Photos courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections, The Belle Brezing Photographic Collection, 1868-1983
In the dozen or so years left to her after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell tried constantly—and, for the most part, unsuccessfully—to convince her besotted readers that the O’Hara plantation, Tara, was entirely a work of fiction. The same might be said of her characters. They were all products of Mitchell’s fertile imagination. All, that is, but one. In a story in which the main female player often behaves despicably, another character acts with a grace and kindness that contrast sharply with her social station. Belle Watling is not only a prostitute; she is a madam, overseeing a house of ill fame. She is, in the vernacular, the prototypical “whore with a heart of gold.” And—although Mitchell would later deny it—Watling’s character was based on a Lexington madam of national fame and long standing: Belle Brezing.
She was born Mary Belle Cox in June 1860—the second illegitimate daughter of a poor, hard-drinking, unmarried dressmaker and sometime prostitute. When Belle was a year old, her mother, Sallie, married a German shopkeeper named George Brezing, an abusive alcoholic who regularly beat his wife in front of the girls. Sallie often gave as good as she got and, between fits of temper, entertained men at a local brothel. After five violent years, the toxic couple divorced. Meanwhile, living in a time and place unconducive to tolerance, both Belle and her older sister, Hester, lived with the slights and ostracism of classmates and neighbors.
When Belle was 12 and attending St. Paul Catholic Church, a 36-year-old fellow parishioner took her virginity. Shortly thereafter, Belle wrote an abstract but intriguing poem to her newfound precociousness:
Sitting to night in my chamber, a school girl figure and lonely, I kiss the end of my finger, that and that only.
Reveries rises from the smoky mouth. Memories conger [sic] surround me. Boys that are married or single. Gather around me … Boys that like to be kissed, and like to give kisses.
Kisses well I remember them: Those in the corner were fleetest: Sweet were those on the sly in the Dark were the sweetest …
Boys is pretty and blooming sweetly, yea sweetness over thair [sic] rest. Them I loved dearly and truly and the best.
Three years later, Belle was pregnant. On Sept. 13, 1875, a marriage was hastily cobbled together with a cigar maker named James Kenney, although Belle apparently had been romantically involved with a young workmate of Kenney’s, Johnny Cook. When a distraught Cook announced his intention to move to Cincinnati, the newly married Belle sent him a photo and a love note, along with a lock of her hair, which the young man apparently had requested.
Following his farewells and invitations to his friends to visit him in Ohio, Cook walked straight to Belle’s backyard and shot himself in the head. After attending the youth’s wake, Belle purportedly composed a nine-verse eulogy, “Johnnie Cook—Gone to his Rest,” which was sent to a Lexington newspaper. At that point, Belle had been married to James Kenney a little more than a week. The editor printed the poem, following an editorial fairly dripping with sarcasm toward the morally compromised teen.
Despite the fact that a coroner’s jury declared the death a suicide, James fell under suspicion and briefly fled to Cincinnati. When he was satisfied that no charges awaited him, he returned to Lexington, but not to Belle.
In March 1876, Belle, who had been living with her mother, gave birth to a daughter. Two months later, her mother died of cancer, and while Belle was holding her baby at the burial, the landlord put her furniture in the street and locked the door. Now homeless and one month shy of her 16th birthday, Belle entrusted the child to a neighbor with the promise to always provide for her—a promise she would diligently keep. Belle then entered her late mother’s sometime profession. She became a prostitute.
Living the Life
In appearance, Belle was not prepossessing. Short, with dark curly hair, she had a roundish, pleasant face—full-lipped and attractive, but not quite pretty. Her most remarkable features were her eyes. The earliest-known photograph of Belle, a tintype taken when she was around 8, shows a child staring back at the camera through adult eyes. In nearly every subsequent image, those eyes seem to glare defiantly back at the viewer.
At 19, Belle began working for Jennie Hill in one of Lexington’s more highly regarded brothels. The house, which stood on West Main Street, had been the childhood home of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Within two years, Belle’s entrepreneurial side surfaced, and she decided to go into business for herself. She rented a house at 156 North Upper Street, furnished it tastefully, and hired a staff of young women.
From the beginning, Belle saw the possibilities in running a business that offered more than simply paid sex. She set about creating a setting in which clients could enjoy a quiet evening of cigars, liquor and conversation, without the obligation of “going upstairs.” She organized dinners and dances that were attended by respectable members of Lexington society. One such event, which the Lexington Morning Transcript of May 1883 dubbed the “Bal de Demi-Monde,” was held during the races, and the “proprietress” was described as the “Belle of the ball.”
Belle had a canny knack for business. In July 1883, just two years after striking out on her own, she had saved enough to purchase her own house just down the street. A photograph shows the young madam and eight of her “girls,” black and white, in front of a two-story frame structure at 194 North Upper. A petite Belle, dressed in a checkered dress and white apron, stands at her front gate, staring directly into the camera.
At this time, Lexington had a red-light district, and businesses such as Belle’s were expected to operate therein. Belle’s new address, as well as those of other such establishments, clearly was not in the red-light zone, and the neighbors grew increasingly resentful. Finally, in January 1889, the “undersigned citizens living on or near North Upper Street” sent a petition to the city attorney, informing him that “certain women … are conducting houses … of that class commonly known as ‘houses of ill-fame’…” The petition, which named “Bell” and two other madams, and listed their addresses, also stated that these houses were located dangerously near a young men’s college and an “Industrial School for the training of poor young women.” Apparently, the good citizens of North Upper were concerned the young men might become clients, while the “poor young women” might be lured into “the life.”
Raising the Bar
Belle refused to allow this temporary setback to slow her momentum. With the financial support of investors, she moved to a sizable house on the corner of Megowan and Wilson streets in the red-light neighborhood known as The Hill. Although the large two-story house itself was unremarkable from the outside, Belle added a back section and spared no expense in furnishing and decorating it. When the house was completed, it became, in the words of one biographer, “part saloon, part dance hall, part men’s social club, and part brothel.” She acquired a liquor license and served the best wines, and whiskey from barrel taps. It was, wrote another chronicler, “more like a private gentlemen’s club where no gentleman dared exhibit uncivilized behavior.”
In essence, the waif who had been born to squalor and catapulted as a child into a “life of sin” had completely reinvented herself as Lexington’s red-light arbiter of taste and proper conduct. She was frequently seen, dressed in the height of fashion, driving in her phaeton—a stylish carriage the equivalent of today’s Rolls-Royce—behind a matched pair of handsome geldings, attending the races and other city functions. Despite her lack of formal education, Belle was a lifelong voracious reader, and her manners were impeccable. Even members of Lexington’s more respectable society afforded her respect, if at times grudgingly.
Her house caught fire in 1895, and Belle again turned adversity into opportunity, adding a third floor and making it even more lavish than before. When the restoration was completed, Belle sent engraved invitations to her gala reopening. With taste and a thoroughgoing knowledge of her market, she cemented her position as the proprietress of what Time magazine would one day refer to as Lexington’s “most orderly of disorderly houses.” Money paid to the right people generally kept the law from her door. On the one occasion when she was indicted for “keeping a bawdy house,” Gov. Luke P. Blackburn pardoned her.
One of Belle’s most valuable skills was her ability to maintain discretion. She was relied upon to ensure the privacy of the guests at her various parlor parties as well as that of the “upstairs” clientele. And commensurate with her service, her rates were high. Where most of the houses in town charged $1 for female companionship (they were colloquially referred to as “dollar houses”), Belle levied a $5 fee for her girls. She ruled the house with rigid discipline. Her code of conduct was strict—for her girls, as well as her clients. The girls were instructed to refrain from swearing (as were the guests) and to dress properly. No girl was allowed downstairs unless she wore an evening dress. She was known to take her ladies shopping after hours in Lexington’s more fashionable clothing stores. Belle herself reputedly shopped only in New York.
Although her manner was, for the most part, reserved, Belle was capable of mixing with her clients on their own level. When one free-spending trotting enthusiast ordered a bottle of wine, Belle, descending the stairs in an elegant gown accented by diamond jewelry, called, “Duplicate that order! Looks like we’re going to get drunk, don’t it?”
Belle’s clients came from a number of social and economic backgrounds. The local college boys did, indeed, frequent her establishment, as did many Lexington locals. But her richest clients were members of the horse-racing crowd. Racing season brought high rollers from around the country, and a number of them became preferred patrons at the Megowan house. Some, including wealthy Boston banker Allie Bonner, would rent the entire establishment for the duration of the races.
Business boomed as Belle’s reputation spread. It received an unexpected boost at the start of the Spanish-American War of 1898, when soldiers from all over the country were billeted in Lexington. According to a past president of the Lexington History Museum, only the officers—many of whom were from socially prominent families—were allowed to frequent Belle’s establishment. Enlisted men had to make do with houses of lesser quality. The officers made Belle’s place their unofficial gathering spot, and when they eventually returned home, they carried word of Belle Brezing’s house of pleasure with them. Almost overnight, she acquired a national reputation—and beyond.
Despite her background as a prostitute, Belle mainly served the house from the business end. In 1883, she took a lover and companion—a bookkeeper named William “Billy” Mabon. The two remained together until his death 34 years later.
“Happily ever after” was generally not the fate of the prostitutes, however. Although a few of Belle’s girls married customers and went on to live respectable lives, others did not fare so well. One, Debbie Harvey, was stabbed to death by a drunken paramour who was later judged mentally unstable and committed to an asylum.
The majority of the prostitutes were destined for a more lingering fate, and one more peculiar to their lifestyle. Writes biographer Doug Tattershall, “Practically all of Belle’s girls [had] gonorrhea. Some [had] worse, syphilis.” This was one of the darker sides of Belle’s profession, and no amount of window dressing could mask its seedier aspects. Although Belle was diligent in cultivating an image of sophistication, ultimately it was a skillfully wrought veneer, disguising what was, in the end, a whorehouse—albeit a highly successful one. It is a fact that the plainspoken Belle herself would have readily acknowledged.
Leaving the Life
By 1915, there were dozens of houses of prostitution and hundreds of working girls in Lexington. But change was in the air. The Temperance Movement was gaining national ground, and reformers—in the form of a recently established vice commission—pressured the city commissioners to do something about the rampant prostitution. Consequently, an ordinance was passed ordering Lexington’s brothels closed down. A number of the city’s madams, including Belle, ignored the new law. However, when the United States entered World War I two years later, soldiers were again stationed near Lexington—and this time, the city was ordered to enforce the vice law.
Although many of the houses of prostitution gradually re-opened over the next few years, Belle, who had made a considerable amount of money, decided to stay closed and to live off her investments. The house at 153 Megowan Street became her private home, where she lived in relative seclusion until her death of uterine cancer at the age of 80. The “Belle of Lexington” passed away on August 10, 1940, just six months after the release of one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time: Gone with the Wind.
Belle was buried beside her mother in Lexington’s Calvary Cemetery, beneath a stone that incorrectly lists both her date of birth and the spelling of her name. Her death made the national news. Time magazine printed Belle’s obituary, referring to her as a “famed Kentucky bawd,” and the Lexington Herald marked her passing with a front-page eulogy. Two weeks after her death, a three-day public auction was held to sell the contents of Belle’s famous house. The house itself was badly damaged by fire in 1973, and demolished the following year. The bricks were sold as souvenirs.
In death, Belle Brezing became a figure of Lexington lore. One local recalled, “For every bad Miss Belle did, she did 500 good ones. There were a lot of poor people in that neighborhood, and she helped many of them. There was an awful lot of stuff went out that back door to them.”
There is some indication that Belle regretted having been “compromised” at such a young age. One of her ladies recalled that Belle “swore to kill any man who ever took advantage of her daughter ... and she was full of emotion when she said it.” Ultimately, Belle Brezing was a survivor. Born into a life that all but promised failure, she clawed her way out of it and, through determination and a sharp business sense, achieved monetary success and lasting fame. And although Margaret Mitchell steadfastly refused to acknowledge that her “Belle Watling” was, in fact, Belle Brezing, the citizens of Lexington know better.