(note: this article was first published in a building newsletter in Winter 2002, prior to the death of longtime building resident Professor James Nassy.)
Majestic Towers’ Dirty Little Secret
By Lisa Jacobs
If these walls could talk, today’s tenants would be spellbound by tales of Majestic Towers’ dark past and fascinating history. Imagine the Roaring Twenties with its ladies of the night, gangsters, important political and literary figures, bootleggers, police raids, booze, all night soirees, and a portrait of our building, formerly a house of sin, snaps into place like pieces of a puzzle.
Majestic Towers was erected in 1924 by the architectural firm of Schwartz and Gross, one of the most prolific designers of high-rise apartments and hotels of the early 20th century. Their work was distinguished more by its ability to maximize rentable space than by any other notable characteristic. “The building was designed as a bordello,” said long-time resident Professor James Nassy, who first moved in during the early ‘60s when a few ladies of the night still lived here. Behind the discreetly elegant facade, the most spectacular features of the building lay cached. Multiple hidden stairways and secret doorways give the building an air of mystery and double identity. Its layout was conceived for clandestine behavior and was exactly what attracted one of the most notorious tenants, Polly Adler. Adler ran the most popular brothel in the ’20s from a succession of rented apartments on the Upper East and Upper West Sides. The full-fledged madam set up shop at 215 W. 75th Street in the late ’20s and ran a club-like business where the women were an attraction, but not always the main course. “Polly’s” was more than a brothel. It was a clubhouse. Adler decked out her establishments in luxurious decor, with Persian carpets, expensive furniture, paintings, and walls lined with books.
Elite writers and intellectuals who were members of the famous Algonquin Round Table were frequent patrons. Vanity Fair writers Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker (who went for the ambience of the place) even suggested titles for Adler’s library. Benchley was known to spend the night, and reportedly even did some of his magazine writing in the company of her prostitutes.
Patrons, including the immensely charming mayor Jimmy Walker as well as mob boss Dutch Schultz, came by for drinks, backgammon and card games as much as for the prostitutes. During raids—often conducted by corrupt vice-squad policemen on the take—patrons could slip out through the hidden back doors and take one of the secret staircases escaping to the roof or basement. In the G and H apartment lines—where many of these passages can still be seen today—prostitutes could help their clients escape through a hidden door in the bedroom closet that opened directly onto another secret staircase which also ran from the roof to the basement.
Adler’s all night parties continued during prohibition when she made a lot of money selling liquor. “Going to Polly’s?” was the new catch phrase whispered around town.
Ah yes, if these walls could talk, what tales they would tell!
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