Happy Birthday, Belle Brezing!

Belle

E. I. “Buddy” Thompson, the original biographer of Belle Brezing, stated that the original of this portrait of Belle stood in a gold leaf frame next to her bed at No. 59 Megowan Street. (Courtesy of The Belle Brezing Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky)

Belle Brezing (June 16, 1860 – August 11, 1940) was a nationally known madam whose story was as enthralling as any movie script. In fact, she was widely credited as Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Madam Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind.

Former Lexington Herald-Leader turf writer Maryjean Wall tells Brezing’s 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.

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 celebratory bourbon at Belle’s Cocktail House in honor of her birthday.

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