I bet you thought Al Capone was the first star of Chicago's underworld, right? Not so, discovered Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City
. From 1899 to its shutdown in 1912, the lavish Everleigh Club in Chicago's red-light district was one of the city's most famous attractions. The Everleigh harlots studied the philosophies of Balzac, dined on gourmet food, were examined by a legitimate physician and paid well. Famous men, from Prince Henry of Prussia to Marshall Field Jr., visited the dazzling club; a gold piano, the gourmet Pullman Buffet, a lavish dining hall that churned out meals with $50 price tags, and the Japanese Throne Room, where the gentleman were entertained, were just a few of the club's exquisite aspects.
In Abbott's first book, she thrusts Minna and Ada Everleigh, astounding sisters who rose from utter rags to become two of the most successful female entrepreneurs in American history, back into the city's spotlight.
Tell me a bit about your new book, Sin in the Second City.
It's the outrageous true story of two sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh, who opened the most luxurious and famous brothel 100 years ago in Chicago, and the culture war that ensued when people tried to shut it down. The story to me is about these really enthralling, maverick, intelligent sisters, who are two of our earliest female entrepreneurs. When they retired, they had a million dollars in cash, which is the equivalent of about 20 million today. They were ingenious businesswomen and so ahead of their time, and I was really excited to finally tell their story. I couldn't believe that no one had talked about them before at any length.
photo: pictured: Japanese Throne Room
Where'd you get your inspiration?
My great-grandmother came to America from Slovenia in 1905 and moved to Pittsburgh. She had a sibling who moved to Chicago and was never seen again. I never really thought I was going to find out what happened to my relative, and once I came upon the Everleigh sisters, I didn't really care. I was much more interested in them than I was in doing any sort of family genealogy, but I was interested in the circumstances that could have led to her disappearance, and in what was going on during turn-of-the-century Chicago.
I've never heard of the old Levee district, Chicago's red-light district where the book takes place. Maybe this is because I grew up on the North side, but do you feel like this period has sort of been hidden?
It's strange because I'm running into older Chicagoans—I've gotten a lot of letters, e-mails, comments from people—who say "my father used to mention the Everleigh Club or my grandfather used to talk about the Club." For some people, their grandfathers saw the Everleigh sisters walking down the street. But the younger generation, I don't think that anyone was really aware of them, and it's been great to bring them back to life, too, because Chicago probably has the best underlife history in the country. It was a great time to delve into Chicago history before Capone—all of Chicago's underworld was sort of overshadowed by Capone. Bringing to life people like Big Jim Colosimo, who was responsible for introducing Capone, and to talk about these gangsters who set the stage for this 1920s era was really amazing.
You know all about Chicago's historic underworld, but what are you favorite hangouts nowadays?
My favorite places that I've been to in Chicago after my research trips are the Green Mill, the Billy Goat—those are my two big ones. The Walnut Room at Marshall Field's [now Macy's], because that place was in the book, and the Chicago Brauhaus!
Who else should we be reading? Who are you reading?
I love Erik Larson. I'm sure everyone has already read his book, Devil in the White City. Pete Dexter is one of my very favorite writers. Alice McDermott, Sarah Waters—they [both] do really great historical stuff.
To learn more about Sin in the Second City or for a list of upcoming local readings, visit www.sininthesecondcity.com