Bordellos of the Southland: An Interview with Liz Goldwyn


At Work

In the foreword to Liz Goldwyn’s Sporting Guide, Los Angeles, 1897, the author waxes poetic on her discursive trawl through illicit Victoriana: “There are moments when the boundaries between dimensions blur. Time is elastic, and you can slip right through, finding the ground you stand upon dissolving, coming back into focus centuries ago … These are the stories of my hometown and the inhabitants I came to know through dusty archives, in hallucinations and dreams.” It seems appropriate that Goldwyn, a vintage collector and designer, editor for French Vogue, and the author and director of Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens, would emulate the profligate, fin de siècle style of Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Proust in a portrait of the late-nineteenth-century demimonde. But her selection of setting may come as a bit of a shock: after all, in the popular imagination, the city of Los Angeles was little more than a sleepy, frontier town before a ragtag group of East Coast filmmakers—including Goldwyn’s own grandfather, Polish businessman and movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn—arrived to establish the movie industry.

Goldwyn’s profile of Southland cribs, bordellos, and opium dens explodes that myth with a heady combination of picaresque fiction and Benjaminian psychogeography. Deploying the lost genre of the sporting guide—a then-popular directory of bordellos and cathouses published in most major cities and traded privately among the upper and haute bourgeois classes—Goldwyn assembles a cast of madams, prostitutes, orphans, and drug-dealers reminiscent of those in Zola’sLes Rougon-Macquartseries. Her Sporting Guide reveals a pre-Hollywood Los Angeles dreamscape, in which streetwalkers, politicians, and industrialists rubbed shoulders (among other things) with the uninhibited libidos of the Gilded Age.

On the eve of her trip to the East Coast for a series of readings, Goldwyn spoke to me about her fascination with Los Angeles, the marginal histories of courtesans and prostitutes, and the emotional pleasures of the archive. 

Part of the pleasure of reading Sporting Guide is in seeing it confront the lack of attention paid to Gilded Age Los Angeles. In the public imagination, LA’s history appears to be split between its Mission-era Ramona provincialism and a noirish, Hollywood, Art Deco urbanism.

I think very few people know or have even heard of Ramona. Very few people associate LA with anything of that era. When someone hears that I’ve written a book about 1897, I’m usually met with blank stares. And the first thing they say is “Was there even an LA back then?” A lot of people don’t even think there was a city before the movies appeared. That concept of Los Angeles is so strong in the popular imagination that celebrity overrides everything.

What drew you to this Victorian era?

It didn’t start necessarily with a fascination with that particular era, though I do love the turn-of-the-century time period in many different cultures. I wanted to write about courtesans, prostitutes, and this world of women who had been forgotten by history. I had been researching sporting guides from the courtesans of the Italian Renaissance to Paris in the Belle Epoque to Hong Kong in the 1950s to Philadelphia in the 1760s. Then I came upon a lost sporting guide from Los Angeles from this era, and I am from Los Angeles. My grandfather came here in 1914 to make a movie called The Squaw Man in Hollywood. It seemed right to me to time travel in my hometown—before the movies came here, before my grandfather arrived.

We tend to separate the dawn of the Industrial Age from our era now, and we tend to think our experiences are so different from those who lived a hundred years ago, because they didn’t have the technology or they spoke differently or they didn’t have the same dress. But I like to think this was a time and a place that had the germ of these new technologies. It was a frontier of eccentricity and experimentation.

You have included several maps of Los Angeles, which was still compressed and largely defined by its downtown neighborhood, so that all classes of society shared a relatively close, industrial space. What most surprised you about the cartography of the city during this era?

Bartolo Ballerino, a historical figure whom I fictionalized in the book, was a crib lord in Los Angeles and owned all the low-rent prostitution joints on Alameda Street. He owned most of Chinatown, all the gambling joints and opium dens. But his homestead was pretty far removed from his base of operations. On the big map at the front of the book, he has acres and acres of land where his wife and his children were based. So although he’s rubbing shoulders with the denizens of his low-rent cribs and opium parlors, he settles further away. There are some close-ups of the maps where you can see places listed as “house of ill fame.” And a lot of the wealthy settlers of Los Angeles, the names of which we still associate with LA, are all on those original maps.

In your descriptions of the brothels and boarding houses, there’s a palpable sense of Victorian domesticity, design, and doughtiness, which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with LA. So much of its history is focused on the frontier, the outdoors, climate, the resort life of Pasadena and Beverly Hills, with all of its patios and swimming pools. It’s odd to imagine the culture ever employing this interiorizing, Victorian aesthetic.

For me, the aesthetics were secondary to being inside the emotional space of these women. They are indoors, in enclosed rooms. Of course, we associate Victorian interiors with stuffy parlors and the curtains drawn tight against the light and heavy tapestries. And all those things are synonymous with running a brothel as well! The smell of sweat on sheets. I’m fascinated by aesthetics, so I’ve spent a lot of time researching and exploring Victorian interiors. Maybe that bled into it. But it wasn’t a conscious thought to focus intellectually on the aesthetics.

The Golden Lion brothel was probably the most colorful and mysterious setting in the book. Was it real? It reminded me of Soane’s House in London.

Yes, that was a real place. It was Cora Phillip’s brothel. But I completely made up the interior details, a lot of which were based on things I had seen in England. Soane’s House was definitely a huge influence. And the brothel had a historical basis in the way people would often import their chandeliers and pianos and tile work from Europe. The picture of the county courthouse, which was Pearl’s brothel—she moved in there after it was the county courthouse—that was real.

In Sporting Guide we see how the vast networks of vice that thrived in the city were generally catered to and run by men, and yet still contained young women of varying degrees of power.

Well, the book is fiction, so none of this should be taken as fact. In general, I’m fascinated by women who exist outside of society’s mores and values. My last book was about the last generation of American burlesque queens. They were shunned by society and a lot of them had a strong sense of personal freedom. But there was also a lot of terrible abuse and heartache in their lives. I found a lot of the same stories about the women I wrote about in Sporting Guide—like the prostitutes who were buried in potter’s fields or the prostitutes in brothels who were abused and raped and sold into sexual slavery. So while there may be a sense of freedom to madams like Cora or Pearl, because they are running the business, women had very few choices for occupations back then. And regardless of their occupations, they were still going to be dictated by their sex. I feel like my take on these women is one of empathy. I wanted to show them struggling in their profession as they would in any other profession at this time. Then you have the Victorian housewife who is not supposed to experience an orgasm, who is taught to be cold and frigid, who is taught to lie down with her husband only for procreation.

But within the confines of these sexual mores, there’s an open space in which sexual “deviancies” are tolerated, so that madams and prostitutes would have also been admired by young women as celebrities.

Oh, definitely. In my first book I wrote about the courtesans of the Belle Epoque, like La Belle Otero, Liane de Pougy, Émilienne d’Alençon, who were the stars of the Folies-Bergère. Women would go see their shows in the same way that they would see burlesque queens, because they wanted to see how they were dressing. They lived on the fringe, dressed in the latest fashions, and were allowed this kind of power, as you say, to express themselves aesthetically. It was the same for the madams. Pearl Morton would have cut a very fine figure in her carriage ride, with her new fashions and incredible hats with ostrich plumes. I imagined being a young girl seeing her and dreaming of having such things. As a young girl, you might have associated this with the excitement of playing dress up and not what happens when the clothes come off in the dark. They were, in a way, celebrities, because of their power and the way they looked, and because they were taking the reins of their lives in a way that, at the time, was only available to them.

How did you build on your research to fictionalize these women? I imagine there’s limited archival information on them.

Before I went deep into the research, I had an idea of the characters, who they were and how they interconnected. Most of the research happened afterward. For Cora and Pearl, all I had were the names. I found Cora’s grave only last year after I had finished the book. With Pearl, there was almost no information, just a tiny bit. For Bartolo Ballerino, I went pretty deep into his court records and land holdings. But their stories were an amalgamation of personal experiences of different time periods, not necessarily all in Los Angeles. These stories of young girls being seduced by a life of vice happen in every culture. So I knew I wanted to set a character within that set of circumstances. I read almost all of the census records from 1840 to 1910 on microfiche at the LA Central Library. I got lost for almost three months doing that. I was completely obsessed with obscure figures—like Baron Littlefinger, who was a midget and the brother of Count Rosebud, a dwarf performer, or the women who were palmists or magnetic healers. So it’s a difficult battle when you are using ephemera and fact and creating this fictional world, to then decide what to keep in and what to leave out. Because for me, that’s the story.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is also a lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles.

Liz Goldwyn will appear tonight in conversation with our contributing editor Sadie Stein at the Strand.