Just how (in)famous was Belle Brezing?
She was a lady who borrowed enough money to set up her own brothel . . . years after working on the streets. She leveraged that first house and her early connections with wealthy patrons to purchase the more suitably ostentatious 59 Megowan Street in Lexington, Kentucky, a place so much more suited to her than her former house—the former home of Mary Todd Lincoln. Here, on any evening, it was common to see fashionable international travelers, horsemen and civic leaders mounting the five steps to the elegant house.
For a little nooky.
Indeed, Miss Belle’s renown was so famous that she is widely credited as Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for Madam Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.
Miss Belle’s (mis)adventures are detailed in In Madame Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel (University Press of Kentucky $24.95), in which author Maryjean Wall sheds new light on the tantalizing true story of vice and power in the Gilded Age South as told through Miss Belle’s notorious life.
The well-heeled nature of her establishment allowed it to become a social hangout for the men who controlled the economy, politics, and horse industries of Kentucky. Belle’s vaunted secrecy and discretion with such powerful figures often paid dividends, most notably when she was quietly pardoned by Kentucky Governor Luke Blackburn for keeping a “bawdy house.”
For generations, fans of the novel and movie Gone with the Wind have speculated about whether Margaret Mitchell modeled her character Belle Watling after Belle Brezing. Mitchell denied this to her death in 1949, as did her husband, John Marsh. But few people believed these denials. In her biography of Margaret Mitchell, Marianne Walker speculated that a connection had to exist because too many coincidences linked the two Belles. Belle Brezing’s hair was red; so was Belle Watling’s. The novel’s descriptions of Belle Watling’s house match the glimpses we have of Belle Brezing’s mansion. Both madams accepted as clients only men of financial means. Both women attempted to give large donations to charitable institutions, only to be rebuffed because of their profession.
Marsh worked the police beat for the Lexington Leader while attending the University of Kentucky during the 1910s (before his marriage to Mitchell), fueling further speculation that Belle Watling was indeed modeled on the notorious Belle Brezing. Mitchell would not have known how to describe the inside of a brothel, as Walker wrote. But Marsh would have. Belle Brezing’s kitchen was always open to police officers and reporters who covered the police beat. “In exchange for her [Belle’s] culinary offerings,” according to Walker, “she could depend on the policemen to restore order in case there were fights, or to dispatch drunks, and she could count on the newspapermen to keep silent about certain reports and the names of certain clients.” Walker learned in an interview with John Marsh’s sister-in-law, Francesca Marsh, that John spent many nights in Belle’s kitchen with a police officer, enjoying a fine meal and hearing colorful stories about the demimonde of the red-light district on the Hill. Francesca Marsh told Walker that Marsh related these stories to his brothers and later to his wife.
Why did Mitchell deny the Belle connection? When she composed her manuscript, she apparently thought the resemblance between Belle Watling and Belle Brezing was unimportant because she wrote the manuscript for herself, not for publication. Walker and another Mitchell biographer, Anne Edwards, agree that Mitchell, a journalist, wrote fiction only for her own amusement. The unexpected happened when Macmillan accepted the manuscript for publication in 1936 and it became wildly popular, Walker wrote. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, and more than 30 million copies are in print worldwide. The 1939 film adaptation was likewise a huge popular success. Mitchell and Marsh had envisioned none of this; they believed that sales would number only a few thousand, with most books going to relatives or to libraries in Georgia. “She was not concerned about the Watling character,” according to Walker, “because Lexington, Kentucky, was many miles away from Atlanta, where people had never heard of Belle Brezing or, even if they had, they would not know any details of her life.” The surprising success of Gone with the Wind might have prompted Mitchell and Marsh to fear that Belle Brezing would sue them, speculated Lexington newsman Joe Jordan. Mitchell was still denying Belle Watling’s similarity to the real Belle when she and Marsh visited Lexington three months after Belle Brezing’s death.
Thompson never believed these denials. He stated quite clearly in his biography of Belle Brezing: “A comparison of the life of Belle Brezing and the fictional character of Belle Watling makes it obvious that John Marsh had told his wife tales of Brezing and that Margaret Mitchell drew on these to create Belle Watling.” There seems little doubt that Lexington’s most notorious brothel keeper was given new life in Gone with the Wind. But in a sense it hardly matters: Belle’s real-life story in old Lexington is as fascinating as any fiction.
Just how (in)famous was Belle Brezing?