Hollywood biopics tended to follow one of two routes – overcoming circumstances or falling victim to circumstances. Polly Adler’s autobiography A House Is Not A Home fitted into neither category. It was more of a survivor’s guide and if there was any element of triumph it was within an unsavory profession and one that sailed too close to the nether worlds of the Prohibition gangster.
The film stuck to a shorter time frame than the book, kaleidoscoping certain events and characters, highlighting an inevitably impossible romance and adding a gangster subplot, while acting as an expose of civic corruption, cops especially rubbing their noses in the financial trough.
Dramatic license is taken throughout the film, for example Adler (Shelley Winters in the film) was not rescued in the book by future lover Casey Booth (Ralph Taeger), who was in any case a pseudonym, but first met him when he drank himself unconscious in her brothel. Lucky Luciano (Cesar Romero) makes only a brief appearance in the book. Both film and book skip present Adler as businesswoman first and victim second.
Adler’s unflinching attitude to the business is core to both book and film but inevitably a movie made in Hollywood in the mid-1960s enjoyed less freedom in matters relating to sex than a book published a decade before. In some respects it’s a shame that the film was shot in such prohibitive times. Had it been made today either as a movie or mini-series it would have had a more decent chance of telling a better story and bypassing the pressing issues of morality, as was the case with Molly’s Game (2017), another true story, about a woman heading up a multi-million-dollar illegal gambling racket.
The book tells a fascinating story and casts a light on troubled times. Adler came to the U.S. as an immigrant at the age of 13, was raped by her workplace supervisor, thrown out of her home and went into the pimping business by accident before setting up her own brothel. But she did quit and operated instead as a lingerie retailer before being duped out of her savings. Thereafter, back in the sex worker business, she made a point of hiring only the most beautiful girls and her career path demonstrated a fascinating understanding of business, especially her grasp of marketing, as she moved from the gangster world into high society.
There were busts along the way and she went out of business for over a year when implicated in the Seabury vice investigations of 1930-1931 and for a time afterwards was bankrolled by gangster Dutch Schultz. And although Adler worked her way up to notable personality and enjoyed the attention of artists and members of high society who used her premises almost as a salon, she did not run shy of spelling out the worst aspects of the life.
Loneliness was a key factor. It was impossible to retain a relationship except a destructive one with a pimp or gangster. Poverty, lack of education, poor home environment, lack of love and early exploitation were the reasons women became sex workers. Suicide – loss of hope – was common as was drug use. A high-class brothel was a long way from the type of operation where women were expected to service 25 men a day – a record of their activity kept by a “lace curtain” of holes punched into a sheet – but yet, inevitably, that was the final destination for the high-class girls once age or drugs or alcohol took its toll.
“To outsiders it seems hypocritical and hair-splitting for a madam to make a distinction between herself and a pimp,” said Adler who maintained she did not fall into the latter category because her girls kept more of the money they earned and she did not take on inexperienced girls whereas a pimp seduced girls into the life and kept them there often by hooking them on drugs.
Much like Don Corleone in The Godfather, morality did not enter the equation. “If I was to make a living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint.”
Unlike the bulk of women employed as sex workers, the Adler story had a happy ending. After being busted in 1943 and undergoing a public humiliation on vacation, she retired from the business, went to university and wrote her biography which turned into a bestseller. She died in 1962, two years before the film appeared.