I've always wanted to write a book about Belle Brezing.
To tell you the truth, I'm fascinated with a lot of the whispered stories of Lexington's shadowy past. I suppose there's something beautifully thrilling about such a picturesque and gracious town having a few secrets. Several years ago, I was thrilled when I came across an odd little University Press book about Billy Klair, Lexington's very own Tammany-style political boss. When we were in our mid-twenties, I can remember my friends and I feeling so cosmopolitan and sophisticated as we celebrated special occasions at a la lucie; as we ordered "good red wine" (we were super-into $12 Merlot at the time...), we'd stare in awe at the framed Christmas card from Drew Thornton that hung proudly on the wall. The list could go on, but so many of these secretive folks are as famous in Lexington lore as Coach Rupp or Governor Chandler. I love hearing these whispered stories, but none thrill me as much as the legend of Belle.
Belle Brezing, as any Lexingtonian can tell you, was the city's most famous madam. She first started working for a madam named Jennie Hill on December 24, 1879. It's truly heartbreaking to think of a nineteen year-old single mother going to work as a prostitute on Christmas Eve. It's also kind of amazing to realize that the house where she went to work had previously been the childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Belle was a smart businesswoman, and she rose to a high degree of social prominence. By the age of twenty-one, she was running "bawdy houses" of her own. Her first location was in a row of houses on Upper Street; the remaining house is now the Field House for my alma mater's Women's Soccer Team.
Following an 1892 arrest, Belle received a pardon from the Governor, a testament to her standing in the community. Soon after, she expanded her empire by establishing a house on the site that is now The Gratz Park Inn. I think that's the fascinating thing about Lexington legends. The town has always been just small enough that every building and every story are intertwined in the most peculiar ways.
Belle was famous for her business acumen -- she was forever expanding her enterprise, and lived off her investments for over twenty years, following her retirement. But, she will forever be known as the reported model for the Belle Watling character in Gone With The Wind. In recent years, Lexington has embraced her legend in very public ways. I was a student at Transylvania when the women's soccer field on Upper Street was built; the row house standing on the site, one of Belle's properties, was designated as a historical home, and thus protected from demolition. In the late Nineties, the old Lexington City Brewery had a tasty lager named for Belle. And, over the past few years, the Lexington History Museum has held an annual gala fundraising event on Belle's birthday, and the springtime Best of the Bluegrass Festival includes a quirky, commemorative "bed race."
When I finally do write a book on Belle, I'd love to say that she died with the dignity and comfort she deserved, but she finally ran out of money and developed a horrible morphine addiction. I'd also be remiss if I didn't include the fact that much of her success was underwritten by a newspaper magnate and trotting horse enthusiast. I'd love to focus on her success as an unlikely business owner, rather than dwelling on the horrors of prostitution, the disdain she received from "polite society", and the cycle of violence that seems to have surrounded her life. I'd love to focus on the fact that her 1940 death was designated as a "Milestone of the Week" in Time magazine.
I don't quite know how I'll work out all of those details, but I do know that the stories of Belle's life provide a unique glimpse into Lexington itself. The dirty and the pretty, the glamorous and the grimy, and the underside of some of our most beloved landmarks -- Belle has had a hand in it all.