Helen McGowan published her memoir, “Motor City Madam,” in 1964.
On January 11, 1987, somewhere in what is now Hutzel Women’s Hospital, a woman once known as Detroit’s top madam died from complications of a stroke. She was 75. Her name was Helen McGowan.
The name Mae Abisher might not be familiar to Michiganders, and there are very few who know her “professional” name: Helen McGowan.
Mae was Missouri-born in 1911, growing up in a poverty-stricken family in the town of Malden. Her desire to break away from her strict father (who beat her for reading books like “Robinson Crusoe” and other classics) led to her pregnancy at 15 years old with a local farm boy.
A literal shotgun wedding was performed, and after sullenly saying “I do”, the baby’s father proceeded to slug Mae in the mouth, then he hopped a train, and was never heard from again. What a memorable wedding day.
Not wanting to go to her parents’ home, Mae moved in with an African-American lady who helped take care of her during the pregnancy. The woman, named Ruth, told Mae something that she never forgot: “When a girl makes a mistake, they knocks her down for it. When a boy does it, all they say is boys will be boys. It ain’t fair but that’s what happens”.
The baby was born, given to another couple, and Mae’s mother sent her to Flint, Michigan to live with her sister Rita…..which didn’t go well. Going to work in a shop, co-workers found out about her past which led to arguments and fights. Not only that, but Rita’s husband began making sexual advances toward her. Mae turned him down, and in return, she was kicked out with no place to live.
In the next few years Mae moved to Kansas City and Chicago, where she became familiar with Al Capone. She ended up working at Capone’s Cotton Club, thanks to a tip by a friend whose name happened to be…..John Dillinger. Not long afterward, in 1927, sixteen-year-old Mae packed up and went back to Michigan, this time to Detroit.
Mae discovered that the Detroit population was mostly male, and that was where the money would be. She decided to take up prostitution and changed her name to “Helen McGowan”. She became successful enough – and wise in the business aspect of prostitution – that later she took on the role of brothel madame.
She made sure her girls made frequent trips to doctors, she charged less than other houses, and adjusted rates for those not as wealthy as her professional clients. Lawyers, doctors, politicians…so-called “respected” citizens paid repeated visits to Helen’s houses. In her book, Motor City Madam, she wrote “Although lawyers, doctors and many other professional men frequent my parlors, the majority of callers are from the working class, the one-hundred-dollar-a-week boys. I charge a fair price, well within the means of the lonely employed worker”.
Nicknamed “Rocking Chair Helen”, thanks to her fondness to relax in her favorite rocking chair, Helen moved around, renting place-to-place, many times having as many as 30 places in one year. She not only told her own personal story, but she also gave the dark side, where many of her girls ended up in a whirling morass of drug, alcohol, and heroin addiction…and death. All this and more is found in her book, which is extremely hard to find.
Helen McGowen, Motor City Madam, New York : Pageant Press, Inc., 1964. available at the Library of Michigan.
Nancy Derringer, “How one businesswoman is drawing inspiration from a legendary madam“, Bridge, February 1, 2017.
John Robinson, The “Motor City Madame” of Michigan”, 99.1 WFMK Blog, December 16, 2020.