Minna Everleigh took the news philosophically when told the city was shuttering her "resort," as establishments of the kind she and her sister Ada ran were called in Chicago a century ago.
"If the ship sinks, we're going down with a cheer and a good drink under our belts, anyway," Minna told a Tribune reporter on Oct. 24, 1911, a hundred years ago this week.
The Everleigh Club was the centerpiece of a vice district known as the Levee, roughly Clark Street to Wabash Avenue and 18th to 22nd streets. Just after Mayor Carter Harrison II took office, a municipal commission appointed by his predecessor reported that the Near South Side neighborhood was home to 1,000 brothels and 4,000 prostitutes, producing annual revenues of $60 million. Targeted by anti-vice crusaders, it was a ghost town when visited by a Trib reporter five years afterward. Yet reform in Chicago is a sometime thing. Harrison, who ordered the houses of prostitution closed, was succeeded by William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, whose idea of a cleanup was to give reformers a hard time.
The Levee's demise also was quickened by a guidebook Minna published, "The Everleigh Club, Illustrated," showing a three-story brownstone at 2131-33 S. Dearborn, furnished with brass beds inlaid with marble, gold cuspidors, Oriental rugs and a library of leather-bound books. Pressured by outraged ministers, Harrison told his police chief to get rid of the Everleigh Club, an order that slowly worked its way down a chain of command.
The delay allowed for a grand finale, the Tribune reporting: "Lights blazed in every room, music rang through the richly tapestried corridors, wine popped in all the parlors."
Though it lasted for only a little more than a decade, the Everleigh Club became known around the world for its blend of upmarket sex and gilded glamour. Even Chicago's Vice Commission gushingly proclaimed it "probably the most famous and luxurious house of prostitution in the country." European tourists put it on their must-see lists, among them Prince Heinrich of Prussia. During a Bacchanalia staged in his honor, a prostitute's shoe came off and someone filled it with Champagne, which one of the prince's attendants quaffed. The incident is often credited with starting the cafe-society fad of drinking Champagne from a woman's slipper.
The Everleigh sisters were young when they came to Chicago from Omaha, and young when they left for New York — with millions earned honestly, as they saw it. On her deathbed in 1948, Minna told a visitor, a former Trib reporter: "We never robbed widows and we made no false representations."
After their club was closed, the sisters lived comfortably and quietly in Manhattan. Perhaps too quietly for Ada, who died in 1960. Her farewell address at the club ended with a prediction: "From bawd to worse — retirement."