Maryjean Wall, a former Lexington Herald-Leader reporter and current history instructor at the University of Kentucky, explores one of Kentucky’s most notorious daughters in this concise biographical work. Focusing on Madam Belle Brezing, owner and operator of one of Kentucky’s most infamous brothels, Wall tells a story laced with sex, intrigue, and power to show the way public morality, urban growth, and economic expansion intersected in the Gilded Age South. Although something of an urban legend in Lexington’s local history, as well as a rumored basis for Margaret Mitchell’s Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind, Wall argues Brezing’s historical significance is larger than simple local novelty. Brezing provides historians the ability to see how spheres of the intimate and business world crossed and how socially invisible figures could find themselves at the center of growing circles of power in economics and urban politics.
Brezing was largely able to accomplish this by pursuing an image of southern gentility and refinement in a period of Kentucky’s history noted for horse racing and land speculation. Businessmen from the Northeast, when being courted by their southern counterparts, were treated to the horse-racing tracks and then Brezing’s brothel, where important business deals were made. As Wall writes, “Perhaps people everywhere were trying to escape the present during the 1890s and early twentieth century by reverting in their imaginations to something they perceived as a more delightful age . . . Belle’s business model—gracious hospitality dispensed by a southern belle—placed her conveniently within the parameters of the rising myth” (p. 78).
This business model, prostitution with a faux air of southern gentility, served Brezing well with many of Lexington’s urban leaders. Her brothel was frequented not only by the business leaders of the state but also its political leaders. This was often a contentious point. Forced to relocate her house, Wall argues Brezing was able to sustain [End Page 726] the period of her most consistent growth by being located in an unofficial red-light district of the city. Typical for much of nineteenth-century America, this toleration of prostitution was attributable to many of these districts being located in neglected African American neighborhoods. Yet this toleration had its limits. With the growing fervor of the Progressive-era reformers Brezing and other owners of brothels soon found they were unable to continue their businesses as they had in the century prior. Despite gaining considerable power and influence for a businesswoman in the period, Brezing was ultimately unable to solidify that power into a lasting alliance with city government and was eventually forced to close her brothel.
Wall dedicates much of the early chapters to the social stigma Brezing as an individual had to face from society. This is a continuing theme throughout the book and is an interesting point for future researchers. Wall demonstrates that even in the world of prostitution there were class divisions, with figures like Brezing occupying the top echelons. How did Brezing’s experiences differ from the majority of working-class prostitutes? How did social norms impact prostitutes of different classes? All of these questions are a natural extension of the work Wall deftly provides.
Due to the secretive nature of prostitution, much of the information about Brezing and her brothel is lost. Yet Wall is able, through the work of earlier researchers like E. I. “Buddy” Thompson, who paid local figures for documents from Brezing’s brothel, as well as a group of local historians and collectors called the “Book Thieves,” who stole books and photos from Brezing in the 1930s, to piece together much of Brezing’s business practices and clients.
More than a simple biography, Wall provides an urban economic and political history of Lexington that explores elements of reform, economic growth, and business practices. Written in an accessible manner, this book is well worth the time of any reader interested in the history of prostitution, Kentucky, or the Gilded Age South. [End Page 727]