“She’s the one with the bun who looks like a grandma,” said the manicurist of the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan. The jaded employees of the grand hotel barely noticed the train of celebrities who normally paraded through reception and they were blasé about the international heads of states who’d slept there. But when Pauline Tabor waddled in on a bright March day, the manicurist and bellhop bounded up the stairs to catch a glimpse of one of the South’s most famous madams.
Pauline’s story began sixty-eight years before her trip to New York. Roughly thirty miles north of the small community where we lived in my father’s funeral home, a two-lane road stretched past tobacco farms, cow pastures, a slew of churches, and the surviving buildings that the Shakers once owned, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, a sleepy little university town.
Pauline was born to strict church-going parents in 1905. They made sure her virginity remained intact until her marriage at the age of 18 to a rogue who gave her two sons and nothing more except headaches and heartache from his carousing. Soon she was a divorced woman, a Sunday school teacher no less, with no means of support. She and her two children moved back into her childhood home. With her parents’ business swiftly failing thanks to the trickle down effect of the 1929 stock market crash, Pauline needed to contribute.
She knocked on the doors of the few commercial streets in Bowling Green, but faced the prospect of no work as the Great Depression deepened. She tried door-to-door selling, but housewives tried to steal her merchandise, dogs bit her, lonely men at home propositioned her, and the commission checks were always late.
With the help of an older man with whom she had a longstanding platonic relationship, she found her way to Louisville, Kentucky where she worked in a tobacco company until she was stricken with typhoid. For six months she languished and recovered so slowly that she had to call upon her parents to take her back to Bowling Green. Due to “damaged glands” she ballooned to two hundred and fifteen pounds, (15 5/14 stone) a burden upon her 5-foot, 6-inch frame.
Almost penniless, again Pauline slogged along with samples of cosmetics and silk stockings to the doors of Bowling Green’s residents. One day while tired and hungry she decided to treat herself to lunch in a downtown hotel. After she dined, the bellhop slipped her a note from a gentleman who had noticed her arrival. Pauline met him in his room and asked him for ten dollars. He responded, “Honey, I don’t want to buy you. I just want to rent you for a while. Five bucks and nothing more.” The deal was agreed and thirty minutes later she left the hotel “not feeling a bit unclean or guilty” and realized there was money to be made.
Miss May, the madam of a brothel in Clarksville, Tennessee kindly gave Pauline a two day crash course in whorehouse etiquette, health and safety, and how and when to grease palms of the people who ran the town. In addition, for the very short time Pauline remained a prostitute, Miss May taught her how to attract men in spite of her girth and lack of beauty.
Bad luck followed her in her first attempts to set up a brothel. One house was destroyed by fire, another by a flood from which she was rescued by a man who floated by her house in a raft. Finally, in 1944 she settled into her most famous home, a red brick house on Clay Street located daringly close to downtown Bowling Green.
When the house opened at six o’clock each evening Pauline expected routine. She inspected the girls’ grooming, cranked up the jukebox and opened the door. She required the girls to be flirtatious, seductive and to attract as many men as possible. If any one of the girls couldn’t muster enough bravado on a regular basis, she was out.
The turnover for each client was about twenty to thirty minutes. Money was collected first and stored safely away. The prostitute then carefully washed the man with soap and water. A certain amount of foreplay was included, the job was performed, the girl washed the man again, and herself, then they both dressed and went back downstairs.
A prostitute could service two to three men an hour. On busy nights, and most of them were, she could turn twenty to thirty tricks. When moralists accused prostitutes of being lazy, Pauline responded with, “Try working a twelve-hour shift in a busy house sometime.” No matter how busy the evening, Pauline knew exactly how much she was due. She split the proceeds fifty-fifty with each girl and any who tried to cheat her were swiftly kicked out the door, no second chances.
Every man who appeared at her door was screened before they entered and before they left. She measured drunkenness, meanness and mental illness; apparently she could tell by the look in their eyes. She owned revolvers and shotguns and threatened a deserving man if he was unarmed. If he was carrying and robbed her, she waited until he was in his car, then shot up his car aiming to damage.
Her clients were millionaires, politicians, policemen, lawmakers, teachers from the university, students and countless husbands whose marriages Pauline is certain she saved. One of her clients was known as the Peeping Tom Judge who paid Pauline for wardrobe space. For two years one of the prostitutes agreed to let him spy on her while he sat folded up in the chifforobe. One night, in a moment of excitement, he almost fell out. Pauline was furious and revoked his privilege forever.
Pauline’s girls were given beautiful clothes, health checks once a week and allowed one week off a month as long as they didn’t flaunt or haunt the downtown area. They were housewives looking to earn enough to feed their children, students paying their way through college, women earning seed money to set up legitimate businesses, and beauties from all corners of the South. Her rules included no lesbians, because in her experience they were jealous and fought too much, and no falling in love with clients. She offered personal advice, foremost of which was to make as much money as quickly as possible, save it, and then get out of the business before it was too late, before they became too old and the job “damaged their souls”. She was a strong advocate for legalizing and regulating prostitution.
Pregnancies occurred no matter the diligence in preventing them. Pauline’s best and most trusted abortionist was a black woman who used a bit of proper medicine, but relied most heavily on the folk cures handed down to her from her ancestors who were slaves.
Pauline was perhaps the only madam of her era who was required to end a strike of prostitutes. She hired a new girl who was homely. This flat-chested woman braided her hair in long plaits, and did nothing to hide her freckles, relying instead on a clean, scrubbed look. She felt that to compete with Pauline’s beautiful and seductive women she had to maximize her Lolita image. Customers flocked to her and virtually ignored the others. The girls went on strike until Pauline fired the woman to keep the peace.
Pauline particularly enjoyed the wealthy and lusty oilmen who reserved the house for a couple of days when they were in town. They spent freely and enjoyed themselves, unlike the politicians of which she said ‘didn’t know how to have a good time’. She allowed a few customers to fulfil their desire to be whipped and closed the house to other clients during marathon nights of screaming. A well-known Kentucky horse trainer requested an evening of horseplay, tied to the bedposts. At his command, he was whipped into such a violent frenzy that he broke free. When he got out of hand Pauline ran in and smashed him over the head with a heavy water pitcher. She charged him a fortune.
The madam indulged her love of antiques and decorated with Tiffany lamps, chandeliers, Gallé cameo glass and heavy ornate furniture. Her most valuable piece was a cabinet made by two brothers in Ohio County, KY in the mid 1700’s. Her beautiful bedrooms were always freshly wallpapered, every room a different colour and each room was meticulously colour coordinated, including the sheets. She created lush lawns and gardens. In the 1970s her antiques were valued at $500,000.
So it was all good, dirty fun and games. No. Not quite. You can’t run a notorious house of prostitution in the town in which you were born without tears and suffering. Bowling Green was only about 20,000 people strong in the 1940s. Downtown was merely more than a pretty park square with a smattering of shops lining a few blocks. Any friendships from her childhood, marriage, or life as a young woman were over. Her sons were sent to their grandparents for extended stays and suffered ridicule and embarrassment. Pauline Tabor couldn’t walk down the street without people pointing, staring, hissing and being subjected to punishing remarks from the group she called the ”Holy Joes”.
Money helped. When the hypocrites came to her in secret and asked for cash handouts she never rebuked them. Her charity knew no colour boundaries. Black families were grateful for the food, clothing and toys she provided at Christmas. Her own family members were not shy of asking favours. “When I first when into the business I would meet some of my family on the street and they would duck into a door to keep from speaking to me. But when I started making a little money they would go out of their way to see how sweet they could say, ‘Hi Pauline’. That’s when I started ducking in doors.”
Pauline retired a wealthy woman in 1968. She bought a 148-acre farm and became one of the nation’s first organic farmers. She even married again for a short time and after his death said that her bookmaker husband was “marvellous” and spoiled her.
Law enforcement and Holy Joes had tried to run her out of business for ages, but it was urban renewal that tore down the red brick house. When Pauline found out that a few men were selling the bricks, her anger led her to action. “If a couple of shrewdies figure to make a killing on the bricks of my house, by God I’ll not be upstaged. I’ll tell stories that bricks can’t voice.”
She did just that in her book, PAULINE’S – MEMOIRS OF THE MADAM ON CLAY STREET. She never named names, but told the truth, sometimes brutally, in a jolly and entertaining voice. The book was published in 1971 in a regular hardback edition. Also published was a special numbered edition covered in red velvet and enhanced with a brass lock and key. Years later I found a dusty old copy of the velvet book and read it in one sitting, drop-jawed and blushing.
After the publication of her book, the producers of The Dick Cavett Show flew Pauline to New York for an appearance on his nation wide television show. The staff at the St. Regis said she wasn’t famous - she was infamous. The producers settled her now 240 pound frame in a rocking chair, which suggested to the audience that a sweet old grandmother was going to entertain them with a few homespun tales of the South. Imagine the crew's, guests' and television audience’s reactions when Pauline frankly and explicitly described her forty-year career as a madam.
If there was one thing my father taught me it was that it doesn’t matter how big your life has been, or how small, how celebrated, or quiet. It comes to this.