- Vice Queens and White Slaves:The FBI’s Crackdown on Elite Brothel Madams in 1930s New York City
In the wake of the FBI’s attack on organized prostitution operating out of exclusive call houses in the late 1930s, which, according to J. Edgar Hoover, “had revealed that powerful vice rings operate in almost every large city in the country,” a sex worker named Linda Robertson from Minneapolis wrote a letter to the bureau chief defending her right to engage in prostitution.1 Proclaiming herself to be “a common prostitute. Clean, healthy, in fine physical condition,” she pointed to her educational background, her ability to rationally choose prostitution in a sex-segregated job market, and the fact that her employers looked after her interests as evidence that she provided a service “necessary to our social structure.” Of her customers, she had this to say: “Lawyers, Priests, business-men, social lions, scions of pioneer families, city and state officials and officers of the Law form the bulk of our customers. They demand superior girls and they get them.” She concluded her note by signing off: “So in the future wouldn’t it be more sportsmanlike to leave us to our devices and let those who actually think they have cause arrest us?”2 Robertson believed the FBI’s crackdown on elite call houses to be hopelessly naive, needlessly interventionist, and perhaps hypocritical in that it criminalized what Robertson believed to be a victimless crime; it targeted only the upper echelons of the commercial sex market, which catered exclusively to the wealthy and well-connected customers, like the ones that Robertson described.
Though Hoover suspected the letter might be a hoax, he still shared it with Courtney Ryley Cooper, a well-known journalist of true crime articles [End Page 137] and books who served informally as a publicist for the FBI by working closely with Hoover. From 1933 to 1942 Cooper collaborated with Hoover to polish the public image of the FBI; he operated as “Hoover’s most important ghostwriter of the 1930s” while also publishing books and articles celebrating the work of the FBI under his own name.3 Cooper reprinted the most sensational parts of the letter as the opening vignette in his 1939 exposé of prostitution, Designs in Scarlet. In that vignette, Cooper recalled what Hoover had said when he handed over the letter: “[Note] the viewpoint. The idea that a well-educated, apparently otherwise decent girl may look upon prostitution as an envied profession.”4 Hoover believed that it was the FBI’s responsibility to protect silly girls like Linda Robertson from the venal people who profited from their degradation. In providing Cooper with this letter, Hoover was mounting a defense against those accusing him of unsportsmanlike, or overly interfering, tactics in his antivice campaigns.
The FBI began investigating call house prostitution in the fall of 1935, and Hoover announced a nationwide attack on vice rings—criminal networks devoted to profiting off of prostitution—in February 1936. For the remainder of that year newspapers across the country routinely published articles about the G-men’s daring exploits against organized vice and their targeting of the madams—frequently called “vice queens”—who profited from New York City’s sex marketplace. Sensational headlines abounded: “Blonde Indicted as White Slaver,” “Bad News for Vice Queen,” and “Women Unfold Sordid Story in Slave Case.”5 In the FBI’s telling, Hoover’s FBI sought to protect the hearts of innocent, naive, white girls from the machinations of madams consumed with greed, ambition, and perversity. According to Hoover, these madams were particularly dangerous because they acted as procurers, “inducing the victims to transport themselves interstate” and violating the federal White Slave Traffic Act, commonly known as the Mann Act.6
Hoover’s embrace of publicity and public relations tactics during this campaign was an unprecedented effort to remake the FBI into a popular culture product. The public relations narrative of the FBI emphasized, in the words of historian Matthew Cecil, “a story of responsibility, science, and leadership, themes that, not coincidentally, undermined critics’ concerns about unchecked federal power.”7 In this effort to solidify the [End Page 138] bureau...