Fayette County Record is reporting tonight that Edna Milton, better known to many as "Miss Edna," the former madam of the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, has died [Update: I have confirmed her passing. Miss Edna died early the morning of Feb. 25 in Phoenix, Arizona]. This doesn't come as a great surprise to me. She was 84, and back in October she was involved in a car wreck that left her hospitalized with an array of injuries. From what I understand, her memory was affected, and her brain stopped converting short-term memory into long. In practical terms, it meant somebody could introduce themselves and begin a conversation with her, but five minutes later she'd have no recollection. Her prognosis was never good, but I'm still deeply saddened by her passing. Over the past three years I feel I've gotten to know her as much as any person alive today who isn't related to her. She enthusiastically supported my book project and graciously invited my wife and myself into her home for hours of interviews. It is my everlasting regret that I did not complete the book in time for her to have her own copy.
Edna Milton was born Jan. 3, 1928 in Caddo County, Okla., a middle child amongst seven sisters and three brothers. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl hit the family hard, and they moved often among Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona throughout her childhood. At age 16, during a visit to her sister in California she was forced into an unwanted marriage. Within a year, she was divorced and gave birth to a son who died two months later. Alone, penniless and without an education, she turned to prostitution.
“I wanted to be able to work, I wanted to go to school. I wanted a good education, but I knew I would have to work like hell to get that, too. It wouldn’t be just a gift to me, you know,” Miss Edna told me. “I knew I wanted it. I wanted to be a straight-A student. You know, if I had been, if I’d finished high school, I might’ve gotten a small scholarship or something. That’s what I really wanted to do.”
In 1952 she arrived in La Grange for a trial run at the Chicken Ranch. She'd heard of the Chicken Ranch over the years, but was suspicious that such an old-fashioned brothel could still exist. Her temporary stay turned permanent. In 1961, with the old madam Miss Jessie in declining health and unable to manage the place properly, Miss Edna bought it for $30,000. The brothel prospered under her ownership until Marvin Zindler, a consumer affairs reporter with KTRK-TV out of Houston forced the Chicken Ranch's closure with a series of prime-time reports.
Around 1977, sold her story rights to author Larry King, who, along with Pete Masterson and Carol Hall put together quite possibly the most unlikely Broadway hit in history, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Miss Edna had a non-speaking role in the production as "Miss Wulla Jean" and to this day has an entry in the Internet Broadway Database. She also did a promotional tour of Great Britain when the musical opened on the West End. Once she'd decided she'd had enough of the limelight, she dropped out on her own terms and lived a quiet life of retirement since 1983.
During my time with her, I learned that she was a relentless chain-smoker, a gracious hostess and nostalgic for the fame she once enjoyed although by then she actively sought to protect her privacy. None of her neighbors knew of her more infamous history. Conversations with her were rambling, stream-of-consciousness affairs, as are those with many elderly folks in their 80s, but her memory for specific details remained sharp as a tack. A few times our questioning ventured into territory she didn't approve of, and the in-control madam with a spine of spring steel that tolerated no foolishness made a quick appearance. In the end, she gave me an autographed album of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas original Broadway cast recording, and invited us back again any time. It was always at the back of my mind that we'd drop in on her again, but although I spoke with her on the phone several times thereafter, I never made that trip. Now, it's too late.
Miss Edna was a complex woman, deeply flawed for sure, but one who overcame far more than her share of adversity in life. She was a living, breathing part of Texas history and for that she will always be missed.
More on Miss Edna here.
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