Belle Brezing's story is instantly intriguing because of its contradictions: She was a genteel Southern woman of exquisite taste in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who made her living from sex.
The Lexington madam was widely reputed to be the most-arrested woman in the city, but she never spent a night in jail. Operating bordellos, she forged connections to the most powerful people in town. She garnered such a widespread reputation that her bed sold for $30,000 at auction, and she is thought to be the model for the character of Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.
But that has never been the story of Brezing that Lexington playwright Margaret C. Price wanted to tell. She was more interested in the woman who died in virtual isolation in 1940, decades after her business was closed.
"I was very curious about how a woman could shut her life down for 20 years and live on her sun porch and become a total recluse," Price says. "I grew up in Lexington, and a lot of people told me stories about Belle Brezing and the Gone With the Wind connection. But the intriguing part to me was, what happens in a person's life that leads them to retire from life?"
The question arose from Price's work as a child-advocacy attorney who had seen children withdraw psychologically from the pain of their lives.
"You either quit, you let life wear you down until you become alcoholic or drug-addicted, or there are some people who out of that pain, out of that awful suffering, they rise and become the phoenix out of the ashes," Price says. "But Belle Brezing's life didn't make sense to me. There was the colorful and the scandal and the bordello, ... but what drew me to it was that my heart hurt for her."
Price's take on the woman is the play Belle Brezing, which will be presented June 2 to 12 at Actors Guild of Lexington.
Price — whose other works include the children's book Smiley Pete, Magnificent Moocher and the forthcoming Studio Players musical Looking for Mrs. Santa Claus — has worked on Brezing's story for more than 25 years, since AGL presented her original version of the play, 59 Megowan Street, in 1986. The play traveled to the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina in 1989. That production's cast included Bob Singleton, who plays Brezing's lover, Billy Mabon, in the current AGL show.
The play has changed, Singleton says, but it's still recognizable.
"It seems there is a lot of stuff that is different," says Singleton, who played several of the young boys in the 1989 production. "But the heart of it and the basic format is still there."
That story is much more Grey Gardens than The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, or maybe, as the current cast has dubbed it, "A Christmas Carol with prostitutes."
In the story, a ghostly Billy comes back to Belle (played by Laurie Genet Preston) to guide her through a look back at her life, including her out-of-wedlock birth in 1860 to a prostitute, and a childhood of abuse and poverty before she became an elegant pariah. Belle's journey is to face the pain that defined her world and accept the life that she lived.
The play has traveled, including two readings in Los Angeles. Getting Belle Brezing to the big screen is one of Price's current endeavors.
To Singleton, the story is a natural for film.
"You don't have to make any of it up," he says. "It's all right there: this complicated character you can't put in a box. It's the kind of story that sells."
Price says several producers, directors and actresses have seen the play or screenplay, although no firm plans are in place.
"The screenplay has been a lot of fun to work on because in the movies you can create a lot of magic," Price says.
First and foremost, she wants the script to stay true to her intentions and not stray into titillation and gossip.
"She certainly did create a gilded house for men," Price says. "But there was something about her life that she abhorred. It is a story of a fascinating, bright woman who deserved sympathy, deserved empathy, but didn't get it.
"We will never know why Belle Brezing went up to that sun porch and became a recluse. What I wrote is a love story. When a person is hurt so much, their heart starts to close. This is a story of redemption."