Phillip Margulies might be best known for his children’s books about science and history, but here, in his first novel, he takes on the life story of a 19th-century San Francisco madam looking back on her life. The book is set up as a memoir first published in 1933 (with a lengthy author’s note) and then reprinted (with a new introduction) in 1967. Here’s how it begins:
There is a story about a girl who took the wrong path, and rues it all her life. She is too trusting. She is too passionate. The result: an error that can’t be corrected, a stain that can’t be washed out. Back on the old homestead where she grew up, no one is permitted to speak her name, and her picture is turned to the wall.
Gentlemen love this story, so when any girl in a house of mine lacked some version of it I would help her to make one up. I’d take her to a good restaurant at a quiet time of day, order something very expensive, and tell her, “You were an Ohio farm girl, and to help your folks out with the bank loan you went to work in a mill. The mill agent’s son noticed you. He was very handsome. That was your downfall.”
Or I’d begin, “You’re from a fine old Baltimore family. Your father was a good man, except he was a bit reckless: he gambled; he was killed in a duel.”
And so on. There was a time when I had three girls declaring in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence that they were the daughters of clergymen.
Why it was useful to say these things, I can only guess. God knows it wasn’t to evoke pity. We weren’t beggars, and the customers weren’t soft-hearted. The important thing was that it worked. We knew from experience that these men paid more for the attention of a girl wrapped in the fiction that she had not chosen this life — she was unlucky, meant for something better, but here to enjoy thanks to her misfortune.
From “Belle Cora” by Phillip Margulies. Copyright 2013 by Philip Margulies. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House.