Book Review

No Greater Truth Than Her Own


Madame Millie: Bordellos from Silver City to Ketchikan

Max Evans’ enthusiastic biography, Madame Millie: Bordellos from Silver City to Ketchikan, is a good-hearted whore story about Mildred Clark Cusey, who built and managed a cartel of whorehouses in the west, primarily in New Mexico, from 1929 to 1969. In the years before her death in December 1993, she spent hours telling stories to Evans, who assembled the book almost entirely from these tape recordings. He supplements the narrative with occasional documentary evidence such as court transcripts, and verifies her accounts with a few other sources, but by and large he just lets her have her way with him. This accounts for the book’s considerable charm, as well as its structural weakness. If Evans doesn’t seem aware that he’s not the first writer to give voice to the whore with a heart of gold and a mind like tempered steel, he does concede that her well-honed womanly arts are often too much for him, narratively speaking at least. It’s at the end of the book, in the section called “Afterglow” where the author describes his methodology.

A prolific writer of western fiction and essays, Evans says he came to write Millie’s story because he couldn’t resist the entreaty of a powerful friend. “Back in 1975, I got a call from Charlie Crowder,” he writes, referring to a New Mexico land developer, “asking me to talk to a cowboy friend of his about the book. I didn’t want to do it. However, Charlie said that he needed me to do it.” Crowder had once done a mysterious favor for Evans, “pulled [him] out of a deep hole once and never asked for any returns.” Though reluctant to take on the project, Evans seems to have been seduced by Millie early on: His first meeting with her and her husband was a breakfast of pastries, fruit, scotch, bourbon, and vodka.

He explains that he “waited a few years” to publish the book to protect the identities of some of the characters, but it’s curious that he also waited until after Millie’s and her third husband’s deaths as well. Though I’m sympathetic to his motivations (and to taking 27 years to publish a book), it doesn’t inspire much faith in his scholarship. He explains in “Afterglow” how he was pulled loose from his detached professional stance: “We were, after all, old pros in our respective professions. They were somewhat similar. If you are going to make a lot of money writing, you are going to become a whore to some publication somewhere.” He goes on to describe how interviews turned liquid: “It started slowly, on about our tenth sitting. Millie would say so sweetly it would have melted a ploughshare, ‘Wendell [her husband], dear, don’t you think it’s about time we had a little drink?’ Then she’d look at me with those big old blue Italian and a little French eyes that had seen so much and still sparkled with mischievous fun, and ask as a soft command, ‘Are you almost ready, dear?'” One-on-one interviews, he recounts, morphed into group story-telling sessions in local bars where others laughed and chimed in, but whose veracity was impossible to verify. But Millie ultimately has it her way. Evans explains how he gave up journalistic protocol and learned to love the drinking tale: “Most of Millie’s stories were so clearly known and verified that I was wasting time. Lots of it. I decided to simply stay with researching her in person by whatever methods she chose. There would be no greater truth than her own.”

But if Evans was wooed by Millie, then we are too. If even half the things she tells him about her life and career are true, then Millie was one remarkable and formidable woman whose life is marked by equal measures of achievement and tragedy. She was born Willette Angela Fantetti on a Kentucky farm, but the family lost the farm and was forced to move to a rental property outside Kansas City. Millie’s already hardscrabble life worsened after both her parents died within a week of each other in the flu epidemic of 1918, leaving six-year old Millie and ten-year old Florence orphaned. After shuttling among foster homes in which they were treated as indentured servants (according to Millie’s memory, decades later), two life-altering events occurred: Florence developed a persistent cough and began spitting up blood, and Millie lost her virginity in the back of a Dodge, in exchange for which she received a brand new banjo. And so the two girls took a train to Deming, New Mexico, where Florence could get treatment and where Millie could begin a life in the hospitality industry as a 14-year-old waitress at the Harvey House at Deming’s bustling rail depot.

Millie made good tips because she was pretty and well developed for her age, but she needed more money for Florence’s treatments, so, in Evans’ narrative, Millie’s waitress career becomes an apprenticeship for prostitution. “She was learning. She was earning.” Millie explains it more bluntly: “Well, I learned how to make tips. Wherever I worked, somebody was going to tip me ’cause I’d made up my mind. The men, well… they had exactly what I wanted, you see. It was just figuring out how to get it out of them. It didn’t take me long. No trouble–no trouble. It’s like a wise ol’ Jewish clothier I traded with told me later on, ‘You got your merchandise with you all the time. You sell it, you go to bed with it, and wake up with the same damn merchandise.'”

Millie’s initiation is complete when she meets a prostitute named Jenny and a man named Al in Juarez and soon after discovers that Florence needs expensive surgery. Al gives her the name of a woman who runs a house in Carrizozo, New Mexico. “Al would advance Millie the money to put Florence in the sanatorium. Jenny’s madam, Billie Miller, would pay Al back, and of course, Millie was expected to return all the money with a profit. The wheel of her life has started slowly turning without her control, but soon, she vowed, she’d spin the damn thing herself.”

What follows is about what you would expect, an X-rated here-come-the-brides story of prostitution and free enterprise in western boomtowns from New Mexico to a brief stint in Alaska. All the elements are here: gun and knife fights, episodes of prodigious drinking and spending, liaisons and deep grudges with powerful men, ignominious falls by men of the cloth, huge amounts of cash, brushes with the law, and serial and tragically ending marriages, all written against the backdrop of the awful childhood and a dying sister. Which is not to say the tales aren’t fascinating and often very funny, in particular the story of the Bishop’s balls. And it’s hard not to be tickled by the image of an elderly Millie telling Evans about one particular encounter: “Hell, I screwed the bastard wrong side out; he’s as limp as an old rope and I feel like a reamed-out pipe.” Certainly, there’s a lot to admire about Millie. If she had built an empire of car dealerships instead of whorehouses, for example, you’d praise her business acumen, her ambition, and her resiliency, especially as a woman in the relentlessly masculine culture in which she succeeded. But it’s not cars she sold, and her employees weren’t young salespeople eager for commissions; it’s the bodies of other women she traded in, and her employees were young, poor, damaged, and desperate for the most part.

This is where Evans’ unusual relationship to his subject becomes unsettling. Yes, there are feminist arguments to be made about female entrepreneurs in the sex trade, but neither Evans nor Millie makes them. Because of the chummy barroom-yarn way he tells the story of Millie’s life, Evans occludes another equally compelling, but deeply troubling narrative, one that’s characterized by alcohol abuse, rape, violence, avarice, and exploitation.

Nonetheless, Madame Millie, seen as a primary document, an unframed personal story, is an invaluable contribution to the history of life in New Mexico and the west. Millie’s last house was closed by the law in 1969, and at her peak she owned more than a half-dozen successful businesses that she built out of sheer determination and daring. She survived a savage rape and beating as a 15 year old just learning to turn tricks moonlighting from her waitress job. She outlived her sister, and three husbands. She forged life-long loyalties with powerful political figures and fellow prostitutes and madams alike. If, in her final decades, she wants to tell her story as a kind of wild west adventure, then I guess she’s earned the right to do so

Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton is a writer who lives in Austin and an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University.