Many years ago, when my college days were still a distant memory, and not a near-myth, I went to a friend's wedding. There was much to celebrate and I remember an acquaintance who consumed eleven whiskey sours.
The reception migrated, like a flock of noisy geese, to a handful of hotel rooms. I was seated on a couch. Suddenly a guy – whom I knew vaguely – ran up to me. He said, 'I bet no one's ever did this to you before', took my shoe off, filled it with wine…and then drank from it. That strange little act was like a microcosm of a very strange little day.
He was right. No one had ever taken a sip from my shoe before. On one hand, it was a flattering thing, as it was customary to toast a lady's beauty by drinking from her shoe (although he didn't mention anything about that). On the othe rhand, the first woman to be so honored was a prostitute. Of course he probably didn't know that. But I do.
At the turn of the twentieth century America was still shuddering her coarse coat from her shoulders. She had become wealthy with immoral speed, too quickly to have a proper wash: her fingers were stained with blood, with steel, with coal, with polluted steam. Her cities, like their occupants, were loud and wild.
This was the age of 'conspicuous consumption', and it was just as loud, wild, and immoral. On February 1, 1900, the finest mansion in Chicago was opened: the Everleigh Club. Fifty rooms were distributed along three stories. Walls were layered with unsubtle brocades, painted linens and burnt velvets. The cut glass of the chandeliers cast diamonds of light that made the rooms tremble. There was an art gallery, a library and three orchestras providing living background music. The beds – and there were many of them – were plush and brass, with in-laid swatches of marble and blankets like clouds, edged with golden tassels that brushed the floor.
The Everleigh Club was run by two sisters, Ada and Minna; and it was the poshest bordello in Chicago. It was the genteel alternative to the rougher houses which had previously been a gentleman's only outlet. Those establishments featured 'strip and whip' parties (don't ask) and their patrons were frequently drugged with morphine and robbed.
But Ada and Minna had created something quite different. A richly appointed retreat where a man could eat, drink, relax and be entertained by charming women imported from every corner of the United States. Its reputation grew, and soon royal blood came to join the blue bloods.
In 1902 Prince Heinrich of Prussia – brother of the annoying Kaiser Wilhelm II – visited the Club. Charming and easy-going, he had already been invited to many glittering, silken events, but…the Everleigh had been recommended. So, the sisters had obligingly planned an elegant bacchanalia for him, with dining and dancing, and the lushest of feminine accompaniments.
During the course of one of the dances, one of the girls' shoes flew off, knocking over a glass of champagne. When the shoe was earthbound once more, there was still some wine within it. An inspired member of the prince's entourage drank the remaining champagne. Then, the entire group rose, each member taking a shoe from the girl he was with. They extended the dainty vessels for the waiters to fill. The toasted their prince, and drank from their prostitutes' shoes.
Now. Picture that beautiful, mad, decadent assembly. Then, fast forward 90 years to me, sitting on a couch that was not my own, and staring stupidly at my empty, sodden shoe.