A Girl Like Addie
Liberty Adelaide Appleby was born in Chicago to Alice Myers and Maurice Von Pfersfeld on July 4, 1914. Because she was born on Independence Day, Maurice insisted they name their new daughter Liberty, though Alice had wanted to call her Adelaide. They settled for Liberty Adelaide, but she was always called Addie.
Addie does not remember much about her mother’s family, except that they were of German descent. Her father’s family, she says, immigrated from Alsace-Lorraine. Maurice apparently loved tell the story of how the Von Pfersfeld’s were once barons back in the “old country” and how his grandfather, one Archibald Von Pfersfeld, eloped with a penniless woman and immigrated to America. They made their way to Chicago and to Logan’s square in particular, where they had three sons, one of them being Johann, who was Maurice’s father.
Maurice grew up in Logan’s square and got a job as a delivery truck driver for the Olsen Rug Company. He met Alice Myers at a church picnic, and after a short courtship, they married. They eventually got their own apartment on Campbell, where they raised their two children: Addie and Marie, who were six years apart.
Addie graduated from elementary school and had begun to attend high school when the stock market crashed, throwing the country into the Great Depression. Maurice, like thousands of others, lost his job. Without Maurice’s paycheck, the family was thrown into poverty, as they had little savings. They didn’t feel poor, however, Addie says, because everyone else was “in the same boat.”
At some point, the government began giving out food at the local Armory, which the Von Pfersfeld’s had no choice but to accept. Alice, being a proud woman, could not quite bring herself to go down and stand in line, so she sent Addie to go for her. “It was good food,” Addie says, “but it got boring, so we traded with people in the neighborhood.” Addie says that the Depression was a terrible time during which a lot of people suffered, but, on the other hand, she says, it was a time of great camaraderie among neighbors, the likes of which she never witnessed again, even during the war. “People looked out for each other back then.”
Addie quit school and began looking for a job, which turned out to be easier to get than it was for her father. Addie attributes this to her good-looks. “I had a man-stopping body back then,” she says, “and a personality to go it!” Jobs were therefore never hard for her to come by. It was keeping the job that was the problem, as she was forever getting fired for slapping an owner or a manager for “feeling me up” or trying to trap her in a back room. “I wasn’t that kind of girl!” she says. Addie claims to have had so many jobs, often working two or three at a time over the course of her 53-year working career, that she can’t remember them all.
One of her favorites, though, was working at the Chicago World’s Fair, first at an ice cream booth and then as a “Dutch Girl” for a Dutch Rubber Company. Addie says that this was her favorite job because all she had to do is dress up in a Dutch Girl costume and pass out flyers all day. “It was a great job,” Addie says, “because it was easy, and I got to see the whole fair on my lunch break.”
Over the years, Addie had dozens and dozens of waitress jobs. She also worked as a dishwasher, a maid, a floor-scrubber, a counter girl/hair curler demonstrator at Marshall Field, and even as a solderer at a radio factory, which, she says, was terribly boring but paid well. When these more mundane jobs petered out, Addie was obliged to venture into more risqué territory, for which she was easily hired because of her extreme beauty.
Some of these more risqué jobs included working as a “bookie’s girl,” which meant she collected coats and was supposed to serve as many drinks as possible to the “clients.” She also worked as a “26 Girl,” which was a dice game popular in Chicago bars. It was her job to collect money, keep score and encourage men to order drinks, for which she received a percentage of the house’s profits. After that, she took a job as a “taxi dancer” at a local dance hall, where, she says, “I was paid to stand around and look pretty.”
Taxi dancers apparently originated as dance instructors. They were hired by dance halls to instruct men in how to dance. For ten cents, a man could dance with a pretty girl for one dance, thus earning the girls the nickname of “dime-a-dance girls.” Addie says that there really were some shy, quiet boys who actually came in with the intention of learning to dance, but most of the men that came in were there to “feel the girls up.” It was infuriating, Addie says, because the dance hall owners claimed that there was a “no touching” policy, but they not only looked the other way, but actually encouraged men to “have their way.”
This, plus the fact that she would not get off until two or even sometimes four a.m., caused her to finally quit this job, despite the fact that she had a little gang of neighborhood boys who looked after her. These boys knew Addie to be “a good girl,” and out of worry for her would wait at the el stop each night and follow her, at a discreet distance, until she made it safely home.
From taxi dancing Addie went to being an usherette at a burlesque theater, which made taxi dancing seem like “a kid’s birthday party,” she says. Desperate for money, she saw an ad in the paper when she was nineteen for usherettes at a burlesque house downtown on Monroe. She went to apply and was shocked to find that hundreds of women were lined up around the block, hoping for one of the fourteen available positions.
Addie almost gave up hope then and there, but decided to join the line and take her chances. Once inside, a line of girls were called up on stage and had to show their legs and then lift their skirts to show their buttocks. The men in the seats who were directing these dubious “auditions,” then went down the line, pointed at each girl and either said “left” or “right,” indicating which door they should go through, off stage. The door to the left led to the alley, and the door to the right led to a little side room. Eventually, all the girls in the side room had to line up on stage once more, and this time, the men went down the line, saying “you, you, you, etc.” until they had chosen fourteen girls.
Addie was one of the chosen. She was given a beautiful costume and briefly trained in the art of ushering. The girls were closely chaperoned and a very strict policy of no touching or “hanky-panky” between the customers and the girls was enforced. In fact, there were two male “ushers” who were really there to act as bouncers if any man in the crowd got out of line with the girls. The girls were also required to go to the restroom in pairs for safety’s sake, though, Addie recalls, this policy once backfired for her.
Addie tells the story of how one night, not long after she started, she and a partner went to the restroom as per the policy, but not long after entering the bathroom, another of the usherettes, a girl by the name of Mimi, grabbed her from behind and started kissing her neck. Addie loudly protested and pulled away. Mimi quickly apologized, saying that she had obviously made a mistake. Most of the usherettes, and even the dancers, she told Addie, were actually lesbians. Despite this incident, Mimi eventually became Addie’s best friend and invited her after the shows to her “lesbian parties,” as Addie called them, though none of the girls ever made an advance on Addie again. Mimi became her protector and would often attempt to shield the “innocent” Addie’s eyes from some of the girls “making out” in dark corners.
At some point in time, Addie, who claims to have had “hundreds” of marriage proposals in her lifetime, accepted the hand of one Bill Zielinski and had a child, Hattie, with him. It was a very brief marriage, however, and they divorced when Hattie was only one year old. Addie does not like to talk about Bill or about this time in her life and offers very few details. If asked about it, she will swiftly change the subject.
Apparently, when Hattie was still very little, Addie again married, this time to a man named Arthur Appleby. Arthur was an insurance salesman, and after marrying him, Addie, for the first time in her “adult” life, did not have a job, but instead stayed home to be a housewife and to care for Hattie. Not very long into their marriage, however, Arthur developed Parkinson’s disease and became an invalid, forcing Addie to go back to work. At times she was able to get Hattie, who had inherited her good looks, modeling jobs at Marshall Fields, which helped pay some of the bills.
Addie herself was loathe to go back to any risqué jobs, now that she was a wife and a mother, and tried to find something more respectable. A friend of hers had a job as a private secretary and Besley Wells Tool and Dye and told Addie that there was an opening there as a bookkeeper. Addie knew nothing about bookkeeping, so she went to the local high school, borrowed a book on bookkeeping, and read it overnight. The next day, she went in to Besley Wells, applied for the job, and got it. After several years, Besley Wells was bought by Allied Signal, but Addie was able to keep her position in the Loop office. Eventually, however, she was transferred to the office in Beloit, Wisconsin, where she was taught to use a computer. She stayed there for a year before moving back to Chicago.
In all, Addie worked as a bookkeeper for thirteen years before eventually retiring. Arthur died during a surgery the year before she retired. She was sad, of course, she says, but if she were to be honest, it was a relief to not have to care for him anymore.
Despite having to basically raise Hattie herself, work, and take care of an invalid husband, Addie says she was always up for anything. She needed to be busy all the time and always had “a spark” in her eye. Nothing, she says, was too hard for her if she put her mind to it. She had many, many interests and hobbies: ceramics, crocheting, horses, drawing, decorating, home repair, reading, hunting, and fishing, to name a few. She also routinely went to the Art Institute, the Field Museum and the Lincoln Park Zoo and Gardens. If a new interest caught her attention, she would go to the library, find a book on the subject, and learn all about it or teach herself to do whatever it was.
Hattie eventually married and moved to the suburbs, and in the latter years, Addie moved in with her sister, Marie. The two sisters apparently got along very well until Addie had to have bypass surgery in 1990. From there things went downhill, and Addie was eventually diagnosed with COPD and chronic heart failure. The discharge staff advised a nursing home for Addie, especially as she has been given a terminal prognosis and has also entered a hospice program.
Addie is aware of her impending death, but says she is determined to enjoy herself until the very end. She is trying to make the most of the activities at the home but mostly enjoys talking and telling her life story. She is extremely lively and interested in all things around her. Her daughter, Hattie, visits regularly, as does her sister, Marie, both of whom seem to be having a harder time accepting Addie’s situation than she herself is. “What can I say” Hattie asks, “that my mother hasn’t already said? She is an original. A one-of-a-kind, and I’ll miss her so much when she’s gone.”
(Originally written: December 1995)
(Author’s note: The protagonist of my Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, Henrietta Von Harmon, is based on Liberty Adelaide Appleby! Many of the details of her life as described above can be found in book one of the series, A Girl Like You.)
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago: