Bottle of Champagne : $12
A night in the Everleigh Club: Priceless
Well, not exactly priceless. From 1900 to 1911, a patron could run up a tab of $1500 at the most luxurious brothel in the country. But a gentleman could dine for years on his stories of an experience at the famous Everleigh Club.
Ada and Minna Everleigh were shrewd businesswomen. At the ripe young ages of 21 and 23, these ladies left their abusive husbands (also siblings) and eventually landed in Omaha , Nebraska. They dropped their maiden name of Lester and took Everleigh from their grandmother’s habit of signing letters “Everly Yours.” In Omaha they opened their first brothel during the Trans-Mississippi Exposition with $35,000 of inheritance money from their father (Name from their grandmother, money from their father – wonder what they would have thought of the sisters’ profession…). Understanding that to be successful they had to offer an experience for their gentlemen clients, they created a luxurious environment that offered food, champagne, and music in addition to lovely ladies.
After doubling their profits in two years, they moved their operations to Chicago’s Levee district. In 1900 they took over an existing brothel at 2131 South Dearborn and transformed it into a sumptuous palace. Each parlor had a different theme: Japanese Throne Room, Rose Parlor, Silver Parlor, and the Turkish Room were some. The Gold Room was aptly named with its $15,000 gold-leafed piano, gold-rimmed fishbowls, and gilt furniture. Of course, each room absolutely had to have a $650 gold spittoon. And no proper bordello would be complete without tapestries, fresh flowers, perfume fountains, and live music from a piano and strings.
The sisters didn’t stop with the physical space. Men would pay the entrance fee just for the opportunity to dine at the club – at a time when beer cost a nickel. Ada and Minna employed cordon bleu chefs and had anywhere from 15 to 20 people working in the kitchen. A typical menu might include caviar, pheasants, lobster, capon, and bonbons, all served in a room designed to look like a Pullman dining car.
But the crème de la crème was the ladies. To work at the Everleigh Club, you couldn’t merely be a pretty face; you had to be a courtesan. If a man was going to spend $50 for the opportunity to enjoy your company, you had better be attractive, graceful, well-read, and able to discourse on any number of subjects.
All of these factors combined to make the Everleigh Club a destination for well-to-do men. Captains of industry, nobles and royalty would visit the club, including the Prince of Prussia. And if you spent less than $50, you were kindly asked not to return.
For over a decade the sisters provided entertainment and relaxation while amassing a fortune. They had to pay hundreds of thousands in protection money to the likes of Bathhouse Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, but even those two nefarious characters couldn’t help when Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. decided to make an example of the club. A brochure extolling the virtues of their house of pleasure fell into the reformist’s hands, and in October of 1911 it was shut down.
Ada and Minna, now 33 and 35, quietly gathered their $1,000,000 in cash, $200,000 in jewelry, and their $15,000 piano and toured Europe. Upon returning to the states they chose New York City as their home and resumed using their maiden name of Lester. For the next several decades they enjoyed the theater and hosted poetry circles.
I can just imagine the horror the matrons of New York would have felt to learn their gracious, dignified hostesses had once owned the most famous house of ill repute in the country.
Books about the Everleigh Sisters:
Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul
COME INTO MY PARLOR. A Biography of the Everleigh Sisters of Chicago.