Belle Brezing closed her house of prostitution nearly a century ago. She died in 1940. So why is she still famous, the subject of endless fascination?
That question helped prompt Maryjean Wall to finish a biography of the notorious Lexington madam that she started as a University of Kentucky history student in the early 1970s.
"The more I heard about her, the more I wanted to do a book," said Wall, who returned to UK and finished her doctorate in history after a long career as the Herald-Leader's award-winning horse racing writer.
"Here's a person who lived in the shadows, but was so integral to this community that there is a big collection about her life in UK special collections," Wall said in an interview. "The first thing you have to ask is why? Well, it's because she was at the center of power in this community."
Wall's new book is Madam Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky, $24.95).
Brezing has long been a popular subject. The late E.I. "Buddy" Thompson, an auctioneer and local historian, wrote a biography of her in 1983 that went well beyond an earlier sketch by another local historian, lawyer William Townsend.
Brezing was clearly the model for Belle Watling, the generous madam in Margaret Mitchell's classic Civil War novel, Gone With The Wind. Mitchell never confirmed her inspiration, but her husband, John Marsh, ate breakfast many mornings in Brezing's kitchen while he was police reporter for the Lexington Leader.
Wall's book adds new details about Brezing's sad but financially successful life, most notably that she attempted suicide at least twice. Even as a 19-year-old prostitute, she was well-known enough in Lexington that her botched effort to swallow too much morphine in a suicide pact with another woman made the newspapers.
But the main contribution of Wall's book, aside from a well-told tale, is that it adds context and perspective about the red-haired madam's place in the power structures of both Lexington and the horse industry.
When Brezing died at age 80, copies of the Lexington Herald with the news quickly sold out. Time magazine even published an obituary.
She is buried beside her mother at Calvary Cemetery on West Main Street. Even now, her grave looks especially well-tended and is often decorated with flowers. The Catholic Diocese refused to let Wall see records related to Brezing's grave, she said.
Looking back on Brezing's early life, it is a wonder she succeeded at anything.
She was born Mary Belle Cocks in 1860 to a single, heavy-drinking prostitute in a rented house on Rose Street. When Belle was 18 months old, Sarah Cocks married George Brezing. He ran a saloon and grocery when he wasn't beating his wife.
Belle was shunned at school, lost her virginity at 12 and had a child at 14. Sarah Cocks died when Belle was 15, leaving her alone with a mentally handicapped infant daughter, who would spend most of her life in institutions under an assumed name. After a brief marriage and divorce in her teens, Belle started working the streets.
Brezing then went to work for Jenny Hill, who operated Lexington's most high-class house of ill repute. It is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum, because Abraham Lincoln's wife spent her childhood there a few decades before Hill arrived.
"I'm very intrigued why she went from being a street prostitute on North Upper, which was then a bad neighborhood, trying to commit suicide with another woman — what was that about? — and then the same year she gets into Jenny Hill's house," Wall said. "She must have had to clean herself up."
Brezing left Hill's house in 1881 and opened her own on North Upper Street — a building now part of a Transylvania University athletic complex.
"I think in Jenny Hill's she probably learned good language, good style, became sort of educated," Wall said. "And she had a client list when she left, because she went back to North Upper under very different circumstances."
Brezing moved to another North Upper house, then in 1890 to 59 Megowan St. — now Eastern Avenue — at the corner of Wilson Street. It was a mansion outfitted in elegant style that became the talk of the town and racing circuit.
Trotting was the popular sport then, and Brezing's clients included many influential horsemen who passed through town. She had several wealthy patrons, most notably one — or perhaps both — of the Singerly brothers.
William and George Singerly of Philadelphia had inherited an industrial fortune. They fancied race horses and Belle Brezing. Singerly money not only bought and outfitted the Megowan Street house, but it allowed her to buy rental property around town. Brezing didn't get rich on prostitution, Wall said, but with real estate investments.
Lexington had a large red-light district during this era of Victorian morality. Wall cites one grand jury report that said the city had 158 brothels. Brezing's was fanciest, from its antique furnishings to the lavish parties she gave for wealthy customers.
When anti-vice crusaders periodically tried to close the red-light district, Brezing's house would be shuttered briefly. But when Lexington filled with soldiers training for World War I, the Army did what city politicians would never do — put her out of business.
She lived her last two decades as a drug-addicted recluse in a crumbling mansion.
Brezing's previous biographers were men of an earlier generation, who Wall says tended to portray her as a victim and a social outcast.
"She was shunned by the women in this town for sure, but I don't see her as 'poor little Belle' at all," Wall said. "I see her as a person who could take circumstances and work them to her advantage. She did that all her life."
The book tells how Brezing clawed her way to the top by using men, investing wisely and playing politics. It also explains how so many others made money from her illicit business: the liquor merchants, grocers, clothing retailers, furniture dealers and horse traders.
Wall said she tried to avoid glamorizing either prostitution or Brezing's life choices.
"Never would I do that," she said. "Belle fit a lot of the stereotypes we have of prostitutes. She was a drug addict. She had worked the streets. Because she was smart, she managed to succeed in spite of the gender prejudices of her time."