If you've spent any time at all in Lexington, then you've certainly met at least one person who considers herself a "Belle Enthusiast" -- someone who simply can't get enough of the legend of Miss Belle Brezing.
Belle was, of course, a Lexington madam of the late 19th and early 20th century whose shrewd business sense and commitment to opulence and decorum led to the establishment of what was widely known as "The Most Orderly of Disorderly Houses." Widely believed to be the inspiration for the Belle Watling character in Gone with the Wind, Belle rose from humble beginnings to own a successful brothel that was frequented by judges, horse breeders, and society gentlemen of the day. I count myself among the Belle Enthusiasts who are fascinated by her life story, so I was excited to get my hands on the latest Belle biography, Maryjean Wall's Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel.
Ms. Wall, who covered the turf beat for the Lexington Herald-Leader for nearly four decades, brings a well-researched account of Lexington in the 1880s and 1890s. Her work brings an interesting perspective of the era's horse business to Belle's story. However, with little new information about Belle and a wealth of stories about seemingly peripheral racing stories, the book functions better as a history of Lexington than as a Belle Brezing biography. The knowledgeable Belle enthusiast will find little new information in this work, with much of the story devoted to pedantic details found in receipt books and a heavy reliance on Buddy Thompson's seminal Brezing biography, Madam Belle Brezing. [Ed. note: my college bookstore stocked a few copies of Thompson's book when I was matriculating there. I always meant to buy it but at the time, list price seemed exorbitant; now it's impossible to find a copy of the long-out-of-print work for under $70...]
I found myself simply wanting to like this book far more than I actually did. There was little new information and Ms. Wall's text is cumbersome. The language which the author employs is particularly problematic. The overuse of "demimonde" adds an aura of pretension, while the repeated referral to Ms. Brezing's employees as "whores" undermines the commonly-held (and seemingly accepted by the author) conceit that Belle was a sharp businesswoman who added a touch of elegance to her enterprise. The historical context of Kentucky horsemen often seems forced, bringing awkward phrases like "But [Belle's] opening night gala still lay in the future on that Derby night of 1890" or the reference to 1890s thoroughbred horses as "four-legged Ferarris." [Driver Enzo Ferrari was not born until 1898, and his eponymous sports car company was founded in 1929.] At times, I simply found myself wondering where the point lay in Ms. Wall's exercise.
For this reader, Ms. Wall's most interesting addition to the Belle Canon is an anecdote regarding Belle's final days. Aging, alone, and fighting a morphine addiction, Belle found herself in the frequent care of James Herndon, an orderly at Lexington's St. Joseph Hospital. Mr. Herndon is perhaps better known as Lexington's original drag queen, Miss Sweet Evening Breeze; it's fascinating to imagine how this connection kept the Belle legend alive in Lexington. Ms. Wall's quote of Lexington artist Bob Morgan, who says "All the old queens loved Belle. She was powerful and a sexual outlaw..." tells a fascinating story of gender politics and historical interpretation. I found myself wishing that this storyline had been better developed, with less emphasis on the same perusal of auction records that appears in every Belle timeline.
Madam Belle adds little to the body of Belle writing. I would recommend it only for those who are new to the Belle legend or who are interested in an overview of the vices of historical Lexington.