The impetus for this post is that on February 16th, The University of Kentucky will be showing the 1-hour documentary on Madam Belle Brezing.
Belle is one Lexington's most beloved historical figures, but it wasn't always that way.
Remember Belle Watley, the red-haired Madam with the heart of gold who took pity on Scarlett in "Gone With the Wind" and drove her home from the party in her curtain-drawn carriage?
She's based on Lexington Kentucky's Belle Brezing
Though adored now, she was once considered Lexington's shame Her history will remind you a bit of Fantine from Les Miserables (forgive me if the details are off, the documentary will help) ...
Born illegitimately as Belle Cox, she barely knew her father, which of course was scandalous in the 1800s, so she adopted her stepfather's name of Brezing as cover. However, her mother and stepfather were reportedly abusive drug/alcohol addicts, which did not enhance her family's already tarnished reputation.
Knowing that due to her family's status, she would most likely never "marry well" (which was really the only choice women had at that time), combined with the fact her family was poor and that women were still prohibited from most types of jobs or business, she thus chose to quit school to become a maid for a wealthy family at the age of 14.
The family's son took a liking to Belle and soon thereafter, she found herself pregnant at age 16. Of course, she was released, the son denied being the father, and she was turned out into the street pregnant, knowing no one respectable would hire or marry her. Thus, she had no choice but to knock on a brothel door, asking if they were in need of a maid.
Her child, Daisy, unfortunately was mentally-challenged and needed special care and living in a brothel wasn't suitable regardless. Originally, she was cared for while working by a neighbor, but as Daisy needed more care, she needed to live permanently in a home for special needs children, so Belle went from maid of the brothel to becoming a lady of the evening to afford special care for her.
Belle was highly intelligent and an avid reader and educated herself, learning to speak articulately and correctly. Thus, she worked her way up to becoming the business owner, the Madam - and not just any Madam - the most successful Madam east of the Mississippi
She dressed her ladies in the world's finest, dresses from Paris and Milan and if men abused the women, they were shown the door. She and staff entertained some of the most notable politicians, dignitaries, authors, opera singers, and business magnates in not only the country, but the world.
Regardless, true to the movie, she could not travel by day without drawing curtains, so she mostly traveled at night in the same way.
She was also one of the most generous and charitable people in Lexington history; interestingly, a devout Catholic despite her profession.
In fact, she contributed heavily financially to building St. Joseph Hospital here in Lexington, anonymously initially, helping to personally care for the sick and wounded under a hooded cloak (also true to the movie) so as not to bring shame on the hospital.
And all the while, she spent every Sunday with her beloved Daisy at her special needs home, regardless of the jeers :)
Additionally, she had a collection of rare books from around the world which she also tried to donate in her name to UK, but they refused because of her reputation. Years later, she donated them anonymously and they accepted - so it's interesting they're honoring her now :)
Our favorite Lexington legend about her was that she was once dragged off to court for her business.
The judge inquired her whereabouts the prior evening and the nature of her business.The flu epidemic and WWI crippled her business and brothels fell out of favor, so unfortunately, Belle died nearly penniless (and supposedly opium-addicted, though she previously had refused drugs), but at the age of 80 in 1940 :(
Belle replied, "Well judge? You oughtta know, you were there."
Case dismissed ;)
Despite her profession, Belle never missed a confession or mass, and thus was permitted by the Catholic church to be buried in a modest grave in Lexington's Catholic cemetery, "Calvary Cemetery," right across the street from the extraordinarily beautiful Lexington Cemetery.
Interestingly, visitors to the grave site note that the pillared gravestone directly behind her modest one says:
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." :)
Interest in Belle was revived in and around the 1970s and not only was more compassion shown towards her, but she was given a newfound respect, as a shrewd businesswomen who did the best she could with what life dealt her, and poor choices she made in her youth, but most importantly, that she retained her compassion for others despite all of it.
Thus, we once had a Belle Brezing stakes at Keeneland and a local beer named after her, and there is still a room at Lyndon House B&B named after her, a local play of her life gave sold-out performances in 2011, and in 2013, a local pub opened on Market Street called "Belle's Cocktail Lounge" in her honor.
As for me, despite net rumor, I never resorted to being a lady of the evening (not even close) - but there are a few other elements of her story I identify with. In fact, all women seem to identify with her, in a way, much like Fantine - because there's something about her struggle as a single parent, the double-standard, and how women were viewed and treated in US history that resonates with all women, still today.
In fact, she's sort of a heroine, here, because not only did she survive despite the nearly insurmountable odds - especially for women at that time - but for all that she able accomplish, despite the hand she was dealt, and she continued to give to others despite it.
So hats off to you, Ms. Belle - wish you could see how much Lexington loves you now - even Baptists! lol
Speaking of Fantine/Les Miserables, here's the exact moment Susan Boyle shocked the world with that voice, singing Fantine's song, "I Dreamed a Dream."
Despite her oddness, despite her appearance, despite her age and despite the ridicule - she persevered - and she won :)
Dedicated to all the women like Susan Boyle who just kept going. Triumph of the human spirit - which contrary to popular belief, includes the female spirit, too ;) #ShePersisted :)
Still one of the most inspirational moments I have ever seen (especially what the judges say at the end) :) ...