Of Ministers and Madams

Portrait of Debby Applegate
Debby Applegate '89. Photo by Rob Mattson.

After spending some 20 years on her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, Debby Applegate swore she’d never write another. “I felt like a 19th-century schoolboy who’d studied too long by candlelight and strained my eyes,” she says. In 2006 Amherst magazine reviewed her book about the 19th-century preacher, which won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize. Yet even after that critical acclaim, Applegate balked at the idea of diving into another project.

But archival collections—starting with those in Frost Library at Amherst—“brainwashed me into being an historian,” she says, and made her “unfit” for other work. Searching for a new historical subject, she decided to study New York City in the 1920s. After a year of reading widely, she pulled a bright red book from the open stacks of the Yale University Library. It was a memoir by Polly Adler, a notorious madam. The book, A House is Not a Home, captivated Applegate: “Within days, I made the decision to write about her.”

Madams leave a different trail of evidence than preachers do, so Applegate’s process has shifted from reading old letters to searching for caches of secret documents. Evidence has popped up in unexpected places: a trash collector in Nebraska discovered a suitcase of correspondence between Adler and her ghostwriter, and the last remaining trunk of Adler’s memorabilia is guarded by an ex-boyfriend of her final heir. Applegate is planning a trip to Northern California to track down this trunk with the help of a state marshal.

Applegate finds the “Sherlock Holmes” work more fun than the writing. She quotes from Adler’s memoir: “If I’d known how hard it would be to write this book, I’d have stayed a madam.”