Current events aside, it is not that easy being a prostitute.
The life is not glamorous no matter who you ask. You have your admirers, of course, and, if you're colorful and it's antebellum Lexington and certain established rules are being flouted, you have your certain brand of fame.
Belle Brezing was the most successful madam this town ever had. The bed she (and others) slept in for 40 years was bought at the 1894 Exposition in San Francisco and was later sold for a whopping $30,000 at auction simply because it was hers. It is slept in every night in a private home in Lexington and has inspired the Downtown Lexington Corp. to run its first-ever bed race downtown Thursday afternoon in her honor.
From hooker to legend in one easy step? Not really. She owes a debt of gratitude for her longevity to native Kentuckian John Marsh and his better-known wife, Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, who just might have immortalized Brezing forever as the flamboyant Belle Watling in her Southern masterpiece, but repeatedly and vehemently denied it.
Make up your own mind.
A quick bio for the Belle-deprived
■ Born Mary Belle Cox in 1860.
■ Married, had a child, Daisy May, in 1876.
■ First job is working at a brothel located at what we now call the Mary Todd Lincoln House; moves out to start her own house in 1881; her last and most famous was a three-story with stained glass windows and plush carpet, chandeliers, silk draperies, walnut staircases and newly available electricity.
■ Her benefactor, William M. Singerly, owned a Philadelphia newspaper, dabbled in Holsteins and real estate and never missed the trotting horse meets in Lexington. President Grover Cleveland was a good friend of Singerly, who was once nominated for governor of Pennsylvania. Singerly kept Belle in beautiful clothing, surrounded by beautiful art and beautiful music until his own downfall in the Depression.
■ At one time Belle was the most indicted person in Lexington history but somehow never spent a day in jail.
■ Although she died poor and morphine-addicted, her August 1940 death was a ”Milestone“ in Time magazine that week.
■ Whenever her known possessions go on auction in Lexington, they tend to bring many times their value. (A cranberry-glass pickle caster, for example, engraved with her name, valued at about $200, sold for $2,200.)
A few coincidences to consider
Belle Brezing vs.the fictional Belle Watling
1) Same first name
2) Same number of letters in last name, including the -ing
3) Had a child who was sent away to school
4) Acquired a rich and flashy benefactor who subsidized her entire enterprise
5) Famously tried to fund a local hospital with her ”ill-gotten gain“ but was rejected by the more upstanding women of town.
6) Did manage many charitable acts for the poor of town who did not reject her.
7) Rode in a fancy phaeton with black coachmen in attendance
8) Accepted only the finest of gentlemen and charged accordingly
9) Employed an orchestra for downstairs entertainment
10) Had reputation for being able to provide a good alibi.
The evidence, such as it is
1) John Marsh, Margaret Mitchell's future husband, came to Lexington in 1912 and began to put himself through the University of Kentucky by working part-time at the Lexington Leader. He covered the police beat. According to Marianne Walker, the author of Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, the likelihood that Marsh knew Belle through his police connections is hardly indisputable.
2) In 1926, Mitchell wrote a letter explaining her fascination with an incident involving a prostitute in Atlanta. She explains she is wrangling for the rights to read and publish the details of the woman's diary. ”Like most innocent and well-bred young women,“ Mitchell wrote, speaking about Scarlett O'Hara, ”she had a devouring curiosity about prostitutes.“ It is presumed by many, including Walker, that during this time John would have happily told her tales about Belle, just to tide her over.
3) When GWTW came out in 1936, not a single man in Lexington didn't know who Belle Watling was modeled after. The description of the woman, her manner, her house, the band that played downstairs, her livery, her driver, her rules, her charities and her life situation matched the details of Brezing's life, too.
4) As to Mitchell and Marsh's contention, per an Aug. 20, 1940, telegram, that ”neither Belle Watling nor any other character in book was taken from any real person all are fictional creations and any similarity of name was accidental“:
In 1989 Dr. E. Lee Spence, an underwater archaeologist and shipwreck expert, produced evidence that Mitchell had based most of Rhett Butler on the life of Charlestonian George Alfred Trenholm, a tall, handsome, shipping magnate who made millions from — and went to prison because of — his successful blockade-running during the Civil War.
Sources: Madam Belle Brezing, by Buddy Thompson (Buggy Whip Press, 1983).
Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With The Wind, by Marianne Walker (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., 1993).
The New York Times, The Story of A Busy Life, biography of William Singerly, dated June 28, 1894
Time magazine, Belle Brezing obituary, Aug. 26, 1940
Archives, Lexington Herald, Lexington Leader
University of Kentucky digital archives
Interview with Marianne Walker
Interview with Mark Boltinghouse, who owns many pieces of furniture and artifacts previously owned by Ms. Brezing
Reach Amy Wilson at 231-3305 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3305.