Monday, June 22, 2015

Why does the Chicken Ranch matter?

During Apollocon this weekend I was asked a question that brought me up short: "How'd you become so obsessed with the Chicken Ranch?"

It wasn't meant as a put down or a jab, but it was a little off-putting nonetheless. Me? Obsessed? I'd never thought of myself as obsessed with the defunct brothel, although I can understand how it may appear that way to the casual observer. I'd just finished the "I Suck!" panel, and during the discussion I shared how the Chicken Ranch had effectively derailed my SF writing career just as I seemed to be attaining that elusive "critical mass." In early 2009 I stopped writing fiction to research this book--I thought it would be an easy sell, and expected to earn significantly more of the non-fiction history than I ever would with a genre novel or short fiction collection. I also expected the research and writing to take about six months, tops. Absolutely none of those predictions proved accurate.

Now, five years later, I'm picking up the pieces. I'm working on Sailing Venus in fits and starts, and sending out short fiction again. I'm doing rewrites on some that are long overdue and taking a second look as some unfinished projects that have languished. I'm not exactly starting from square one, but there's no denying I've lost that momentum I'd fought so long to establish. So, yeah, from the outside it looks as if I threw all that away to indulge an obsession with prostitutes from a half-century prior.

I wrote this book because it needed to be written. Robin Moore was supposed to have written this book in 1978, but he abandoned the project before it ever got off the ground. I'm not going to lie--he probably would've done a better job than I. He certainly wouldn't have had as much difficulty interesting a publisher. Marvin Zindler had three books written about himself that touch on the Chicken Ranch affair, but those are limited to his direct involvement and are, to a large extent, exercises in self-aggrandizement. Zindler died in 2007. Sheriff Jim Flournoy died in 1982. If I did not write the book, there would soon be no original sources left alive, and a piece of Texas history would be lost forever. The rest of the world had nearly 40 years to do so, and nobody took up the challenge.

The Chicken Ranch isn't just a piece of Texas history, rather, it is a constant that spans the entirety of all Texas history, from the very beginning up to this very day. The Chicken Ranch was born of frontier Texas, survived the Civil War, endured floods and the Great Depression, boomed during the "regulation/containment" era of prostitution at the turn of the previous century and survived not only the social purity movement of those early decades but also Attorney General Will Wilson's anti-vice crusade that brought the so-called "Free State of Galveston" to heel. It was part and parcel of the Jim Crow South, but perplexingly, organized racism in the form of the KKK never took root in Fayette County. Uniquely, from the day it relocated outside of city limits in 1915 to its much-publicized closure in 1973, the brothel was owned and operated by just two women over that span. Organized crime didn't call the shots, men didn't pull the strings behind the scenes. I would not go so far as to describe it as a feminist operation--the owners' primary concern was making money off the backs of the female boarders, after all--but there was a persistent "us against them" mindset that offered a degree of safety and security foreign to other brothels in the state. Edna Milton, and Jessie Williams before her, lived the hard life of a prostitute in less-than-savory conditions, and made an effort to spare their women the worst of that life.

Texas changed over the decades--from the oil boom to the space age--and those changes were reflected in the brothel. It was the nexus of politics in the Lone Star State, and rare was the elected official who didn't at least know how to get there from Austin. Texas Rangers, DPS Troopers, sheriffs and deputies from around the state and beyond were common visitors, cultivating it as a source of intelligence. Other brothels in the state did not share the Chicken Ranch's reputation and clean and straight-laced. During my research, I encountered several sources who held human life in shockingly low regard.

This is a part of Texas history most are unaware of, or pretend doesn't exist. Just as every generation pretends sex and vice did not exist for their parents and grandparents, so too is there the insistence that the good old days were filled with flowers and sunshine. Texas retained a frontier mentality long after the frontier had faded to distant memory. This land was a violent, brutal place, the likes of which Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were just the most famous faces of. Pretending Texas was anything other does a disservice to those people who lived through that time as well as those who call Texas home now.

For most of its existence, Texas was mostly rural and agrarian. The frontier mentality dominated, and the state's politics were an odd mix of self-sufficient libertarianism leavened with unexpected progressive ideals. Abruptly, almost overnight in relative terms, Texas became urban and high-tech, sending men to the moon and amassing untold wealth from petrochemicals before diversifying into all manner of cutting-edge industry. The abrupt closure of the Chicken Ranch in 1973 serves as a stark demarcation between the Old Texas and the New. Change happened rapidly, and the Chicken Ranch was a victim of that change.

I don't collect every piece of Chicken Ranch memorabilia I can get my hand on. I don't rewatch The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with religious fervor. I don't wish I'd been born a couple decades earlier so I could've patronized the place. I don't curse Marvin Zindler. The Chicken Ranch is history--mostly forgotten and deeply misunderstood, but history nonetheless. Many of the people I interviewed had vivid recollections of their place in that history, but nobody--from Edna Milton to Lt. Governor Bill Hobby to the clients to the Assistant Attorney General to the reporter who "infiltrated" the operation--had enough pieces to put together the big picture. That's never existed before.

I've had agents and publishers alike decline my book because "there's no market for it." Just as many have said no because "the market's saturated." One publisher dismissed it as tawdry and beneath them. One publisher acknowledged the value of the work, but declined because they worried publication would be akin to an endorsement of prostitution. Other people worried I was "stirring up trouble" by revisiting events from almost a half century ago. The fact that this subject matter can provoke such diverse and passionate reactions shows how relevant it remains to this day.

The Chicken Ranch matters because it was, and is, part of who we are. Denial doesn't change that. Giving a good, hard look at the gender issues at play during the brothel's run might just give some insight--or, at the very least, context--to some of the vexing gender issues society is wrestling with today. I have a sneaking suspicion they're not all that dissimilar.

So, no, I don't consider the Chicken Ranch an obsession. "Obligation" is the word you're looking for.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Passion
Chicken Ranch Central

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