Corsets, ostrich feather hats and 1890s brothels: A style maven spins stories of classic L.A. vice
With famed film mogul Sam Goldwyn as her grandfather, Liz Goldwyn’s family name is practically synonymous with old-school Hollywood glamour.
But it’s Los Angeles before it became the capital of the motion picture industry that’s the subject of the style maven’s new book, “Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897" (Regan Arts).
The work of historical fiction looks back on the city’s seedier past, with loosely connected stories about the madams, prostitutes, orphans, hustlers and tramps who roamed Alameda, Los Angeles and Spring streets. Among them are Pearl Morton, who entertained the city’s power players inside her brothel, the Golden Lion; the drug-addicted madam Cora Phillips, whose grave Goldwyn stumbled across in a cemetery west of downtown L.A.; and Bartolo Ballerino, the Italian immigrant slumlord of the red light district.
Goldwyn puts their stories in the context of the day’s fashions (corsets and ostrich feather hats), cosmetics (mercury, arsenic and lead were common ingredients) and sexual mores (for women, open expression of sexual feelings was indecent), using more than 100 historical photos and illustrations that bring to life L.A. in the late 1800s. The book is even crafted to resemble an actual sporting guide from the time, a leather-bound pocket guide to the city’s best houses of ill repute.
I chatted with Goldwyn about what drew her to this time period in L.A., her impressions of the book’s rough characters, and what role women had in a culture where prostitution was tolerated.
What is a sporting guide and when did you first come across one?
Sporting guides existed in every time period, culture and language, and they were Zagat-like guides to the world’s best brothels. They had them in ancient Rome, in Pompeii, in Paris during the Belle Epoque and in London. The term “sport” was a colloquialism for sex, but also a hunting term, so it’s a double entendre. It wasn’t necessarily sporting guides that interested me, it was the subject of prostitution and these women and men’s stories that have been lost and ignored. There was a time in our history and culture when women had very few choices and I always used to think from the time I was very young what my choices would be if I were born in a different century. I could be locked in a chastity belt while my husband went to fight the Crusades, and I probably would have been married to him not by my own choice, but rather for a matter of class and circumstance. I could devote myself to God and be locked in a convent. Then there was another profession open to me and that was a courtesan. Regardless of my situation, I would be ruled by my sex. I have always been drawn to stories of women who existed outside what was deemed appropriate by society, so I had this world I wanted to set and had the fictional characters first, and it was later I decided I wanted to set the story in my hometown of Los Angeles in this time period.
What was it about the late 1800s?
It’s the...Industrial Age. It was a moment on the cusp of so much change, particularly in Los Angeles. I was also interested that it was before the movie business. I think people don’t realize there was an L.A. before the movie business.
Downtown L.A., which is hopping once again, was really hopping in the 1890s, right?
Yes. There was City of Paris on Spring Street, the department store where you could buy the latest fashions, including ostrich feathers. There were lots of ostrich farms in L.A. and Pasadena, at the time it was one of the big trades. The streets were starting to be paved, there were electric streetcars and streetlights. It wasn’t the Wild West. On the other hand, there was a strong undercurrent of vice, as there was in a lot of places in America. People know what was happening in San Francisco in the Tenderloin and in New York in the Bowery, as portrayed in “Gangs of New York.” But when people think of vice in L.A. it’s always film noir, “L.A. Confidential” vice.
Tell us about some of the characters, particularly the madams Cora and Pearl, and vice boss Bartolo Ballerino, who I understand were real people.
That’s right. I had only read their names and I started to fantasize about them. I had very little information; I only found Cora’s grave last year. Bartolo Ballerino, he owned all of the Chinatown and Alameda Street prostitution. Pearl Morton, she was a successful madam and involved in a very public court case with L.A. Mayor Arthur Harper, which forced him to resign in 1909 because of his involvement with vice, prostitution and Pearl. I spent a lot of time digging in archives in L.A., but parts of the book are fiction. I use facts to illustrate Los Angeles as the other character in the book.
Where in L.A. do you go to channel this era now?
I love the California Club next door to the Central Library, which is a private club I got to go into with a member, where I got in trouble for taking notes in the dining room! You go in there and it’s still such a power lunch spot, where you see priests and politicians and businessmen. That was a place I could really imagine what it must have been like when dining rooms were only open to men. You imagine these men trading information, talking about which women they’ve been with, because they weren’t supposed to sleep with their wives unless they were going to make a child.
Prostitution was more sanctified by Victorian culture because of the way women were repressed. For a woman to have an orgasm, it was supposed to interfere with conception. Women were not even supposed to read romance novels. In the book, there’s a great excerpt from a catalog from 1897 that pictures a nursing corset. A nursing corset! It was so restricted in one sense, but there was also sporting flash press-printed newspapers that talked about prostitution, or “sport.” It was much more openly discussed than it is now.
A lot of the material is quite rough. Do you have love for these people?
I can’t write about people I don’t feel some sort of connection to. They are all orphaned in some way, and except for Ballerino, they’ve all been really damaged or hurt, and they are all looking for love, for human connection. And they are in business like any other business. It just happened to be one all about sex. I don’t have a glamorous view of what they did; I do think prostitution should be legal so it can be regulated and protected. But it is rough and it’s sad and there’s a lot of heartache in there. But hopefully it’s also erotic and sexy.