Belle Brezing, the madam who ran a high-class Victorian-era brothel and was the model for Belle Watling in Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind, is woven into the colorful fabric of Lexington's history.
"Lexington is a very tolerant city. Belle is part of that gay, lesbian, transgender culture that includes Henry Faulkner and Sweet Evening Breeze," said Jamie Millard, past president of the Lexington History Museum. "She was an outcast who made her own way and wasn't afraid of who she was."
Belle catered to powerful men from Lexington and beyond, men who came to the Bluegrass because of the horse business and tobacco. Her boyfriend was a wealthy man from Philadelphia, said Maryjean Wall, the Herald-Leader's former turf writer, who is writing a book on Belle Brezing. "Belle had a pretty classy clientele."
At least one governor was a fan of Belle's. Within months of her indictment on charges in 1882, Gov. Luke Blackburn quietly pardoned her for "keeping a bawdy house."
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When Belle died, she warranted an obituary in Time magazine.
The way she gained a national reputation was during the Spanish-American War when U. S. Army units were billeted in Lexington, Millard said.
"Only the officers could go to Belle's house. The enlisted men had to go to the other houses," he said. "These officers were young men, the cream of the crop, from socially prominent families in Philadelphia and Baltimore. When they went home, they talked about Belle's place in Lexington. That's how Belle became known nationally."
Belle grew up in Lexington's west end in a horrible family situation, had a baby out of wedlock at age 16, and was soon turning tricks as a street prostitute, said Wall, author of How Kentucky Became Southern and a part-time faculty member in the University of Kentucky's history department.
Her first two brothels were on North Upper Street.
"They were called dollar houses," Millard said. When Belle bought a grand house at 59 Megowan Street (now Northeastern Avenue), "She became a $5 house."
Wall said Belle's Megowan Street mansion "was a classy establishment." Belle ran "a tight ship" there.
"She had rules," Wall said of Belle. "She didn't allow her girls downstairs during business hours without wearing an evening gown. No cussing was allowed. She didn't like her clientele to do that either."
Belle had a liquor license, and her house became like a men's club.
"Men would frequently go there, not to go upstairs with a prostitute, but to find congenial company with other men, and the women," Wall said.
Belle was petite and not especially beautiful, Wall said. "But she had a way with men. Her business was well patronized."
Everyone in town knew Belle, who she was and what she did, Millard said.
"She would bank very publicly (at Lexington National City Bank). Embry's, Lowenthal's, all those women's apparel stores downtown would allow her girls to shop after hours," he said. "Belle didn't shop in Lexington. She only shopped in New York."
In a Lexington city directory of the time, madams and their profession were listed. "There was a "D" for doctor, an "L" for lawyer and there was an "M" for madam," Millard said. "Belle has a boldface listing on one page; on the opposite page was a boldface listing for Broadway Christian Church. I always thought that was a good way to show at that time in our history, her profession was not something to be ashamed of. It was very open."
Belle used her business acumen and charm to build a successful business, and in the process became a wealthy woman, Millard said. This was when few career opportunities existed for women, outside of being a teacher or a nurse.
"She always thought of herself as a businesswoman," he said. "Forget what business she was in. She was highly successful at what she did."
Wall said her interpretation of Belle is, "She had an opportunity on more than one occasion to get out of this life, but she never did. She loved money." Belle's boyfriend set her up so she didn't have to work, Wall said, but, "I think she enjoyed working."
Belle's world changed about the time of World War I.
The Army again billeted and trained soldiers in the Lexington area. But this time, the temperance movement was in full swing, and public opinion was focused on "vice." Under orders from the Army, brothels were closed in 1915, according to E. I. "Buddy" Thompson's book Madame Belle Brezing.
Three years later, the houses gradually began to reopen, but Belle voluntarily kept hers closed. "She retired," Millard said. "She was such a smart businesswoman, she lived on her investments for the rest of her life."
Belle continued to live quietly on Megowan Street. She died Aug. 11, 1940, at age 80, of advanced uterine cancer.
Lexington's fascination with Belle continues to this day. The Lexington History Museum's major fundraiser for several years was Belle's Birthday Ball, held in June to commemorate her birthday.
Belle is buried in Lexington's Calvary Cemetery, beside her mother.