Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More on Miss Edna

Miss Edna Milton Chadwell last Madam of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas and inspiration for Miss Mona Stangley of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Wow. To say the past few days have been hectic is an understatement. After several days of the interwebs and general media outlets giving Miss Edna Milton's (Chadwell) death a collective shrug, it's as if someone flipped a switch. Now my phone is ringing, my in-box runneth over and the ol' odometer on my blog and website are spinning like crazy as folks find their way here from all corners of the world.

My post on her passing from Monday encapsulates my thoughts on her passing, but today I've developed some new thoughts on reactions to her death. In some quarters, I've seen crude and boorish remarks, which is pretty much par for the course given the uncivil anonymity the internet affords people. You know the saying, "Character is how you behave when nobody is looking"? Well, the online world allows people to flaunt their character in broad daylight. But those knuckleheads are to be expected. They're a given in this day and age. What really stood out for me was the comments section in the Houston Chronicle's obituary. It astounds me how some people can argue so vehemently about something they know so little about.

Miss Edna was not, as some would cast her, a monster exploiting and abusing lost and lonely girls who didn't know any better. Neither was she Mother Teresa, warning them of their evil ways and counseling them to repent before it was Too Late. The truth, as pretty much happens all the time in this life, falls somewhere in between. How some people can wake up in the morning and see a world of black and white with no subtleties in between escapes me.

The fact of the matter is, nobody grows up aspiring to be a prostitute. Miss Edna certainly didn't, and neither did any of the women who worked for her over the years. And with the exception of some of the women working the legal brothels in Nevada, I'll wager very few opt for prostitution as a career choice just for the heck of it. Most women (and men, too, lest we overlook the gay prostitution subculture) are forced into whoring due to circumstances. They feel that course is the only option left for them, and desperation (including the strong motivation of not starving) makes it easy to disregard such niceties as pride and morality.

Nobody ever started their prostitution career at the Chicken Ranch. Miss Edna certainly didn't. But the Chicken Ranch was a haven of sorts from the violence and exploitation that plagued prostitution in Texas cities through the latter half of the 20th century. Illegal drugs weren't tolerated, pimps were kept at bay and even drinking was frowned upon--drunk customers were refused admittance. Miss Edna may have been overbearing and strict with her "my way or the highway" attitude, but she was fiercely protective of her girls, to the point of forcing Larry L. King to change the names of some of the characters in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas to better protect their identities. Did she profit from the brothel? Of course. She always viewed herself as a business woman more than anything else. But the whores who worked for her profited as well. None were ever forced to stay, yet they did--some for years--because of the sense of security and safety the Chicken Ranch offered, especially when compared with the alternatives.

Some are accusing the media of "glorifying" Milton in death, pointing out that she was a madam and a law-breaker. I suppose the same charges will be leveled at me, either for these blog posts or my book once it is published. Nothing is farther from the truth. Like it or not, the Chicken Ranch was a very big part of Texas history for 130 years. The little country brothel in La Grange is a distillation of Lone Star heritage, and every significant cultural event--from the days of the Republic to secession to both World Wars to the space program and college football--the Chicken Ranch shares connections with all of them.

Edna Milton, the women who worked for her and the men who patronized the brothel weren't demons or angels, they were simply human beings with feet of clay, trying to make their way in the world as best they could. The Chicken Ranch did not invent prostitution, nor did prostitution end when the Chicken Ranch closed down for good.

I choose to view Miss Edna's life as inspirational. That a woman who faced such adversity and obstacles early in her life was able to overcome them and actually prosper in what could charitably be called a bad situation. Then, when even this was taken away from her by Marvin Zindler on prime time television, she triumphed over that as well, performing on Broadway and traveling the world. That's why I like the photo top right and the article from US below so much--they show the re-invented Edna, freed of the burden of the brothel and enjoying her new found celebrity. Once she tired of the limelight and the celebrity circus, however, she simply checked out and lived a quiet retirement in anonymity until her death. She went out on her own terms, and really, once all is said and done, isn't that all any of us can hope for?

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Miss Edna (1928-2012)

Jayme Lynn Blaschke and Edna Milton Chadwell (aka Miss Edna) at Milton's home February 20, 2009.
The 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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Sunday, February 26, 2012


I tend to approach chapters as short stories, in that they have a distinct narrative arc, a beginning, middle and end. The trouble with this is that sometimes that narrative arc isn't obvious to me when I set out to write said chapter. Take the current chapter for instance, which is essentially the biography of Fayette County Sheriff Jim Flournoy.

Liberal application of rum-and-Cokes are good for inspiration, but that only goes so far. I've never been a writer who locks himself in his office with a bottle of liquor and a carton of cigarettes the weekend before deadline and comes out the other side with brilliant finished product. I suppose I'm not old school enough for that.

Flournoy was a tough nut to crack. He died in 1982, so I never got to talk with him. I got some insight on his personality from my various interviews, but in truth, I'm relying on a lot of secondary sources for this piece. The great Thad Sitton interviewed many, many legendary Texas lawmen, including Austin County Sheriff Truman Maddox (which will come into play later, believe you me) but never managed that in-depth sit-down with Flournoy. Most of the extant interviews with him show a sheriff pissed off and annoyed with the media for its intrusion in his life.

Then I hit upon it. Flournoy's life's ambition was to become a cowboy. He lived the life of a cowboy, and after spending years serving as deputy sheriff in a variety of Texas counties, was appointed to the Texas Rangers near the start of World War II, and assigned to patrol the border in the wide-open Big Bend region of Texas. Fantastic! I have a handle from which to explore his character and motivations which later come to play in his career as sheriff of Fayette County. I can't express how important this is to me, the writer, for everything that follows.

Here's a sample of tonight's production:
He sauntered over to his horse, tied to a haggard-looking purple sage. From his saddle bag, he dug out rolling papers and a packet of tobacco, then started rolling himself a fresh smoke.

“You coulda warned me about the snake, you know,” he growled at the horse. The horse swished its tail indifferently.

Flournoy licked the rolling paper, then allowed the hint of a smile to crease his mouth. Those rustlers didn’t have anyone to warn them, either. Five against one? It didn’t seem like a fair fight. Not when that one was a Texas Ranger...
This is still going to be a tough chapter to get through. There's a bunch of different sources to sort through and none of them is Flournoy, but if I handle it right the result will be the most complete picture of the legendary lawman that has ever appeared. Fingers crossed.

Now Playing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
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Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Night Videos

I've always liked Greg Kihn. His best stuff is unpretentious, blue-collar rock and roll, and even his weaker album cuts have an earnest energy to them that make them infinitely listenable. That said, I can't be the only person to mentally replace the lyrics of "Jeopardy" with those of Weird Al's inspired spoof, "I Lost on Jeopardy," every time I hear it on the radio, can I? All that aside, Kihn's freaky-bizarre video pretty much answers the question of "What would a C'thulhu wedding ceremony look like?"

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Taylor Swift.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012


My life has been such a whirlwind of late that I feel I barely have time to come us for air. The workload at Texas State has been unusually heavy this spring semester, which has verged on overwhelming at times. At home, all three kids have school and extra-curricular events going on that swallow huge chunks of time, and The Wife's photography business rebounded quickly from the traditional January lull, which means weekends are usually booked with photo shoots--many demanding my assistance.

It's no small miracle I get any writing done at all.

But writing I did, finishing up Chapter 5 a couple of nights ago. That makes 6 out of the outlined 14 chapters completed and in the can, and moves me one step closer to the all-important halfway point. After spending three years chasing down all manner of leads and interviews and digging through dusty stacks for obscure references and rare newspapers (if I ever see another microfilm, I surely will barf) the fact that the Chicken Ranch book is taking tangible form is psychologically empowering, if nothing else. This is good, in light of the fact that publishers are actively considering the proposal. I have noticed a curious pattern, however: The final few pages of each chapter are invariably more difficult to write than the first 20 or so. I've no idea why. Also, once a chapter is completed, several days elapse before I'm able to begin the next chapter. Not before I want or intend to begin, mind you, but actually able. A while back, it was my car developing engine trouble that wiped out a couple of days. Before that, it was having new flooring installed. Then there was the leaking toilet, the less said about that the better. Last night, it was heading down to San Antonio to see Blue Man Group at the Majestic Theater. Granted, that interruption (a Valentine's gift from The Wife) was infinitely more appealing than the previous ones, but still. The interruption came between chapters, rather than in the middle of one. What are the odds?

In any event, I finished the chapter and remain on schedule for completion by June 1. I refer to is as "The Aggie Chapter" because, well, it delves into ties between the Chicken Ranch and Texas A&M. I originally intended it to contain more material from Texas students as well, but curiously, no Exes responded to my various posts, announcements and calls for interviews. Aggies, on the other hand, seemed all too willing to share their memories of the place. Go figure. Here's a sample from that chapter:
Aggie football players were much more likely to get a free trip to the Chicken Ranch as a recruit in those days. Assistant coaches would take promising blue chippers down to La Grange in hope that a lusty evening with the whores might sway him to signing a letter-of-intent. The university didn’t officially condone such practice, but at the same time, did nothing to stop it. The only problem with the Aggies’ recruiting strategy was that Texas, Rice University, the University of Houston and other competing schools did the exact same thing.
Next up: The life and times of Sheriff J.T. "Big Jim" Flournoy.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Night Videos

You know, I'm growing more and more impressed with Taylor Swift's songwriting skills the more I hear of her. "Mean" sounds very much like an autobiographical retrospective, and even if it's not, the fact that it sounds like it is counts as a nice accomplishment. It's impressive to see her breaking out of the "romance as first, last and only subject suitable for a hit" rut that so many songwriters confine themselves to. And Swift is remarkably comfortable in front of the cameras for her videos. This is striking when you consider just how many country singers aren't (watch almost any country music video--if the performer's names isn't "Sugarland" then it's a safe bet the video will either be a safe performance clip or downright awful). Swift also nails the period look very well, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her make a jump to movies before long (if she wants to, that is). The only real negative about this is her painfully obvious ineptitude with the banjo. You're a great guitarist, Taylor, we get that. But I didn't spend 20 years watching Roy Clark "pickin' and a-grinnin'" on Hee-Haw to fall for your fake banjo playing so easily. Next time, stick to the six-string.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Plan B.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The die is cast

Today turned into a busy day for me. As part of the environmental restoration at Aquarena, two huge cranes were scheduled to lift the old submarine theater out of Spring Lake and move it to shore, where the steel structure could be cut apart for scrap and recycled. I got to wrangle media. The first attempt revealed that the submarine theater was heavier than estimated, so the the straps needed repositioning to better distribute the weight. The second attempt ended when one of the straps broke just as the lift began. After careful consideration, those in charge decided to bring in a larger crane to assist tomorrow before trying again. This took up my entire morning and most of the afternoon. It is amazing how draining it is to stand in chilly wind all day. Those of you in Austin might get to see me stammer in front of the camera if you watch YNN or KEYE. Point and laugh if you feel the need to.

But once I finished with all of that, I found something unexpected in my email. My Chicken Ranch proposal had made it through the first round of vetting, and I was formally invited to submit the proposal and sample chapters to the University of Texas Press. So I did. Now the nervous second-guessing sets in (those of you who are writers know this feeling). UT Press is, I'm pretty much convinced, the best possible home for the book. They understand Texas history and the unique niche the Chicken Ranch occupies in the state's collective psyche. That's not to say I'd turn down a six-figure advance from Random House, but I'm confident UTP will keep it in print with solid sales in perpetuity. That is, if they buy it. Fingers are crossed.

So, here's a sample of what I wrote last night:
Mixing that much testosterone together in one place, with cadets from Texas A&M and fraternity brothers from the University of Texas, plus however many other customers--most of whom had at least a little beer in them--practically guaranteed fights on occasion. Mostly those involved postured for a bit before backing down, but sometimes scuffles broke out. If things got out of hand, a quick phone call brought out a deputy from the sheriff’s office, but most fights sorted themselves out long before the law arrived.
I would hope the editors in Austin are so blown away by my timeless prose and literary genius that they call me up tonight and offer me a publishing deal. Alas, I know that's not how these things work. I can expect a response of some sort in 6-8 weeks, which is really going to drive me mad with anticipation. Have I mentioned fingers are crossed?

Now Playing: Philharmonisches Orchester Bamberg Franz Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy in C Major op. 15 d760
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Back in college, a band made up of classmates of mine known as Dr. Love and the Erogenous Zones had a brief but glorious run, building a large following at Texas A&M with their skewed, humorous music--much of which consisted of parody songs a bid cruder than what you'd hear from Weird Al. I've still got a tee shirt somewhere, packed away. While they were always coming up with new songs, they liked to fill out their set lists with obscure hits (and obscure non-hits) from other artists. One fan favorite, which remained in the rotation until the band broke up, was Plan B's "Beam Me Up Scotty (This Planet Sucks)". It took a while, but I finally found a video for it (sadly, no known performance footage of Dr. Love exists, or I'd share that, too):

Previously on Friday Night Videos... John Anderson

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Friday, February 03, 2012

Friday Night Videos

I grew up on country music, and small-town Columbus, Texas, testified to the truth of that line in The Blues Brothers about having both kinds of music: Country and Western. In the 80s, John Anderson was ubiquitous on the radio for his smash hit single "Swingin'." I hated that song. Still do. In fact, I hated John Anderson for a long time because of it. But then, my senior year of college, he released "Seminole Wind" and all was forgiven. This is a magnificent song, with a conservationist/ecological theme not often heard in country music. This song stops me in my tracks today, and I have to thank John Anderson for giving it to us, even if I haven't quite forgiven him for "Swingin'" yet.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Florence and the Machine.

Now Playing: Original Broadway Cast The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
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