Gold Coast Madam:
The Secret Life of Rose Laws
with Dianna Harris
From a backwater town in Tennessee to a high-rise condo in Chicago, Rose Laws traveled an unlikely path into the world’s oldest profession, a path that, she argues, she was forced to travel out of sheer desperation as the only route by which she could care for her children.
Born in 1935, Laws entered what she euphemistically called “the hanky-panky business” in the 1960s after divorcing an abusive husband and fleeing a rotten life in Cicero. Laws nearly lost her five children to orphanages and foster care during her troubled marriage, and she did what she says she had to do to get them back. In an all-too-familiar story, this meant working multiple low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet. But Laws went beyond just waiting tables to working the bars—meeting men, flirting with them, and batting her eyelashes so that, soon enough, they were doling out money, clothes, food, and other gifts, all in the hopes of bedding her. Although she wasn’t technically taking money for sex, Laws fails to recognize that she was, in essence, whoring herself. In her evocative memoir, she insists that everything she did, she did for the sake of her children.
For decades, she ran a prostitution ring, first out of the Addison Motel on Lake Street and Route 83, and then out of LaGrange before moving to Chicago’s Gold Coast, setting up shop in Lake Point Towers. It was going great—until it wasn’t. Laws was arrested in 2002. She served about a year and a half in federal prison.
Gold Coast Madam is an oddly compelling read, a guilty pleasure not unlike watching a horrible accident unfold in slow motion. You know how it’s going to end, yet you keep reading, spellbound by the author’s exploits as well as her unapologetic tone. Laws refuses to admit that working in prostitution was wrong or unseemly in any way. Rarely does she show any sense of regret for bringing up her five children in world surrounded by illicit sex.
Rather, Laws seems to pine for the good old days—the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—when she was in thick with mobsters, politicians, and celebrities, supplying them with “dates” from the scores of women for whom she served as an “agent.” “I had never felt more alive,” she writes.
Laws portrays herself as a savvy businesswoman, providing a highly-sought-after service for a willing clientele. She writes of training her “girls” in the art of seduction and lovemaking, as well as showing them how to dress, how to apply make-up, and how to style their hair. She tells of paying off doormen and vice cops and politicians. Although she may have been good at this particular business, that skill didn’t translate: several attempts to “go straight” in various legitimate enterprises, including a restaurant and a flower shop, failed miserably.
Although she expresses some regret over her failed business ventures, Laws is impenitent in Gold Coast Madam, written with the help of local writer Dianna Harris. She asks for no forgiveness, nor does she seem to think she needs to ask for any. She raised her children among prostitutes and johns, insisting that the sex trade was the only way she could afford to keep them and raise them. Only when they were old enough to understand did she actually come clean and tell them what she did for a living.
Oddly, though, Laws at times displays what seems a callous attitude toward her children, several of whom she eventually brought into the business with her. Although she constantly professes her love and devotion to her children, she at one point moves to an apartment which one of her sons, Ken, cannot access due to multiple sclerosis. This she simply brushes off with a literary wave of the hand.
Laws’s love for children also seems to stop short beyond her own family. At one point, Laws relates a story about a job gone wrong. Laws gets a call from a doorman telling her that screaming is coming from one of the apartments her girls use for clients. When she gets there, it is complete chaos, with broken glass and shards of mirror scattered everywhere. Amidst the wreckage, inexplicably, is a baby in a bassinette. Though she notes that the baby was unharmed, Laws seems more shaken by the notion that because of the episode, she lost a long-time client.
This sentiment pervades Gold Cost Madam. A girl turns to drugs, and instead of helping her get treatment, Laws fires her. A client marries one of her prostitutes, and Laws takes it as a personal insult. Laws comes across as a narcissist, boastful and vain, oblivious to the notion that she built a career on an illegal trade.
Gold Coast Madam is riveting if unrewarding. The reader keeps hoping for some kind of personal transformation, some evidence that Laws matured, that she regrets pulling her kids into a swirling vortex of dysfunction, illicit business, and tawdry characters. To the end, Laws remains unapologetic. It is disappointing for the reader, but revealing of the author.
December 2012, Lake Claremont Press
$17.95, paperback, 197 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen