A year or so ago I read this book, the memoir of Nell Kimball, who lived as a prostitute in St. Louis, San Francisco and other cities most of her adult life.  Her career culminated as a madame in her own whorehouse in Storyville, an area in New Orleans where prostitution was NOT illegal from 1897 – 1917.  The federal government closed it down because of it’s “bad influence” on soldiers heading off to WWI, a nice way to say they wanted to avoid soldiers getting infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

This post contains just a few quotes from this interesting and very hard life lived by a person who seemed to observe everything closely.  This book has been out-of-print for some time, but I think her words should be considered for many years to come.  She is blunt, so don’t read on if foul language bothers you.

Ms. Kimball’s words are edited and organized, but largely unchanged, by Stephen Longstreet, to whom she gave her manuscript upon completion in the 1930s.  He was unable to find anyone to publish such content in those days, but succeeded many years later in 1970.

Here are a few glimpses into how she became a prostitute at the age of fifteen…

“My father was stupid, and he was mean because he felt people didn’t live in his personal idea of God’s way.  He flogged me and my brothers and sisters to go to confession and communion.  He made our life an example of mortal sin.  He only lived, he said, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  He told us he saw the Grace of God in the Sacrament, and he rattled his rosary beads, just a worn-down, unhappy man, sure as snuff aware he was unable to prosper, unable to enjoy….  I saw it was not better among the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists we lived among.  Most of them were full of fears of hell and fat on hope of heaven.  But they also beat their religion into the asses of their kids with mule skinner’s whips.  In no time at all I didn’t believe in the hell fire and didn’t hold much with heaven.  Absolute damnation like absolute happiness seemed something to talk about and never really to experience.  You could only bamboozle me so far – even then.”

In talking about her childhood in a rural farm community and sexual exploration among siblings and friends, she said, “We were always in fear the grown-ups would find out and whale hell out of us.  But it seemed so pleasant a feeling, and innocent and exciting to us, that we never did feel any sin.  Nor feared having something fall off, or that we’d go mad as the boys were warned when caught tossing themselves off.  It didn’t stop them or us.  Nothing can stop the sex drive, if you have it…  Of course, all the time we had the farm animals to show us what was going on, and we didn’t see why, if a damn animal could enjoy it, we couldn’t.”

After leaving the farm at 15 with her first lover and being stranded by him in St. Louis with no money and no where to sleep, she calls on a brothel her Aunt Letty told her about in case she got into trouble.  “In five minutes, after a scalding pee, I was finishing a huge soup plate of the most delicious food I had ever had in my life and was mopping up the plate with bread crust and smiling up at Zig and Emma Flegel (the brothel owners).  I didn’t care if they sold me for cat meat or threw me out into the street.  I was full of food and sipping the coffee with cream.  They used chicory in it in the European way.”

And in reflecting on her first night as a whore, having taken 4 or 5 guests, she says, “As for Charlie (the man who deserted her in St. Louis), I now saw he wasn’t so much.  For the first time I was wanted by important men, flattered, pleased, made to feel I was part of the world, part of living.  I was only fifteen, but I knew I was a person, and I liked being what they called a good sport…that saying…It was a kindness, and I hadn’t had many kindnesses.”

And on her idea of a “good whorehouse…  I’d say it’s a barnyard, with people sniffing and walking around and pressing close and limbs locked and coming.  Doing the business we were meant for.  Maybe ridiculous in position and games, maybe leaving them with a feeling it was just a bit too quick in passing, even not what it was supposed to be at the climax.  I think fucking ends in a quick little passing moment of dying.  Barnyard animals know it; so, too, the guests at Flegels maybe felt life and death were real in the place.”

She muses on how much worse life is for a street hooker with a pimp, or a boyfriend who mooches off her earnings…

“There is nothing lower in life than a pimp, unless it’s some politicians I’ve known.”

And in the forward, editor Longstreet comments, “If she was particularly hard on politicians, it should be remembered that she knew them more intimately than most of us.”

During the time she was at the Flegels’ house in St. Louis, women shaving body hair was becoming popular. In writing about the new fashion, she casually mentions “Zig himself shaved the legs of the girls who needed that done.  He didn’t want any knicked or scarred girls, and suicide was always a shadow in any whorehouse.  He locked up his razors.”  She doesn’t pretend that it is a grand life, but revelations as to just how dark it was for many, or most, women slide in unexpected like this one.

She goes on to fall in love, get a married man who makes her a kept woman, fall in love with another man, get married and lose that one to a life of crime.  Ultimately she lands in New Orleans and opens up her own house.

On setting up the best of houses, she says, “Class is cost, taste is where cost doesn’t show.”  My own Mama would nod her head at that comment.

On the business of keeping a house well run, “Life begins to run without color as it becomes a routine, a habit, I have found out.  The days become dull and seem to go slowly, to kick their way to the end.  I just don’t remember all the frantic New Year parties we celebrated in the house.”

And on her life looking back…

“I always tried to see the picture whole.  Everybody labeled and unlabeled.  Words like good and bad never meant much to me, or words like respectable and unrespectable.  I saw people just as people, being born, growing up, fucking, eating, crapping, trying, loving, wanting, losing, going sad, getting old, getting sck, hating, dying.  There were times it was too much and nothing you could do about it; it could break your heart.  There were times when I didn’t see the sense of going on… But I did.  I stayed on the track all the way.  It was love of life, frankly, love of seeing what was under the next pot, around the next corner.  I learned early to live day to day.  To do it best you have to forget hope and you have to forget faith.  You heard me right.”

And on faith…

“Faith in what, where?  Pie in the sky?  Or the man who stands up and tells us this is the only faith, and the next one says no, my faith is the faith, and others say no, no, my way is it.  Everyone having his idea of what is the faith and no one agreeing.  It’s been a better life for me without the organized faiths.  Like burned toast, you have to scrape a long time to find what’s left of the original white bread…Living is my religion, being me, doing no harm to people, not judging too much, not saying that this joker you can talk to, and this cull you can’t.  If I have a creed, it’s that I keep my word, I pay my way, I’m not lovable, I’m not kind to fools.  I want full weight for what I pay for.  Whatever I am I still want to be me and die me.”

And as for Storyville… “I loved the goddamn place.”

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