood is warming with thoughts about what lies ahead tonight. Since it’s been a while, why not splurge on a good two-dollar house where the girls are guaranteed to be pretty? You have your standards—those fifty-cent cribs are just too damned sad and it’s all over in five minutes. On the other extreme, well, they say the places that cater to the city fathers put on circuses where the girls do things God never intended for a decent man or woman at a ticket price of three months of a working man’s wages. That’s a sauce too rich for the likes of you. Good, fresh bread and butter will serve your hunger tonight.
Your favorite house has a parlor that reminds you of home. Neat and comfortable, except of course, back home you wouldn’t find three or four pink-cheeked girls lounging around in lacy negligees. The maid asks if you’d like to treat the girls to some wine, and you hand over that dollar-bill for a glass all around, because otherwise you won’t get your pick. You sit on the sofa and joke with the girls for a minute or two. They tell you their names: Violet, Lulu, Marguerite, and Maisie. You wonder what their real names are as you give a false name for yourself. Not that you have anyone at home to worry about. It’s part of the game.
One of those quarters starts up the mechanical piano, and you have a turn on the floor with the blonde on the loveseat. She presses herself against you and whispers in your ear that she can take you to heaven and, my, is she jonesing to be alone with a handsome fellow like you, the best-looking gentleman to walk in the door all evening. Now your blood is really running hot, but you want to give that brunette a try, the one lounging against the pillow with her stockings exposed. She has a mighty fine leg, if you do say so yourself. She called herself “Marguerite,” if you recall correctly. After a glass of that cheap wine, your head’s a bit fuzzy and you wonder if they put something in it.
Now this girl Marguerite is a handful, warm and buxom in your arms, but it’s what she’s crooning in your ear that tells you she’s the one tonight. It’s a dirty ditty about a man and a maid frolicking in the bedroom, a trip around the world with Frenching and doing it through the backdoor the “Italian way.” It’s just words, but she sure seems like a wild one. You decide to keep your two extra quarters from that hungry piano and take this gal upstairs. There’s always another night to sample the others.
Marguerite walks languidly up the stairs and you follow, admiring her lacy, hourglass form from behind. She leads you into a boudoir, turns the gas on low. She looks mighty pretty in the soft glow. You just want to gaze for a while. She seems to understand, for she stands there and smiles. The new girls are always in such a hurry. Marguerite clearly knows how to read customer.
You place the two-dollar bill on the nightstand. Her eyes sparkle.
“Say, Johnny, you seem like the kind of gentleman who likes undressing a girl for himself. It’s only a little bit extra.”
There goes one of those fifty-cent pieces. The girls usually keep their stockings on and you really want see her legs bare.
You promise yourself you’ll take it slow, but your hands are shaking and impatient, and she’s standing there just the way God made her in no time flat. She gestures for you to take off your shoes and trousers, which is all they’ll have in these places. Then comes the examination—a good, hard squeeze of your privates to see if you’re healthy. After that, a quick wash with water mixed with a purple tincture that’s supposed to keep the clap away.
She looks up at you, wash cloth in hand. Such a wicked gleam in her eyes. “Now you strike me as a fellow who likes a little adventure. Like maybe a cowgirl ride?”
The two-fifty on the table becomes three. She gestures for you to lie down on the bed. You don’t usually do it this way, and you’re excited at the thought of having her on top. You can see more that way and you like to look. With a sly smile, she climbs on the mattress. What she does next surprises you. She turns and mounts you with her back to you. Now that is a nice view. She rides you, up and down, slower than most girls, to your delight.
“Now, darling, wouldn’t you like me to turn around so you can see?”
Well damned if you don’t. She sees right through you. The two extra quarters will join the rest on the nightstand when you’re through.
Sensing she’s gotten everything she can, Marguerite pulls off, pivots and settles down facing you. And yes, right then, you’re glad for the “extra” look.
But then she does what they all do in the end. She takes over so you can hardly tell right from left or day from night and you finish faster than you’d like, because to be honest, you want this part to last all night.
In a wink, you find yourself back in your trousers and out on the street, pockets empty. Not half an hour has passed since you walked into the parlor. All things said and done, though, Marguerite gave you a pretty good time as those things go.
You see a fellow wandering past, glancing back and forth in awe. You guess he’s a stranger in this city. Some girl is going to give him a good fleecing tonight, although he looks a bit down in the heel, so she may not get much. Maybe he’s headed for the cribs where fifty cents will get you all of five minutes of heaven. You’ve heard some of those places have a secret panel on the back wall, so that while you’re at your business, the pimp can reach in and steal your wallet. Some even filch a man’s pants and boots to pawn, or so they say, and the poor rube has to go home barefoot in his drawers.
Greenhorns get wise soon enough.
You take the streetcar back to your boardinghouse, pour yourself a glass of whisky, and lie back on your single bed. It’s then your thoughts turn melancholy. Marguerite satisfied you in one way, for sure, but you’re still yearning for something more. More time, more laughter, better still, a feeling that you aren’t alone in the world. Maybe you’ll find a girl who will give you all of that some day. Maybe you’ll find her in the district, take her out of that life and marry her, make her respectable. You think of that imaginary girl lying beside you now, warm and smiling, with your whole life to spend together.
But why waste your time on something that isn’t real?
You think about having another whisky, but you’ve got work tomorrow, bright and early. A man’s got to earn a living.
This sketch of a working man’s evening in a middle-class parlor house was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.
The photograph of Marguerite Griffin by Ernest Belloq is also from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, I recommend a copy of this evocative reference of a time gone by for your library!
Night has fallen, the gaslights are blazing, and pleasure inevitably calls a gentleman of carnal inclinations such as yourself to the part of town not spoken of in polite company. Shoulder your way through the drunken hoi polloi and step into the spacious receiving room of the town’s finest parlor house, quite like Madame Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, pictured above, the most famous high-class brothel in the most famous of American red-light districts, Storyville, New Orleans.
The furnishings are expensive, if more than a touch ostentatious, but a man of standing in the community will feel right at home amidst the luxurious carpets, gilt-framed oil paintings, and fragrant fresh flowers.
The maid will lead you to Madame, arrayed in silk, diamonds, and pearls, a sign that her establishment is thriving. She will welcome you warmly, knowing that you are a trusted regular customer or a friend of the same. Have no worry that news of your visit will reach the wrong ears. Madame is always discreet. She makes sure to provide the local police with a weekly “consideration” and keeps a doctor on call to spirit you away to a respectable location should you fall ill on the premises from your exertions.
Enjoy a glass of champagne and the toe-tapping ragtime tunes, courtesy of the “Professor” at the upright piano in the corner. While you chat with the gentlemen in your party, you appraise the lovely young women in attendance this evening. There are always pretty new faces to tickle your fancy, and the girls are sure to find you fascinating and admirably virile whatever your age. Their tongues are as silky as their negligee-clad forms.
Perhaps you are fortunate enough to attend on the night of a “circus,” which is much too vulgar to describe in words, although you can be sure young women of undeniable natural talent will sing and dance in various states of undress and perhaps make love to one another. Every act is designed to warm your blood for a trip upstairs after the show. For enjoying such entertainments, you may spend as much as fifty dollars.
Add a half hour in a bedroom upstairs with a girl of your choosing for five to twenty-five dollars, depending on her beauty. New girls demand a higher price. If you spend the whole night, it will set you back another thirty-five to fifty greenbacks. This luxury is denied to men at the humbler houses that cater to the lusts of the middle class.
Of course, money is no object for you.
Perhaps you’ve chosen a house that specializes in young things fresh from the countryside or “French” services involving unmentionable oral skills. According to its souvenir guidebook, the famous Mahogany Hall offers the attentions of charming octoroons, young women with one black great-grandmother and a white father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
If you’re in San Francisco, you might indulge in a bit of voyeurism in one of the French resorts on Commercial Street. The maid will lead you to a secret closet, where, for a mere five dollars, you can gaze through peep-holes to enjoy the spectacle of a greenhorn fellow deflowering a “virgin” for triple the usual full-service fee. Although the comely lass might seem shy and inexperienced, be assured she will repeat the same performance tomorrow as she did last night.
When you leave the premises well after midnight—your wallet much lighter or your running account with Madame well-padded with extra charges—you won’t bother yourself with plebian daytime considerations like honesty or authenticity. You understand that such establishments are like Carnival or Halloween all year round, a chance to indulge yourself in make-believe and express your forbidden desires.
You straighten your tie and toss away the boutonniere the night’s temporary companion pinned to your lapel to mark you should you stop at a saloon for a nightcap. The girls in the quarter watch out for each other, and even a high-class parlor house girl might as well save her poorer “sister” the trouble of flirting with a gentleman who has already been satisfied.
Your manly desires are indeed sated and you’re headed to your comfortable home in the finest part of town. It’s 1910 and life is sweet for a man in your fine leather shoes, if, to be honest, even a fortunate fellow like you can feel a bit melancholy in the wee hours of the morning.
A man brushes past you—a shopkeeper perhaps or a clerk by the look of his clothes—intent on his own escape from reality. Where is he going? Which girl will wrap him in her soft arms within the hour?
Join me next month to find out!
(This sketch of a well-heeled gentleman’s evening in the best parlor house in town was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.
The photographs are from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, check out this evocative reference of a time gone by!)
There are two main flavors of historical fiction writer: those who are thrilled to research every last detail of life in the past and those who are more easy-going and romantic about evoking the spirit of the time. I tend more toward the former, but when writing about the erotic life, a researcher-type faces some serious obstacles to getting those specifics down right.
There simply isn’t that much information about what really happened behind closed doors before the Sexual Revolution made these things acceptable to discuss publicly.
However, there is one area of sexual expression that is fairly well researched: prostitution. Accounts of prostitutes provide one of the few windows we have into sexual practices in centuries past—give or take a few daring amateur lovers who shared explicit love letters or confessed to carefully preserved diaries.
Prostitutes are “public women” after all, so the men of earlier days may have felt the institution was suited to a relatively open discussion both as a “social evil” and in the form of guidebooks to the red-light districts that thrived in cities large and small until the early twentieth century in America.
This month, I introduce a series of columns about prostitution in 1910 and what several fascinating publications reveal about sexuality a hundred years ago. I’ll take you on a gaslit journey of New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, from sumptuous parlor houses to assembly-line “cribs” where working men sated their lust on Saturday night.
This buffet of after-dark indulgence is brought to you by scholars and journalists who guided me on my journey of historical discovery. I’d like to introduce them to you.
First there is Ruth Rosen who gives us The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, published in 1982. Rosen approaches her subject with the enthusiastic sense of discovery that animated feminist scholars in the early days of second-wave feminism. Until that time, prostitution had rarely been presented at all sympathetically from the viewpoint of women. Rosen introduces us to the voices of both prostitutes themselves and the respectable ladies who tried to “save” them. Alas, the latter’s effort to enforce a single sexual standard where men would be expected to be as chaste as women was a failure.
Next is a volume that has long been in my library: Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose. This book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of courtesans of the time by Ernest Bellocq. Rose conducted interviews in the 1960s, when many prostitutes and clients who gave Storyville its sparkle were still alive to tell the tale. Rose’s book is a true gift, a glimpse into the complex dreams and disappointments of real people. I want to thank those folks for sharing! One of his informants, “Violet,” provided the outlines for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, starring a very young Brooke Shields as the child prostitute. But the interview with the real Violet is actually more interesting.
The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury, who also brought you The Gangs of New York, is a raunchy tell-all about the sin city of the West Coast. Asbury makes San Francisco sound like one big, depraved, drunken debauch—and asserts that even the respectable citizens were secretly proud to live in the wickedest city on the continent (but don’t tell New Orleans). He is a bit cold-blooded in his descriptions of vice and exploitation—reminding you that Rosen’s attention to female subjectivity was much needed–but you learn a lot about human nature.
Finally, Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 immerses the reader in our cultural capital city’s pleasure districts. The author describes how Gotham’s thriving commercial sex trade gradually became increasingly invisible, thanks to the campaigns of religious reformers early in the century and urban renewal in our time. Every cigar store used to a have a girl behind a curtain, ready for a quick encounter with a customer who was so inclined. The cigar stores are fewer and the girls in their shifts long gone. Or at least as far as I’m aware.
In casting my gaze over this repast of erotic history, I notice one interesting commonality. Each book begins with a tour of the most luxurious bordellos frequented by rich men then gradually descends to the functional cubicles of the low-end trade, the descriptions of which are oddly compelling in their pathos. It occurred to me that this tour of the different levels of sex for sale offers the American audience a double obscenity. Just as prostitution is a bald revelation of sexual need that polite society prefers not to see, the blatant class differences of the commercial sex trade likewise expose another part of human behavior our democratic society regards as unmentionable.
Yet in one respect, both the fancy bordello and the miserable crib had one thing in common for a man on the town—at the end of the evening your wallet would be empty, no matter how much or how little you had at the start.
I promise, however, that you will feel richer in the end after our many nights on the town in America 1910. Join me in October for an evening in a rich man’s paradise!
Last month, I talked about my dreams by day. Even before I honed my skills as an erotica writer, my waking reveries were vivid and explicit.
Yet I can’t recall a single explicit sleeping dream. At best there’s been a kiss and an embrace. No one has ever taken off any clothes. I feel a bit like the Meg Ryan character in When Harry Met Sally—although of course, only at night.
In pondering the nature of my night dreams, I realized there is a lot of suspense and implied sexuality. I know some people think dreams are boring—I find them endlessly fascinating, like a secret code where the same message has many translations. For those of you who do like dreams, I’d like to share two recent examples that have stayed with me to see what you think.
In one dream, I was lying on a single bed in a small bedroom, rather like a maid’s room in an attic. A man walked in and started opening the drawers of my small dresser over against the wall. I felt mildly violated, but said nothing and stayed motionless on the bed merely watching and waiting. Then the man came over, sat down beside me at the edge of the bed and looked down at me.
That’s it. But when I woke, I thought, “What a weird sex dream.”
In another, a man asked me to meet him in his hotel room for a meeting on political issues. I was worried he might take some sexual advantage, but he was perfectly professional, even though we were sitting on beds while I asked him questions about political action. Still uncomfortable, I excused myself to get something to drink and found myself in a huge hotel lobby complex, like the endless mall lobbies they have in Las Vegas or the train stations in Japan. I wandered through stores and bakeries and restaurants in an effort to get back to the meeting. When I finally found the man’s room, it was occupied by someone else, as if he’d never been there. I never found him again.
“Wow, I think that was sort of a sex dream,” I thought when I woke up.
My night dreams are more like old-fashioned romances than modern erotica: the simmering tension between me and a mysterious man, the unsettled nature of our relationship, the fade-to-nothing before anything actually juicy happens. Is it because I was raised in a time when sex was rarely openly discussed? Or is that I deal with explicit sexuality in my waking life so it’s other things that need working out at night?
Each of these men had the name of someone I’ve dealt with in real life, but I know the dream was not about that person, rather more of something he represents: the sense of a power differential and my being in a world where he has more control than I do.
Last month I argued that our waking dreams have interesting things to tell us. Night dreams do as well, but the listening requires even more patience and curiosity to find the truth at their heart. I remember one dream analyst recommending that you pay attention to the feelings a dream evokes rather than any of the “factual” details. I also find that approach more illuminating than a list of symbolic meanings—dresser drawers symbolize my vagina and hotel rooms sexual intimacy (although you could argue for both).
In any case, I can feel when a dream drips with sexual politics even if everyone keeps his/her clothes on. A good erotic story can achieve the same. (In case you’re curious, yes, as in the photo above, I always sleep in lipstick to look my best 24/7!)
Are your night dreams different from you daydreams?