Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Applegate explores the life of Pearl "Polly" Adler, a Russian Jewish immigrant who lifted herself from poverty by founding one of New York City's most exclusive Jazz Age brothels, patronized by celebrities even as it was a focus of crackdowns by the city's "vice" warriors.
... a Horatio Alger-style success story with a walk-on-the-wild-side twist ... Adler’s ghostwritten autobiography, published in the 1950s, allows Applegate to anchor the story in the madam’s own words. But the author carefully connects the dots whenever her subject proves evasive. While Adler glossed over her swift ascent to the ranks of Manhattan’s in-crowd, for instance, Applegate is certain she made her living as a prostitute before becoming the boss ... Applegate immerses readers in the rich vernacular of the times ... This is historical narrative at its best—equal parts illuminating and engrossing. Applegate’s research method leaves no stone unturned, and she displays an impressive command of the rich trove of material she has meticulously unearthed. The storytelling is stellar. She has an eye for detail, an ear for anecdote and dialogue, and an unfailing sense of the perfect place to insert the perfect quotation from Adler or one of her famous acquaintances and contemporaries.
... a fast-paced tale of radical, willful transformation ... a breathless tale told through extraordinary research. Indeed, the galloping pace of Applegate’s book sometimes makes the reader want to pull out a white flag and wave in surrender—begging for her to slow down. The mob violence, political corruption, social approbation and multitude of johns that Polly confronts at her ever-changing brothel locations are both impressive and unrelenting. And while Polly seems to be in the thick of the action, those who surround her often also outshine her ... the takeaway for this reader at least is that Polly deserves our attention because her life shows how women who wish to transcend their status must become expert practitioners of chameleonism. That is also what makes Polly on some level a frustrating subject for a biography. As Applegate concedes, Polly 'hid far more of her story than she shared, even from herself.' In other words, the very trait that made Polly Adler survive and succeed is also what makes her defiantly elusive. Applegate, armed with formidable skills, may be the biographer who can come closest to revealing her.
Applegate writes masterfully in linear prose, accompanied by visually engaging photography ... For a character in history that seemed to hold an incredible amount of power, Adler is shown here as someone who sincerely attempts to make the American dream a reality. The summation of this era is so often centered around the male experience; Applegate takes this stereotype and flips the narrative to reveal the dark underbelly of New York and the women who ran it.