High profile madames are scattered throughout American history, but one of the most famous of yesteryear was Ruth Barnes, aka Rose Miller, who went by the pseudonym Madame Sherry while running an infamous Miami brothel. She launched her business in 1929, headquartering it in a Moorish mansion close to the gambling houses of Hialeah and the chic nightclubs of Miami Beach. Business flourished, with Barnes paying off politicians and cops to stay in business for an astonishing twenty-six years.
Her clientele were more than just Miami A-listers—they were an international who’s-who. Local businessmen and politicians made their way through her doors, as well as Hollywood performers, local sports stars, and foreign dignitaries. Even King Farouk of Egypt was a regular visitor, entering the U.S. incognito with the help of crooked customs agents and enjoying his fill of Madame Sherry’s girls.
In the early 1950s, a man named Tom Kelly was elected Sheriff of Dade County and he was determined to shut down the rampant vice in the county. Madame Sherry was the biggest blip on his radar, and he sent an undercover agent into her house posing as a rich South American general. Madame Sherry took the bait, and ended up in police custody.
The case against her was open and shut—she’d accepted marked bills, and would have flushed them down a toilet if the undercover cop hadn’t subdued her. But even though her business had finally been dismantled by authorities, Madame Sherry did not go gently into the good night. After serving a little more than a year in jail, she resurfaced in 1961 to narrate her life story to writer Robert Tralins, who in turn published a memoir entitled Pleasure Was My Business. The detailed story named a raft of celebrity clients, including that ex-king of Egypt, and was banned in Florida.
The book was more than just a tell-all. Madame Sherry attacked law enforcement and made the case that trying to stamp out vice simply made it more diverse and dangerous. She pointed out that the net result of shutting her brothel down was that women had to work the streets, and men had to ply those streets to find women. “Instead of protecting the tourists and fun-seeking errant males, this ‘reform’ set-up actually subjects them to disease and robbery and even worse crimes.”
Her ultimate point was that no vice enforcement, no matter how rigorous, could stamp out prostitution. In light of the notoriety of later upper class madames such as Washington, D.C.’s Jeane Palfrey and Hollywood’s Heidi Fleiss, it’s fair to say she had a point. The book finally went on sale in Florida after surviving an obscenity suit, but Pleasure Was My Business was the last anyone heard from Ruth Barnes.
Now, decades later, at least one portion of her tale—the part involving King Farouk—may be made into a motion picture after a script about his life was optioned by a movie studio in 2005. Barnes was born in 1893, so it’s safe to say she has now passed away, so she’ll gain no satisfaction from seeing part of her life on the screen. But the prospect of the film seems to tell us that stories such as Madame Sherry’s never quite die entirely. They are too lurid, and for all the evil that vice supposedly causes, somehow we can never get enough of it.