To Remember a Madam | Thomas Crone
Romeo Void | Chris King
Weathering Storms | Judith Kelvin Miller
April Kodiak | by Stefene Russell
O, God Let Heaven Be A Burlesque Show | Melissa Singleton
Gossip | Orhan Veli
To Remember a Madam | by Thomas Crone
Around a decade back, through a variety of circumstances long since forgotten, I was contacted by a pair of would-be German documentarians. With little time passing, I met them for conversation at O’Connell’s. Over hamburgers and beers, we discussed their proposed project, a look back at the life and times of Nell Kimball, who had written, with editor Stephen Longstreet, a salty memoir entitled “Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam.”
The two suspected that Kimball was the actual, full author of the work, with Longstreet only adding a bit of spit-and-polish to the posthumous manuscript. That story of shanghaied authorship would be a part of their doc and the reason they were logging hours in the Missouri Historical Society’s archives. While in St. Louis, they also wanted to peer around Kimball’s southwestern Illinois homeland, taking in a bit of Laclede’s Landing and western Downtown, as well, to search for venues to suitably recreate Kimball’s colorful life.
Theoretically, I was to serve as their local eyes-and-ears, seeking out Illinois farmhouses, barns and period homes, while checking in at MoHistory, as much as time permitted. I’m not fully sure whatever became of their plans and, in retrospect, I’m not even certain how this pair of German non-filmmakers decided to test the waters on such a idiosyncratic proposition.
But I’m glad they undertook it, as they left me with a lightly-worn, long out-of-print copy of “American Madam,” which I devoured in short order.
Kimball’s time in St. Louis was relatively brief. After leaving the farm, she traveled to the nearest big town, the growing St. Louis of the late-1860s. Here, her quick marriage would run aground and she’d find herself in a variety of the city’s countless sporting houses. Eventually, as the title would indicate, she’d wind up with her own house, located close to today’s Downtown YMCA, a sporting district of somewhat-higher-class than the bawdier zone located nearer the riverfront.
Her clientele included the well-to-do: society men, trust fund dandies, bankers, cop and politicos, married gentlemen more-often-than-not. Her working girls, meanwhile, were often of her own ilk: farm-bred lasses who dreamt of a better life in the booming metropolis nestled along the Mississippi. Fortunately, for those looking solely for a peek into St. Louis’ criminal underworld of the 19th-century, there are a few chapters of randy, ribald fun set in our town. Unfortunately, her tenure would end here too quickly, as she sold her house and set up another in New Orleans, “the famed Storyville.” The stories there continue in much the same way as her St. Louis tales: big-shots visit the house, the local gendarmes are paid off and the girls stay longer than they probably should, thanks to her personal charms and persuasions.
After detailing a stint in Chicago and other locales, then back for a last run in New Orleans, her book essentially ends, the namesake hopping a train to Florida and retirement.
While St. Louis civics-philes will long study the massive tomes like “Catfish & Crystal” and “Lion of the Valley,” this little sleeper’s won an international audience of cult readers, drawn to the book’s earthy tales of an oversexed and lightly-regulated America at the dawn of the 20th century. St. Louis own history nestles easily into that culture and timeframe.
What a story, Nell Kimball’s, no matter the author. What a singularly entertaining read.
Thomas Crone is an editor for 52nd City. His photoblog is on flickr.