Thursday, August 01, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 40: It was 40 years ago today...

On this date in 1973, the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel of La Grange, Texas, closed its doors for good. The closure followed a week (give or take--it's been tough to pin down exact dates) of broadcasts by Houston TV station KTRK's consumer affairs reporter Marvin Zindler, accusing the brothel of corruption and conspiracy. The Chicken Ranch had survived attempts to close it before, but the white-hot media spotlight proved too much for it. The brothel claimed a history dating back to 1844, back during the Republic of Texas days, and if those claims couldn't be substantiated, there was at least evidence of organized prostitution dating to the 1880s. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, rare was the Texas town that didn't have a whorehouse of some fashion. The one thing that really made La Grange unique is that by 1973 the Chicken Ranch was (the Wagon Wheel in Sealy aside) the only one left.

I'd hoped to greet this anniversary with a brand-new book, hot off the presses. While Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch certainly qualifies, it's not what I had in mind, nor what I'd spent four years of my life researching and writing. Ghosts is mostly pictures, the other is mostly history--110,000 words worth. In all the time I've been commenting on this project here, on this blog, on my website and elsewhere, readers may have come away with the impression that I'm pro-Chicken Ranch and pro-prostitution. That's not really true. I don't subscribe to the view that the Chicken Ranch was some sort of idealized, candy-coated heaven on Earth for both prostitutes and clients anymore than it was an evil blight on the community fostering danger and corruption. Prostitution is as old as civilization, and no civilization has ever succeeded in reining it in whether through criminalization or legalization. It is a complex issue that people keep wanting to deal with in simple terms. That's never worked, and I'll wager it will continue not working. As far as the Chicken Ranch is concerned, I'm convinced it was the best manifestation of an otherwise bad situation for many women. No girl grows up aspiring to be a prostitute, but some, by circumstance, naivety or flat-out poor choices find themselves in that position. At the Chicken Ranch they still sold themselves for money, but in exchange they had a safe place to live, good food to eat, medical care and a madam in Miss Edna who was fiercely protective of them. Some women it offered a bit of respite, so that they could get their feet under them and get out of the business. For others, it was just a temporary stop on the way to turning tricks in Austin or Houston or Dallas or elsewhere. The women working there were human beings. That's often forgotten. The Chicken Ranch wasn't wholly good, or wholly bad. It simply was. Hopefully, when my history is finally published, everyone will be able to see clearly what I've inartfully tried to express here.

To mark the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the closure of the Chicken Ranch, I offer up this excerpt from Chapter 12, never-before-published, chronicling the final hours of the famed brothel. I hope you'll find it interesting, enlightening and evidence that I haven't actually been sitting around twiddling my thumbs rather than writing all this time:

"Why don’t you call Sheriff Flournoy yourself, Dolph?" Colonel Wilson Speir, head of the DPS, suggested out of the blue.

As the trying day turned into an equally trying night, Governor Briscoe continued to talk with Colonel Speir to find some way out of the impasse. During their discussion, the governor--a long-time South Texas rancher--realized he’d known Big Jim from way back, when the sheriff worked as the foreman of the McGill Brothers Ranch. Big Jim resented outside interference in what he considered a strictly local matter, but Marvin Zindler had shone a glaring spotlight on it. Clearly, things could never go back to the wink-and-nod tolerance of before. The sheriff didn’t accept that the DPS had any authority over him, but if Governor Briscoe himself gave the order...

"Sheriff, it’s just too much. We’ll just have to close it down," Governor Briscoe said as soon as he got Big Jim on the line.

"You know, there’s a lot of furniture out there and we have to get those girls moved out," Big Jim answered in his slow drawl. "Why don’t you let us run two more weeks just to let things taper off?"

"No sheriff, you’re just going to have to shut it down. That’s all there is to it. There’s too much heat. Everybody’s embarrassed by this thing," Governor Briscoe said. "Sheriff, I am ordering you to close what is known as the Chicken Ranch."

Big Jim paused a long moment, then answered with a simple, tired, "Okay."

"He and I both knew that I had no authority to order him to close the place, but it was a practical way for us to get the law enforced in that county," Governor Briscoe said later. "For several days afterward I kept waiting for someone to point out that I had no legal authority to close the place down, but no one did."

All that remained was for Big Jim to inform Miss Edna, a phone call he loathed to make. Miss Edna’s nephew, Robert Kleffman, was visiting when his aunt disappeared into her office to take the call. When she returned, her mood was grim.

"She said, ‘Dang it Robert, Mr. Jim's got to shut us down. He's got to. The Governor's on his way,’" Kleffman said. "She sent all the girls home except for two. I went and got a shirt--Edna'd bought me some new shirts, she was always buying me clothes--and I pulled the cardboard out of it and I drew the block letters of CLOSED. I stuck it on the front screen door with a bobby pin and shut the door and locked it.

"Edna had everybody get their cars and took 'em around back. In a little bit, there was a knock on the door, and we just didn't answer it," he said. "We sat back in the back. There was a bottle of Cold Duck, and me and those two girls sat back there drinking that bottle of grape juice, watching TV in the dining room.

"Edna sat back there, kinda daydreaming and looking out the window, thinking the way she does. We just refused to answer the door," he said. "That was the end of it, because we were told the Governor and the Texas Rangers--that's the story as I remember it--were coming down and were going to close the place. So we just put a closed sign on the front and didn't answer. We made like we weren't there."

The news hit Miss Edna like a ton of bricks. She sent the few customers there that night home, then called the girls together and told them the story. Most of the women packed their bags that night and left by morning.

"One or two little girls--they were young but they were not kids--I got tickled with them. They came in and got in my lap and put their arms around my shoulders and neck and everything. I had to kind of grin," Miss Edna said, smiling at the bittersweet memory. "It was sweet of them, you know. They’d been there long enough where I was family to them. Those little girls, I’ll remember forever.

"Later, another one came in I wasn’t expecting and did the same thing, nearly. It wasn’t quite rehearsed, but nevertheless it could’ve been," she said. "If something had happened and I could’ve reopened and gotten those girls back... well, I wouldn’t have made pets out of them, but it would’ve been hard for me to ever raise hell with them [if they misbehaved]."

Despite all of Marvin’s publicity, Miss Edna never truly believed the Chicken Ranch might close down. Since the brothel claimed origins dating back to 1844--before Texas became a state--she believed the Chicken Ranch had a grandfathered exemption to any modern anti-prostitution laws. Armed with that, as well as a long list of powerful business and political clients that stretched from Austin to Washington, D.C., she considered fighting the order that long, dark night following Big Jim’s call. Even if she didn’t win, she could bring a whole bunch of cowardly hypocrites down with her--and probably take out half the Texas legislature and congressional delegations. By morning, though, Miss Edna threw in the towel.

"The whole damn thing, in a nut shell, was that I didn’t want to keep it open and I sure didn’t want to guilt somebody to mess up or sell to somebody even if they got somebody to finance it or otherwise. I was just tired," Miss Edna said. "It needed more hours than is humanly possible for a person to do. If you’re putting in 14, 16 and 18 some days 20 hours. You get a little tired after a while. And it doesn’t take very many years to kill you.

"After awhile you get so tired, and I did. Toward the last, so damn tired of everything. I was ready to get the hell out of there," she said. "If I hadn’t been so terribly tired I might’ve fought them, to keep it open. But I was just tired."
I'll see you back here for the 50th. I've got no specific plans yet, but I'm certain I'll come up with something by then...

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