The Life of a Jazz Age Madam


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The Book Review


In 2007, Debby Applegate won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Most Famous Man in America,” her biography of the 19th-century preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Applegate’s new book, “Madam,” is another biography, of a very different subject: Polly Adler, who ran a brothel and had many famous friends during the Jazz Age in New York City. On this week’s podcast, Applegate describes the challenges of running a business in the underworld.“You have to depend on your reputation,” Applegate says. “You can’t advertise, you can’t sell your product in a normal market square. So you have to cultivate your own kind of word of mouth and your own kind of notoriety. Polly worked out of small but luxurious apartments that were hidden away and constantly moving, so she could stay one step ahead of the cops or other crooks. What Polly did was use that small town but big city of Manhattan, which was really thriving in those years between World War I and World War II, and she became a critical player — a ‘big shot,’ as the gossip columnists called her.”Matthew Pearl visits the podcast to discuss his new book, “The Taking of Jemima Boone,” about the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter in 1776. Pearl is well known as a novelist, and he says that this work of nonfiction has many of the elements he looks for in any good story.“Jemima is such a strong and incredible character to work with,” he says. She was one of the Boones’ 10 children, though “not all of them survived into childhood or adulthood, and Jemima was one who was very close with her father, in particular, and she had really her father’s spirit of persistence and independence.”Also on this week’s episode, Elizabeth Harris has news from the publishing world, and Dwight Garner and Jennifer Szalai talk about books they’ve recently reviewed. Pamela Paul is the host.Here are the books discussed by The Times’s critics this week:“The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails”“Accidental Gods” by Anna Della SubinWe would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to