Tag Archives: Maryjean Wall

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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African Americans and the Kentucky Derby: A Long and Storied History

African American Jockeys Kentucky Derby

Jimmy Winkfield rides Alan-a-Dale in the Kentucky Derby in 1902.

“Today will be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities of which we confidently expect our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, to celebrate in glorious rejoicings.”—Louisville Courier-Journal, May 17, 1875

As we look forward to the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby, we are reminded that it is impossible to talk about the “greatest two minutes in sports” without also talking about African American history. The two are inextricably tied. Of the fifteen riders at the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, thirteen were black, including the winning jockey, Oliver Lewis. Lewis rode Aristides to victory with the help of trainer Ansel Williamson, a former slave.

In the early days of American horse racing, many of the jockeys were slaves, who, after emancipation, continued working as trainers and riders for their former owners. Black jockeys won half of the first sixteen Derbies, and fifteen of the first twenty-eight, and most of the trainers were African American as well.

Baden Baden horse Edward D. Brown

Baden Baden was trained by Edward D. Brown, and ridden to victory by Billy Walker in the 1877 Kentucky Derby.

There was plenty of fame and fortune to be found for successful trainers and riders. At the third Kentucky Derby in 1877, the rider-trainer duo of Billy Walker and Ed “Brown Dick” Brown, guided Baden-Baden to a win. Ed Brown was one of the most successful trainers in the country and famous for his expensive suits and large bankrolls. Brown’s career in racing spanned more than 30 years as a jockey (who won the Belmont Stakes in 1870), a trainer, and as an owner. His horse, Monrovia, won the Kentucky Oaks in 1893. His filly, Etta, won in 1900. He was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1984.

Some of the best-known names of the era were the jockeys. Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton still holds the record as the youngest-ever Kentucky Derby winner. At the age of 15, he won the 1892 Derby astride Azra. Isaac Burns Murphy was very well respected by his fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, breeders, and fans across the country. He was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies. James “Jimmy” Winkfield almost eclipsed Murphy’s record in 1903, when he placed second in what would have been his third Kentucky Derby win in a row.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Winkfield was also the last African American to win the Kentucky Derby. Since 1911, when Jess Conley finished third, only three other black jockeys have ridden horses in the Derby. As James C. Nicholson writes in The Kentucky Derby:

“In fact, black riders were forced out of the sport by jealous white jockeys and bigoted owners and trainers in an increasingly racially biased American society whose court system had given official sanction to various Jim Crow laws by the end of the nineteenth century. As the Derby became increasingly popular on a national scale in the twentieth century, blacks still played indispensable roles in the lives of racehorses and the sport of horse racing. But grooms, hot-walkers, and stable hands operated far from the spotlight that would shine ever brighter on top athletes, including jockeys.”

This Saturday, as the riders take their mounts and as we celebrate the horse-trainer-jockey team who take their victory lap around the winners circle, take a moment to remember history and the men who should never be forgotten.

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This post originally appeared on our blog on April 26, 2015.