Historian Thomas D. Clark often claimed that Lexington, Kentucky, long entertained an “infatuation” with the town’s alluring and notorious brothel keeper, Belle Brezing. Today, on Belle’s 155th birthday, that sense of allure continues to draw people into her fold just as it did over a century ago.
Last year, former Lexington Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall added fuel to the flame of this tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South with her book, Madame Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. After years on the streets and in an upscale bordello run out of a former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln, Belle Brezing borrowed enough money to set up her own brothel. She leveraged that first house and her early connections with wealthy patrons to purchase the more suitably ostentatious 59 Megowan Street. Here, on any twilit evening in Lexington, it was common to see fashionable international travelers, horsemen, and civic leaders mounting the five steps to the elegant house.
From the time Belle closed her business until her death in 1940, the once-enterprising madam lived out her retirement as a recluse in her crumbling, ivy-covered mansion. Upon her passing, though, evidence of Belle’s notoriety was made clear when the Lexington Herald’s entire run of nineteen thousand newspaper copies containing its remembrance of Belle sold out by ten that Tuesday morning. News of Belle’s death also reached national levels with an obituary in Time magazine. Her renown was further secured for future generations when she was widely credited as Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Madam Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.
Along with Wall’s book, Belle’s presence is still very much felt around Lexington, particularly downtown on Market Street where you could enjoy a nice bourbon at Belle’s Cocktail House. If you can think of a better way to celebrate her birthday, we’d love to hear it.
Until then, here’s an excerpt from Wall’s Madame Belle to tide you over:
Megowan Street had never seen commotion like Belle’s opening night in 1891. All varieties of horse-drawn vehicles pulled up in front of no. 59, dropping off male passengers wearing formal evening dress. Drivers shouted to their horses. Cabs departed as quickly as they had arrived, the drivers turning their horses sharply back toward the Phoenix Hotel to pick up more fares. In the trickle-down effect the evening had on the local economy, hack drivers made a small fortune in tips on this memorable night.
Belle had invited physicians, lawyers, judges, horsemen, businessmen, and bankers to this fete. Sweet orchestral strains poured into the street every time the door opened to admit another caller. She had hired musicians for her opening, foregoing her mechanical nickelodeon. Her staff had prepared an elegant buffet. Her bar served the finest wines and champagne.
Reminiscences of Belle’s grand opening lingered a long time in the world of the demimonde. These accounts never found their way into the written histories of horse country, yet tales about this party were passed from fathers to sons with a wink and a secret smile. Finally, some seventy years after the event, the evidence proving this party had really taken place emerged in the form of a photograph. A local historian, William Henry Townsend, got a close look at the photo while on a professional visit to Belle’s house.
Townsend went to the house in the company of Thomas D. Clark, then chairman of the history department at the University of Kentucky. These two, along with Charles Staples and J. Winston Coleman Jr., were founding members of a group of book collectors who called themselves the Book Thieves. Clark was at home one August day in 1933 when Townsend pulled into his driveway, honking his horn. Townsend yelled out the window of his car and “in a voice clear enough for all my neighbors to hear, asked me if I would like to go to a whorehouse,” Clark recalled. Belle’s physician, Dr. Charles A. Nevitt, had contacted Townsend and said that Belle wanted someone from the university to go through her library because she was interested in donating her books.
Townsend and Clark hurried to Megowan Street. But the visit with Belle did not come about “because the old lady had suffered another sinking spell and we saw neither her nor her library,” Clark wrote. On a later day, Townsend and Clark, in the company of Coleman, returned. Clark did not believe any of the books they saw were noteworthy. However, Townsend did find something very significant—a photo of the long-rumored party that Belle had inscribed, “My Opening Night, 1891.” Townsend also described separate group photographs of prostitutes and their madams who had come from Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati to attend the opening party. He found photos of Belle from various phases of her life. Most interestingly, he discovered a ledger book that he “impounded” when Belle was not looking.
The photograph of Belle’s opening night showed a banquet table extending the length of three parlors opened wide. On the table Townsend saw “exquisite linens, gleaming silverware, dazzling cut glass, fragile china, tall vases of American Beauty roses, [and] an orchestra behind potted palms in a far corner. At the table sat beautiful young women, appropriately costumed for such an auspicious occasion, and, incredible as it seems today, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, civic and social leaders of the city—quite a number of whom I had known . . . all immaculately clad in full dress suits, making no effort whatever to conceal their identity.”