Identity

Exploring LA's History of Prostitution with a Dead Madame and Living Novelist

Liz Goldwyn—the author of 'Sporting Guide' and granddaughter of movie legend Samuel Goldwyn—takes us on a tour of prostitution in 1800s Los Angeles.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Feb 12 2016, 8:18pm

Photos by Daniel Scott

"I wish I had my umbrella for the sun. This a very bright and sunny cemetery."

In Los Angeles's Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, the writer Liz Goldwyn stands over a 104-year-old tombstone. Palm trees soar over the grave, and Liz wears a black, purple, red, and yellow polka-dot dress. With the exception of a fat guy wearing Nike high socks, Liz, her research assistant Dan Johnson, and I are the only people in the cemetery.

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Liz tosses her red Chanel clutch into a pile of hay ("I'm not precious about Chanel," she says). She then lights sage. "If you were one of the wealthy elites in Hollywood in the early 20th century, this is where you'd be buried before this town went to hell," she says.

Liz comes from a ruling Hollywood family of the 20th century. After growing up in the Warsaw ghetto, her Yiddish grandfather, Samuel Goldwyn, moved to New York and then Los Angeles, where he produced the first feature-length film filmed in Hollywood, The Squaw Man, in 1914. He became a major producer—his last name is the G in MGM—and transformed Los Angeles forever. Liz is at the cemetery to honor a woman who reined Hollywood before her grandfather, a madame named Cora May Phillips.

While she rubs roses and palo santo on Cora's tombstone, Liz says, "I'm clearing out all her sadness." Cora owned a high-end brothel called the Golden Lion. According to Liz's research, she outfitted the venue with parlors and tapestries. Her girls offered a service that seemed less sketchy than California's cheaper prostitutes. "If you're going to a four star restaurant or you're going to McDonald's you're going to have a different experience," Liz says. "The quality of your meats are not the same." But, Liz notes, women like Cora only turned to prostitution because they had no other options in Los Angeles.

I had this fantasy that my dad had actually lost his virginity by my grandfather taking him to a brothel.

Liz has made Cora and other real life 1800s and 1900s sex workers the stars of her historical novel Sporting Guide. Published by Regan Arts, the book mixes fiction with history and archival photograph. "[The book] brilliantly captures the seedy side of America's dream machine, Los Angeles," Liz's editor Lucas Wittman says. "Liz Goldwyn has given voice and life to these forgotten characters who are just as much the builders and makers of LA as the people whose names adorn streets and buildings." Although most publishers treat sex books as dumb smut, Wittman's team has treated the novel as a work of art. They designed the book to resemble a literal sporting guide, the Zagat-like books men would get in Los Angeles that gave them a guide to the city's best prostitutes. Sporting Guide's red cover looks like leather.

"The biggest misunderstanding about LA in general is that there was nothing here before the movie business and somehow the movie business created LA, and that what prostitution looked like [beforehand] was mining camp prostitutes, which wasn't the case," Liz says. "There were buildings and houses. The city was built on vice... it's a bit of a secret, hidden world, and it also aligns with the idea of women. The roles of women in vice—and in running vice, and in profiting from vice—are instrumental."

Many of these women were loners. When Cora died, her insurance policy paid for her tombstone. "She didn't live her life and die in this trade for our scorn and disrespect," Liz says. "She's my spiritual ancestor."

Liz has always loved the sex industry. "I'm not cool," Liz says. "I'm an eccentric nerd." Where most nerds love Star Trek, Liz adored sex workers. She grew up with four brothers and a much older father, the film producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. At home, she came across Playboy magazines and movies about sex. She remembers watching Candice Bergen star as escort owned Sydney Biddle Barrows in a made-for-TV movie called Mayflower Madam. "What's a madam? What's a prostitute?" asked asked her mom. When her family went to Paris, she begged her mom to take her to the Bois de Boulogne.

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"I thought a lot about what would've been my choices as a women if I were born in the 15th century," Liz recalls. "I could devote myself to God and be locked up in a convent; I could be married to someone who I probably didn't choose but rather [married] as a manner of class and circumstances, and be locked up in a chastity belt when he went off to fight the crusades; or I could be a courtesan."

At home, Liz started reading books about sex or sexual themes—everything from James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers to Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature. She also read children's books about orphans, like The Secret Garden, and history books centered around prostitution. She remembers learning about a Hollywood madam in the 1920s. "I had this fantasy that my dad had actually lost his virginity by my grandfather taking him to a brothel," Liz says. Sadly, her dad said he lost his virginity another way.

Even as a kid, Liz says she recognized the problems women face because of society's perception of sexual women. At age 13, she started working at Planned Parenthood, answering phones. Later, she ran their media library and did peer counseling.

How did people have sex in 1897? I'm like, 'Same way we do now.'

"I was always the kid at school that people would come up to and they'd ask me about blowjobs or how do they get rid of a urinary tract infection," Liz says. "It's not like I had this kind of sexual experience at that age—I was just the kind of person that was fascinated."

When we meet for lunch at Guelagetza, a Mexican restaurant in Koreatown, Liz has the eyes of a zealot. She stares directly at me even when she's just discussing a Chinese facial her Uber driver recommended and Kylie Jenner's Snapchat story. She loves Kylie and sees her public image as sophisticated and complicated, unlike most 21st century Hollywood starlets. "[Kylie]'s different," Liz says.

Like Kylie, Liz has mostly resided in Los Angeles, but work and research has taken her across the world. She studied photography at the School of Visual Arts and later worked as the New York editor of French Vogue when Carine Roitfeld ("Carine" as Liz calls her) took over the publication in the early 2000s.

While in England, Liz started researching gay brothels. Her reading led to an investigation into prostitution in Los Angeles before the movies, taking her to the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale. She started writing Sporting Guide. After she sold the book, she began digging up old photos to go alongside the novel. "I went deep, tracking down what fit with the story," Liz says.

She even hired a researcher, a 27-year-old journalist named Dan Johnson, to assist her. He joins us for lunch. Dressed in a collared shirt, Dan also looks like an eccentric nerd.

"From a research perspective, whenever you're researching cultural history, at first you try and find as much as you can," Dan says. "Really one of the fascinating things here is sort of sussing out where the boundary is geographically and spiritually between a western [late 1800s and early 1900s] Los Angeles and a modern Los Angeles."

Around the city, low-rent crib joints opened downtown off Alameda Street, Central Park served as the center of the gay trade, and high-end brothels operated inside brick buildings. Like today, men wanted a girlfriend experience and escape. "You were paying for top service, not just the girls: your surroundings, having a laundry service, champagne," Liz says. Race, Liz says, affected the brothels. Black women could only work in black brothels, but white men could receive service at either black or white venues.

Some clients requested wild "circus acts," but Liz sees this as no different than sex in 2016. "I always get this question, 'How did people have sex in 1897?' I'm like, 'Same way we do now,'" Liz says. "Like every possible thing that you could possibly imagine that people are interested in now, they were interested in then and was available for the right price."

Although vice ruled the city before movies, other aspects of Los Angeles reputation had already begun. According to Liz and Dan, cults and a new age movement had already entered the city. In Sporting Guide, Liz even uses dialogue she has heard from contemporary friends discussing their Craigslist sexcapades. "Storylines repeat themselves throughout history," Liz says.

She writes beautiful stylized prose from the first-person view of her characters ("I've worked too damn hard for too long to give up my throne," Cora says), but Liz says her book doesn't romanticize prostitution.

"You were someone else's property. Women weren't really supposed to or allowed to own property—or vote for that matter," Liz says. "In a way, the post-feminist take in it is that they were profiting off of their sexuality instead of someone else profiting off of it, but it's not that simple. Of course there was a lot of abuse and sexual slavery, and it's a very complicated subject."

After lunch, we go see today's prostitution dens—motels in Vermont Square, the area formerly known as South Central. In the 21st century, Los Angeles suffers from a massive sex trafficking problem. In the first quarter of 2014, Los Angeles Magazine reported 29 confirmed cases of child sex trafficking in the city.

The Mustang Motel and Snooty Fox Motor Inn are across from each other on Western Avenue. On the exterior wall, the Mustang hangs a sign that says, "NO PROSTITUTION, NO DRUGS, NO DRUG DEALING." Both motels charge by the hour. At the Mustang, there's a minimum of two hours and a maximum of two people per room.

Walking around the Mustang's parking lot, I notice the sun's shining even brighter than it did at the cemetery. The palm trees seem even larger. The motel signs look vintage and beautiful. Nobody has renovated them. It's beautiful. I see nobody, no evidence of anything wrong, but a sense of sadness hangs over the sunny place. Liz puts on her sunglasses.

"How much would you charge?" Liz asks me.

"20K," I say. "What about you?"

She laughs. "The Madame doesn't trick but she can fall in love."