Tag Archives: Madam Belle

Q&A with Maryjean Wall, author of Madam Belle

WallCompF.inddIn this revealing book, Maryjean Wall offers a tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South, as told through the life and times of the notorious Miss Belle. After years on the streets and working for Hill, Belle Brezing borrowed enough money to set up her own establishment—her wealth and fame growing alongside the booming popularity of horse racing. Soon, her houses were known internationally, and powerful patrons from the industrial cities of the Northeast courted her in the lavish parlors of her gilt-and-mirror mansion.

Join the Kentucky Book Group on Thursday, September 20th from 6:30-7:30 at the Paul Sawyier Public Library for a riveting and engaging discussion on MADAM BELLE.

 

How did you first become acquainted with the story of Belle Brezing?

Soon after I moved to Lexington in the mid-1960s, I began to hear about Belle Brezing and the infamous mansion for men she had operated near downtown. She had been dead only twenty-some years and many people recalled her presence in this city. If you mentioned Belle’s name, people knew of whom you spoke. William H. Townsend, a Lexington attorney and historian, published a seven-page pamphlet in 1966 titled, “The Most Orderly of Disorderly Houses” and this pamphlet undoubtedly kept the legend going. Who wouldn’t have been interested in knowing more about this woman who ran a famous house of ill repute and was the prototype for the madam in Gone with the Wind? The mystery and mystique of Belle inspired me to explore further.

Belle was a businesswoman ahead of her time. Despite it being a brothel, what particular challenges did she face establishing and maintaining her own business?

She faced gender and poverty issues. In the beginning as a 15-year-old, when she’d already had a baby, seen her mother die, and been evicted by her mother’s landlord, Belle faced a grim future. She had a bad reputation in this city and probably was not going to get a job in a decent establishment. Or, perhaps she did not want to support herself in that traditional fashion. She turned to prostitution. But she did work her way up the financial ladder. It’s an amazing story.

The gender issues she faced were the same that all women faced in the 1880s, the 1890s and the early twentieth century. Women did not even have the vote yet. They could not exercise public power. Most women occupied the domestic sphere, raising families, and maintaining a home for their husbands. Belle chose to handle gender issues in non-traditional fashion. She worked disadvantages to her own advantage, improving her position in this community until she owned property, was wealthy, and operated at the city’s center of power.

What role did Lexington play in enabling Belle to develop her business as successfully as she did?

Lexington was a city of its time, embracing the 1890s notion that prostitution—called “a necessary evil” at the time—was best handled by segregating prostitutes into a red-light district. Any madam running prostitutes in her house was complicit in the corruption pervasive among city authorities. Also, Kentucky’s rising horse industry during the post-Civil War decades enabled Belle’s rise to power and fame, just as Belle’s identity as a southern belle played a role in crafting a most advantageous southern identity for Kentucky and its horse industry.

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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.