Belle Brezing made a major career move when she stepped off the streets of Lexington, Kentucky, and into Jennie Hill's bawdy house -- an upscale brothel run out of a former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln. At nineteen, Brezing was already infamous as a youth steeped in death, sex, drugs, and scandal. But it was in Miss Hill's "respectable" establishment that she began to acquire the skills, manners, and business contacts that allowed her to ascend to power and influence as an internationally known madam.
In this revealing book, Maryjean Wall offers a tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South, as told through the life and times of the notorious Miss Belle. After years on the streets and working for Hill, Belle Brezing borrowed enough money to set up her own establishment -- her wealth and fame growing alongside the booming popularity of horse racing. Soon, her houses were known internationally, and powerful patrons from the industrial cities of the Northeast courted her in the lavish parlors of her gilt-and-mirror mansion.
Secrecy was a moral code in the sequestered demimonde of prostitution in Victorian America, so little has been written about the Southern madam credited with inspiring the character Belle Watling in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Following Brezing from her birth amid the ruins of the Civil War to the height of her scarlet fame and beyond, Wall uses her story to explore a wider world of sex, business, politics, and power. The result is a scintillating tale that is as enthralling as any fiction.
" Madam Belle contributes new information and historical context to one of America's most famous, or infamous, madams. Wall shows how changes in Lexington and the horse industry during Brezing's era allowed her to seize this business opportunity in a way that other madams were not able to do before or after her time." -- Tom Eblen, Lexington Herald-Leader
"Wall's captivating study of Kentucky's most famous madam will take readers back to a lively time in Lexington's history. A biography of Belle Breezing was long overdue, and this is a good one." -- Jamie Nicholson, author of The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event and Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry
"A well-told tale that adds context and perspective about the red-haired madam's place in the power structures of both Lexington and the horse industry." -- Tom Eblen, Lexington Herald-Leader
"Maryjean Wall sheds new light on the tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South as told through Miss Belle's notorious life." -- Alan W. Petrucelli, The Examiner
"Wall has achieved the almost impossible. This engaging biography comes as close to revealing the life of Belle as is possible." -- Decatur Tribune
"The fascinating true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South." -- Florida Weekly
"Belle Brezing is the ideal protagonist.... [A] captivating tale of whores and horses." -- Wayne Curtis, Wall Street Journal
" Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel is a finely crafted, fast-paced, fascinating regional historical biography certain to have widespread appeal to both nonfiction and fiction readers." -- The Midwest Book Review
" Madam Belle is a delightfully charming scholarly work of genius." -- Southeastern Librarian
"Wall tells a story laced with sex, intrigue, and power to show the way public morality, urban growth, and economic expansion intersected in the Gilded Age South. More than a simple biography, Wall provides an urban economic and political history of Lexington that explores elements of reform, economic growth, and business practices. Written in an accessible manner, this book is well worth the time of any reader interested in the history of prostitution, Kentucky, or the Gilded Age South." -- Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
"What Wall does brilliantly is write a biography of Madam Belle by placing her life in context, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of what is known specifically about Brezing with what is known about Lexington and her many acquaintances at the time. Madam Belle is as much a biography of one of Lexington's most infamous residents as it is a history of Lexington, Kentucky." -- Tennessee Libraries
"[Wall] weaves a fascinating story that combines urban history, women's history, political history, economic history, and the history of sports, all focused on Lexington, with side stories usually related to the people who came to the Lexington area because of the horses." -- West Virginia History
"Maryjean Wall's book, Madam Belle, is full of amusing anecdotes and diverting digressions about the characters who inhabited the Lexington, Kentucky, underworld in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ostensibly about the legendary madam Belle Brezing, Wall also offers a view into the world of Bluegrass horse culture, enlightening the reader about thoroughbreds, trotters, and the men who made their money on them. There are many fun and fascinating threads here, and Madam Belle makes for entertaining reading." -- Ohio Valley History
"The character portrayals were excellent. We get a clear picture of Madam Belle's family life, of her daughter and some of the people around her, especially some of the more important men with whom she may have been involved." -- Fallon Willoughby, Bowling Green Daily News
"Wall's research also offers an unexpected history of Bluegrass horse culture; horse racing defined Lexington, and the descriptions of the sport's history... provide a unique regionalism to the study.
By intertwining the life of Belle Brezing with the changing landscape of the city of Lexington, Wall's book also offers significant insight into the moral shifts from the Victorian era to the Progressive era.
A new, vibrant addition to the history of gender, work, brothels, and Gilded Age life in a small city struggling to define itself." -- Journal of Southern History