What Sex Acts Were 'Trending' in 1890s L.A.?

Author Liz Goldwyn takes a fictionalized look back at L.A.'s Victorian brothels.
Author Liz Goldwyn takes a fictionalized look back at L.A.'s Victorian brothels.
Photo by Keegan Allen

For those of us obsessed with L.A.’s past, there are scenes in the mind’s eye that can bring an ache and a deep sigh of longing: the bright, wide-open poppy fields that once blanketed Pasadena underneath the looming San Gabriel mountains; taking a Sunday ride on the “interurban” electric cars all the way from, say, Sierra Madre down to Long Beach; the long unpaved stretches of Hyperion in Silverlake that were once shaded by eucalyptus trees. They're the kinds of scenes you see preserved in silent films from the 1920s, when the population here first started to explode and everything changed.

Author and filmmaker Liz Goldwyn’s new book, Sporting Guide: Los Angeles, 1897 (Regan Arts, $29.99) represents the latest example of this primal urge to dig deeper into L.A.’s roots, specifically downtown. In the dim and distant past, long before noir and Raymond Chandler, there lurked here a much older L.A., one that we know little about.

Goldwyn zeros in on the delightfully sordid demimonde of 1890s downtown prostitution, its practitioners, hustlers, johns and madams, back when the world’s oldest profession was legal here but scorned (by preachers), tolerated (by wives), winked at (by men) and discreetly patronized (by the mayor). Herein lies the book’s built-in fascination.

In the familiar Joycean format of interconnected short stories, Goldwyn brings a steaming slice of old L.A. back to life by way of the fictionalized, first-person monologues of several true-life characters whose stories Goldwyn came across while scouring what she calls the “dusty archives”: high-class madam Pearl Morton  (“See, I trade in premium pussy. Not like the dollar tricks you can find … in cheap crib-girl joints. I got bills to pay. You want my cunny, it’ll cost you top dollar”); Pearl’s high-toned rival Cora Phillips, whose extravagantly plush “house of ill fame” (as whorehouses were officially designated on old L.A. city fire maps) is described in lush detail: “Next to the dining room is a grand private bathroom appointed with a large tub in the middle of the room. The walls are lined with mirrors…On Sundays, the ladies bathe in fresh milk"; and Bartolo Ballerino, “king of the red-light district,” an Italian immigrant who ran the squat, red-brick, cut-rate “cribs” that faced the railroad tracks on Alameda Street (such convenience!) 120-plus years ago: “You won’t find the kind of sumptuous quarters like they have in the finer palaces on New High Street or Marchessault. But I say screwing is screwing — on a gold-plated canopy or on a dirty mattress. It keeps my overhead low.”  

Happily, our lusty authoress doesn’t shy away from the, ahem, hard facts, the erotic predilections of her randy characters (caution: some chapters of the book could've easily appeared in a book titled Spurting Guide): “Then I closed my eyes, thinking about the bulge in your pants straining against fabric, my lips around your member, thrusting yourself deeper into my mouth, hallucinatory undulations taking me over.”  

As a work of history, Sporting Guide is as un-PC as any novel by James Ellroy (Los Angeles Street was originally called Nigger Alley, and this un-charming historical fact is duly acknowledged in the book): “Sometimes I get a girl from Chinatown if the customers want a slave girl scene. Those China girls are being imported faster than any of the dry goods on Spring Street…advertising them as ‘celestial females,’ known to carry all the mysterious secrets of the Orient. Hell, it ain’t no secret how to screw.” Goldwyn writes, so to speak, with testes.

As literature, Goldwyn’s poetic and empathetic prose raises the raw, factual material to the level of tragic art, in passages of loneliness and desperation that burn off any distancing “nostalgia” for the old times: “The attic is the only place I can be alone. Think. I live in the Children’s Orphan Asylum, a big brick building at the corner of Alameda and Macy Streets, along with my three hundred fellow inmates … it’s always drafty up here — in the whole building, really — and I dream of warm fires and roast meats while I look at the stars.”

Everything about this little book is unusual, from its glossy red leatherette cover to its hybrid fact-fiction savor to the bizarre period photos that accompany the text; in an evocative “lateral” pairing technique pioneered by historian Michael Lesy in his 1976 classic, Wisconsin Death Trip, the monologues in Sporting Guide bump up against alien-level-strange, haunting images from Victorian Los Angeles. One photo is captioned “Main Dining Room, Jerry Illich Restaurant, N. Main Str., 1887" and features the pen-scratched notation “Taken at night — dinner time. There are the vests, the walrus mustaches, the long-aproned male waitstaff, and no women diners. All of these men were probably packing sidearms at the table. This was once a small, dusty city where public hangings took place. The picture becomes spooky.  

I asked Goldwyn a few penetrating questions:

Tony Mostrom: Congrats of the book. You've created what so many have yearned for: the L.A. equivalent of Wisconsin Death Trip.

Liz Goldwyn: I was actually more inspired by Luc Sante’s chronicles of early 1900s New York City lowlife, and also [1920s burglar] Jack Black’s memoir, You Can’t Win. But yeah, I love Wisconsin Death Trip too. Luc Sante’s books chronicle Manhattan as this very old center of vice, and I was always disappointed that L.A. didn’t have a book like that too. I also think that L.A. doesn’t do a great job of preserving its history and that’s part of the problem. Our symphony goes back to 1898! I’m a California girl and I felt it was a little bit of a “moral duty” to show that we too had vice, sex, drugs, all that, back then.

You mention digging into the archives — which of the historical characters did you find the most information on or did you have to create them out of whole cloth?

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Well, I’m reminding you, as I remind everyone, that it is a work of fiction, and only three of these characters in the book were real people. There was almost no archival information on Pearl Morton or Cora Phillips. On Bartolo Ballerino, yes, there were some court records. 

It's a melancholy book, especially as it details the thoughts of these young girls. 

Well it was a very different time for women, they didn’t have a lot of choices. There are a lot of chronicles throughout history about teenage prostitutes, “unwanted children,” across many eras and cultures. What could they do? They get turned out of these orphanages at 13, 14, when they are considered to be “of age.”

There's definitely a trapped atmosphere in the book, the girls in the bordellos inside these cloistered, Victorian interiors.

Well yeah, the smell of incense, the heavy curtains. Very oppressive.  

Were there any books that revealed L.A.'s societal mores from that time? Or was it more about your absorbing old Los Angeles by way of the newspapers?

Not L.A. specifically, but I was absorbing, say, old etiquette guides and books about sexual hygiene, from England and basically from across the western world at that time. So it was more general.

Were there sex acts that were trending in the 1890s especially?

Well, the Marquis de Sade had just been published in England then so spanking was coming a little bit more to the fore, but, sex is sex. We sometimes think our ancestors were so different from us just because of the way they dressed or they may have talked a little differently, but we haven’t changed; we’ve always spanked! 

Liz Goldwyn will read from Sporting Guide on Thursday, December 3 at 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 659-3110, booksoup.com.


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