A madam to inspire them all: Lexington’s Belle Brezing gets a new documentary

Laurie Genet Preston as Belle Brezing with director Doug High.
Laurie Genet Preston as Belle Brezing with director Doug High. Photos provided

She was the very model madam, Lexington’s Belle Brezing was.

“Belle really was the archetype from fiction,” said Doug High, the executive producer and director of the new documentary “Belle Brezing & the Gilded Age of the Bluegrass,” which will premiere Feb. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre. “Any big, bawdy southern gal with a heart of gold who might operate a little on the shady side owes something to Belle.”

That means ladies of the evening — from Belle Watling, the madam with a heart of gold in “Gone with the Wind,” to Mae West in her vamping prime, to Dolly Parton in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” — all owe a debt to Belle Brezing, High said.

High moved to Lexington in 2000 from Toledo, Ohio and has worked at WKYT and Post Time Productions. He is now at WTVQ, where he is a news anchor. He has previously worked on films whose subjects have included the history of bourbon, the statesman Henry Clay and historic horse farms.

“I heard about Belle years ago when I came here and started researching her story and thought, ‘This is incredible. It’s compelling television, it has everything.’”

High was stunned to find that no one had made a broadcast documentary on Brezing, who ran a high-class Victorian-era brothel and was once cited — and pardoned, by a Kentucky governor — for “keeping a bawdy house.”

Born Mary Belle Cox in 1860, her mother’s later marriage gave her the last name of Brezing. She had a mentally handicapped daughter while in her teens and became a street prostitute. After working for one house of ill repute and establishing another, Brezing eventually became a successful Lexington businesswoman with real estate investments, who shopped for her clothing exclusively in New York.

Her “House On The Hill” was bought as the sex trade on Upper Street was being cleaned up. It was at 153 Megowan Street, which is today a corner of Eastern Avenue and Wilson Street near Midland Avenue.

Brezing was to live there even after she retired from sex work. A recluse and drug addict late in life, she died of uterine cancer in 1940.

High said the Brezing documentary worked on a “shoestring budget” but includes both the Ken Burns-style commentary by Maryjean Wall and Doug Tattershall, who have written books about Brezing, and that of Foster Ockerman discussing the Lexington of the Gilded Age.

The documentary is narrated by artist Elizabeth Shatner, wife of actor William Shatner.

Ockerman discusses “what Lexington was like during Belle’s era and what changes were forming in Lexington to bring about the end of Belle’s reign.”

The documentary — which will also be shown at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort in March and on Kentucky Educational Television — also features live action sequences starring actors: “You can’t tell the story visually with five pictures of Belle Brezing,” High said.

Hence Laurie Genet Preston, who played Brezing in the 2011 Actors Guild production of Margaret C. Price’s “Belle Brezing,” returns to again play the madam in various scenarios. Bob Singleton, who played Brezing’s lover Billy Mabon in the play, also reprises that role for the documentary.

Associate producer Nelson Fields was charged with giving Brezing a selection of clothing for the film. Locations used for filming included the dining room at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate and a parlor in the Kentucky Historical Society’s museum floor in Frankfort, which High calls “the perfect set.”

Preston said that she felt that Brezing was following her around the city. In the early 2000s she played Brezing’s mother in a staged reading of the Brezing script by Margaret Price, followed by playing Brezing herself in the 2011 production of Price’s play. The scenarios in which she found herself for High’s production felt natural to her.

“I didn’t want anyone else to play her,” Preston said of Brezing. “I wanted to do it. I’m not sure why I feel so attracted and connected to the character. … There are so many layers to her life, it couldn’t be more interesting to play.

“She was savvy in ideas,” Preston said. “It wasn’t just money management, it was how to orchestrate and utilize the tangible goods and non-tangible goods to make her business grow.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

See the movie

“Belle Brezing & the Gilded Age of the Bluegrass” premieres at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre. Tickets are $8, available in advance or at the box office on the day of the event.

It will later be shown at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort and appear on KET.

Event reception

The LexHistory Select event will be from 5:30 to7 p.m. Feb. 16 at Portofino restaurant, 249 East Main Street. Hors d’oeuvres, one drink and a ticket to the documentary are $60 per person.

Documentary executive producer and director Doug High, and Foster Ockerman Jr., one of the film’s historians and author of “Historic Lexington — Heart of the Bluegrass,” will attend. Reservations are required by Feb. 9. Proceeds benefit the Lexington History Museum. Tickets can be purchased online or by mailing a check, payable to the Lexington History Museum, to P.O. Box 748, Lexington, Ky. 40588.

Author talk

Historian and author Maryjean Wall will discuss her biography of Brezing, “Madam Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel,” at 3 p.m. Jan. 29 in the large conference room at the Lexington Public Library Eastside Branch, 3000 Blake James Drive (corner of Palumbo Drive and Man o’ War Boulevard). The event is free.