The bookstore, and especially the used bookstore, is vanishing from New York City. Today there are a few, but there used to be a multitude of them, crammed between kitchen appliance shops and Laundromats and thrift stores. They all had temperamental cats prowling their aisles and they all smelled wonderfully of what a team of chemists in London has called “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” I will miss terribly this stimulating fragrance, and the books that produce it, when it’s washed from the city for good. Luckily, there are towns that still accommodate used bookshops. Lambertville, New Jersey, is one of them. On North Union Street, there are two used bookstores, Panoply and Phoenix Books, one right across from the other. You can spend hours here, and it’s guaranteed that you’ll return with some grassy, musty artifact of the past. On my last visit to Panoply, I came home with a copy of Sisters of the Night: The Startling Story of Prostitution in New York Today by “veteran newspaperman” Jess Stearn.
Published in 1956, the book began as an assignment for the Daily News when Stearn’s editor told him to find out what makes prostitutes “tick.” He was told, “Get out and talk to the girls, see the judges, the social workers, the cops, the headshrinkers—you won’t win a Pulitzer Prize but it should be worth reading.” Dragging his feet, the reluctant Stearn complied, going out in search of what one of the book’s reviewers called the “orchidaceous girls” of the city.
A faded black-and-white photo. Suited and tied, he looks tired as hell, resting his arms atop his clunky manual typewriter at a desk covered in a snowdrift of papers. He has deep, dark circles under his eyes. I wonder if the photo was taken during the writing of Sisters of the Night, when Stearn was up all hours prowling the city’s backwater joints, pretending to be a john so he could talk one-on-one with hard-edged young women in crummy rooms and dingy restaurants, where they dragged at cigarettes and told their stories of abuse, drugs, and fun. He worked hard to depict them just as they were. As the girls speak, leaning close, you can almost smell the spearmint chewing gum snapping in their mouths, mixed with nicotine and a cloud of Tabu, “the forbidden perfume.”
In a bar near Madison Square Garden, a blonde B-girl (the B stands for “bar”) explains to the author why she prefers sailors to other men: “With sailors there’s not much chance of getting hurt. They’re on the go and so are we . . . I’ve taken many a sailor who was down and out to my room. I might have spent the night with a boy from Princeton and done myself some good, but I didn’t.” The B-girl likes getting letters from the sailors, envelopes with exotic stamps that she collects and trades with other B-girls. But she’s no stamp-collecting whore. “I want you to know one thing, Mr. Reporter,” she tells Stearn. “I’m not a tramp. I work hard during the day. I’m a clerk in a factory. It’s damn dull, and the nights are the only thing that keep me alive.”
The B-girls hope to find romance, maybe even marriage. Some are attractive, others not so much. Most started hustling in their teens. Peggy is one of them. In her diary—stuffed with paper Valentines, restaurant menus, and ticket stubs—she writes about nights smoking “reefers” and juggling a stable of brutal men who offer small gifts in exchange for favors—“He bought us a gang of drinks, plus cigarettes and nickels for the jukebox and when we were going home he gave me $1 for cab fare.” But Peggy is still in pain. “I went to the candy store to listen to records. I had Steve’s picture with me. And, diary, while listening to the records, I felt so lonely and empty inside.” Peggy got busted as a first offender, then vanished from the NYPD’s records.
After the B-girls, Stearn learns about “pony girls.”
A cross between a B-girl and a call girl . . . a pony’s big-time stuff, but she picks her own men. They generally work out of some East Side bar where the Johns know where to find them. The bartenders freeze out servicemen and other stiffs because they aren’t well heeled. The ponies are after big money.
Cool in their metallic gowns, slinking through bars on shabby streets near Rockefeller Center, the pony girls cost $50 an hour, far more than the lowly streetwalker who offers herself to men at a hamburger counter for 75 cents a pop.
Stearn teams up with a friend for courage and tracks the pony girls to 52nd Street. Also known as Stripty-Second, this part of the street has been taken over by burlesque. Time magazine said of the scene: “nightclubs in sorry brownstones crowd each other like bums on a breadline,” each one featuring dancers peeling it off to three-piece bands. In one shabby club, Stearn and his friend talk with a buxom blonde chanteuse from Buffalo who loves the poetry of Dylan Thomas. She laughs when Stearn propositions her, saying, “The only thing we hustle here is drinks—I’d get canned if I took a live one out of here.” But the dancer on stage is rumored to be “a call girl in flimsy disguise,” a star who charges $100 for her phone number, $200 for lunch, and $1,500 for weekend cruises. “Why does she bother with a night-club act?” Stearn’s friend asks him over watered-down whiskies. “That’s easy,” Stearn jokes, “even Macy’s has to advertise.” But he and his friend can’t afford her and they move back out into the night. The author still hasn’t answered the question “What makes these girls tick?” and he’s getting tired.
In a downtown restaurant he talks to Willie the Weasel, an emaciated pimp who watches his girls through a peephole while they work.
“I used to have to hold on to my sides,” he says, “or I might have split a gut from laughing. They were a howl. Some of these old guys with the big bellies would stand there and say to the girl, ‘Whip me.’ So she’d whip until they were screaming. And they’d scream, ‘Harder, harder!’ And you should have seen the looks on their faces—like baboons.”
Next, Stearn visits an apartment on Central Park, in a “very respectable building” where the management thinks the girls are models in the Garment District. Here, high-end call girl Jane sits chain-smoking and stroking a Pekingese in her lap, telling of her days making $1,000 a week. She fell in love with one of her Johns, a boy who “sent me so many flowers the place smelled like a funeral parlor.” But that didn’t last. “Love, schmove,” she says, “who knows about love?” Jane hopes for a career in show business. “They tell me that I have more versatility than a lot of those dames on TV.”
In an East Side bar, Georgia sips a Martini and talks of working stag parties where she takes on gangs of Johns. She gets beaten up by bachelors, clean-cut young men who leave her blacked out, surrounded by empty bottles and cigarette butts. It’s nothing a bowl of hot broth and some sleeping pills can’t fix. She keeps going back for more. In an untidy tenement living room, a “vivacious redhead” shares the poetry she writes about suicide, about jumping into the East River. She was once the wife of an iceman, then she was a hat-check girl, and now she hustles, searching for the “big-timer” who’ll marry her and make her “Mrs. Rich Bitch.” But it hasn’t happened yet.
And there’s Eileen, a girl from a good family who came to New York to work a legitimate job, but the employment agency men “kept asking me to lift my skirt, so they could see my legs. A couple of them suggested that I start as a cigarette girl or camera girl in night clubs.” She fell into prostitution, and now she feels too dirty to live the straight life. “I’ve made my bed and I’m going to lie in it,” she says, resigned.
After all his talking to prostitutes and pimps, Stearn still doesn’t understand “what makes them tick.” So he seeks out a psychoanalyst, a “headshrinker” who’s an authority on the subject. Prostitutes hate men, the shrink explains, they all have a weak father figure and they seek revenge against him. “They are sick women bent on self-destruction,” he says, “and they first destroy what men prize above everything else in a woman—female virtue.” But prostitutes also have a paradoxical love for unfortunate men. Why are they so kind-hearted, Stearn wonders, with blind beggars, violin-playing cripples, hunchbacks, and legless mendicants perambulating on roller-skate platforms?
I don’t know if Jess Stearn ever satisfied his questions and I wondered what became of him, that tired, beleaguered fellow on the back of the book jacket. A quick Googling revealed that, after Sisters of the Night, he went on to write books with subtitles like Drug & Delinquent Stories, A Startling Investigation of the Spread of Homosexuality in America, and A Report on the Secret World of the Lesbian. Then he left smutty New York City for the clean living of Malibu where he dedicated himself to psychic phenomena, yoga, reincarnation, and the life of New Age forefather Edgar Cayce. In later photos and videos, he is no longer the weary newspaperman, but a smiling, silver-haired Californian wearing cable-knit sweaters among the palm trees. He died in 2002 at age 87. His New York Times obit read: “No funeral services are planned for the writer, who believed he had lived previously and would live again.”
As for all those B-girls and pony girls, did any of them get to live another life? I imagine that some went back to checking hats and selling cigarettes, some tried acting, some ended up dead too soon—murdered, overdosed, jumped into the East River—and some surely left the city’s seamy joints and dives to shuffle back to Buffalo (or Kenosha, Cuyahoga, Lambertville), where they became mothers and grandmothers, members of the local Junior League, spending summer weekends weeding gardens and whipping up batches of Ambrosia. They’d be into their seventies by now. I’d like to think there’s a woman somewhere who, wisely suspicious of e-readers, will wander into some moldy shop, hungry for the smell and the feel of old books. She’ll happen upon Sisters of the Night and recognize herself as Georgia, Jane, or Eileen—no, this is Peggy, the girl who got away. (She goes by Margaret now.) Turning the yellowed pages, she’ll read excerpts from her forgotten teenage diary, heart pounding to recall the wild, lost girl she was when she wrote long ago: “I remember once wanting to be a nurse, or else going to teaching school. I knew all along they were only dreams. I guess the only way you get anyplace is by hustling for it. I wonder whether I’ll make a good hustler.”
I just hope I didn’t take the copy meant for her.
Jeremiah Moss is the pseudonymous author of the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. He has also written about the city for The New York Times.