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City of Desireis the deeply researched but fictionalized telling of the beautiful, smart, and tragic Helen JewettNew York City’s most desired prostitute in in the 1830s. This compelling debut novel by Sidney Morrison is based on the historical facts of Jewett’s life and murder, and the subsequent trial of the accused killer.
Helen comes from poverty, but her father hires his precocious child to a respected judge as a servant and companion to his children. She captivates him, and the judge creates an avid student of literature, history, politics, and sex. Her intellectual and sexual development leads to scandal, and she is dismissed.
Seventeen and “ruined” without references, Helen lands in New York City and turns to prostitution for survival. Helen attracts the attention of reporters, moral crusaders, as well as the rich and powerful who seek her services in the best brothels in town. Her obsession with a client proves her undoing.
|Publisher:||White Cloud Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Sidney Morrison is a retired history teacher and school principal and now a part time educational consultant and leadership coach for school principals in a variety of schools in Southern California. City of Desire is his first novel. He lives in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
As required, Dr. David Rogers came to inspect her, and immediately Helen noted two distinctive featureshis age and the sound of his voice. She expected an older man, a fussy, distracted doctor in spectacles unable to hide his impatience or condescension even as he accepted the good fees that came with providing a needed service for a well-established business of ill repute. But Dr. Rogers, a medium-built man, was thirty-four and handsome in the symmetry of his ordinary features, brown eyes, a thin nose, and a rounded but even chin.
His voice most impressed her; it was the deepest voice she had ever heard, a rich bass as smooth as polished brass with a depth and resonance that filled the room even as he spoke casually. His words possessed a lilting musicality that suddenly put her in the Park Theater’s third tier, marveling at the waves of sound from the voice of a great singer. As he spoke, Helen took a deep breath to calm the rapid beating of her heart.
“Miss Jewett, I shall be brief, and this inspection should not take too much of your precious time,” he said, conveying no discomfort with the fact of sitting across from her in an upstairs bedroom. “Have you seen a doctor before?”
“Then this will not be too uncomfortable. I will not have you stand holding your skirts while I explore you on my knees, as do most of my colleagues. A most uncomfortable stance, and not conducive to accuracy.”
Helen gulped lightly, not knowing what to say.
Before she could answer, he explained, “You will remove your underwear and lay down on the bed with your skirts pulled above your waist. I will use my right hand to touch you between your legs, in your private parts, to make sure that you are clean and able to perform your duties. Any questions?”
“No,” she whispered.
“Very well. Do you have any water in the pitcher and a bowl we can use?”
“You will need to clean yourself, and I will clean my hands, too.”
He expressed no surprise, as if he had encountered this reaction many times before. “Just as when we clean our rooms, there is clarity. Dirt and grime obscure.”
“I’m not dirty!” Helen protested, starting to rise from the chair.
“Please, Miss Jewett, I didn’t mean to suggest that condition. From what I can see in your room and with your person, you obviously care. But dust and dirt can be invisible to the eye, and water and cloth can only improve matters. Certainly you prefer your customers clean, without dirt on their intimate parts?”
“Of course,” Helen said with haughty emphasis, surprised by her discomfort. Dr. Roger embarrassed her, his clipped, detached words making her skin moist and hot.
“Then let us begin.”
After washing as required, Helen removed her pantaloons and placed them out of sight on the floor, so that he could not see them. Acutely observant, as if watching a performance on stage, she noted the inconsistent oddity of this gesture. With what he was about to see, hidden pantaloons seemed silly and pointless.
But when she lay down on the bed, pulled up her skirts, and he sat down beside her on her left, he did not look between her legs. He said softly, “Spread your legs wider, please,” and inserted his fingers into her vagina. His fingers were cold, and she flinched. He said, “You will get used to them in a moment.”
She did, and then he asked, “Miss Jewett, what is this? What happened?”
She immediately replied, “What do you mean?”
“Miss, Jewett, please don’t lie. Doctors need the truth from their patients, if we are to help.”
“Is something wrong?”
“What happened, Miss Jewett? Something happened to cause these scars in your womb. I think I know, but you need to tell me.”
He withdrew his hand, and Helen turned away, pausing to wonder if she should lie or tell the truth, a truth she had never revealed to anyone before. That voice, that sublime voice stirred a desire to trust the doctor, and she whispered quickly, fearing that with delay she would lose her resolve.
“I was raped in Boston, in the Back Bay, by a gang of men.” She hoped that once spoken, the admission would lessen the weight of her memories.
“They hurt you. Terribly,” Dr. Rogers said softly.
“Yes,” she said, tears flowing from her eyes as she continued to look away. She could not face him. “After they took turns, one of them became very angry, I don’t know why, and started to slap me again and again, and then, and then ...”
“He thrust some object, some crude object, into you,” Rogers continued.
“Yes, and I screamed and screamed. I thought they were going to kill me. Then they ran off. There was so much blood. And no one came to help me. Nobody came to help me.” Her bitter words felt hot on her tongue.
“But you survived,” Dr. Rogers said. “You survived, but did you see a doctor?”
“There was so much blood, and all I could think of was to use my skirts to fill me up and stop the bleeding.”
“Then you didn’t see a doctor?”
“You could have died, from the excessive bleeding or from fever. You are a strong, fortunate young woman.”
She turned to face him, emboldened by the absence of accusation or final judgment.
“But . . .” she added.
“But there are scars . . . scars that will prevent you from having children.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“A convenient consequence,” Helen observed, turning away again. “I don’t have the fear that most of us here have.”
“Don’t be. I’m too selfish to be a good mother.”
“I wish some other women were as scrupulous; there would be far fewer children to mend.”
“Do you have children?” Helen asked. Immediately, she regretted the question because Dr. Rogers moved slightly away from her and said wearily, “No, I do not.”
“There’s still a need for good fathers.”
“And you still bleed, of course, because if the scarring had stopped that, you would be dead already. And I can tell that your Venus spot is still intact.”
Helen wasn’t surprised that he knew about the spot; he was a doctor, after all. But now his reference to it seemed to shift the conversation from medicine to sex, to the survival of the source of a woman’s sexual pleasure. When she wanted to feel intense sexual pleasure, she touched herself there. Sometimes, she told select men about it and requested a gentle touch of the hand or a delicate stroking of the tongue. What was Dr. Roger’s suggesting? Should she be grateful? Was he seeking assurances for his own sexual satisfaction at a later date?
She closed her legs, and asked, “Is there anything else?”
As if reading her mind, he replied, “Miss Jewett, you presume. I am a doctor, and I can make reference without any hint of solicitation. Without this kind of detachment, I would not be able to serve Mrs. Welden or the other establishments. Why is it that so many of you think that once we see you or touch you we must, out of necessity, be consumed? Good day, Miss Jewett.”
“I didn’t mean to insult . . .”
“Good day, Miss Jewett.”
After this inauspicious beginning Helen was then surprised when he returned a week later, left his card, and asked for a specific time and date that she would receive him in the parlor.
When he returned, she could not resist asking, “Why did you come back?”
He smiled, and said, leaning slightly forward, “You interest me.”
His brown eyes glowed with mischief.
“I looked around your room and noted your piles of books. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by your choices, Shakespeare, Byron, the Bible.”
“You’ll need to pay for my time if you wish to discuss my reading habits,” Helen said evenly.
He laughed, his head tossed back as if he had to take in more air to enjoy this moment.
“Miss Jewett, you take yourself much too seriously. But you are practical.”
“I have to eat, and books are not free.”
“Certainly. I also came to apologize.”
“I don’t think I was sufficiently sensitive to the events that befell you in Boston, to the emotional consequences . . .”
Helen’s voice rose to emphasize her displeasure. “Dr. Rogers, that was a private matter, a matter not appropriate to a parlor conversation now.”
He sighed, his exasperation light but pointed nevertheless. “Miss Jewett, for one so young, you seem prone to pronouncements and denunciations.”
“Would you rather I cry endlessly, seek your pity, or hide in my room? I am not a coward, and I don’t hate all men.”
“Perhaps we should go upstairs?” he said, looking toward the door even as he remained seated.
“A convenient, if profitable, change of subject,” Helen observed.
“You prefer privacy, you said, if we mention certain matters.”
“Six dollars,” said Helen, her voice all business.
“You interest me,” said Dr. Rogers, his eyes widened with curiosity. “Say something even more interesting.”
She stood, staring at him. “I’m an abolitionist,” she declared, scanning his face for a shocked reaction as she cast aside discretion. He only smiled.
“Now that’s interesting,” he replied. “Please tell me more.”
Helen suddenly lost her nerve, believing her confession had compromised her support of the Antislavery Society and threatened the already precarious standing of abolitionists in the city. Blacks and their white supporters were being openly attacked on the streets.
She needed to assert herself before this handsome, fascinating man, but her pride had made her reckless and improvident.
“You can’t say anything about this,” she pleaded, gripping the folds of her skirt in her right hand. “As my doctor, you can’t talk about private . . .”
“You are no longer my patient.”
“What do you mean? You referred to your last visit. You apologized for a comment made as a physician.”
“I am here as a customer,” he declared. “Did you not quote a price for your services?”
He seemed to enjoy her befuddlement, smiling as he made comments with mocking insouciance.
Helen paused, taking a breath and trying to find the exact pitch for what she had to say next. “I make the decisions about services to be rendered, and I can be selective ... very selective.”
“Not yet, Miss Jewett, not yet. And besides, you need me. I can be good for business. I can spread the word about town. I have influence.”
“Yes,” was all she could say. He had won. In her business, reputation mattered most. If she was ever going to have clients with money, and lots of it, she needed access to them. Dr. Rogers was her bridge.
“When may I see you in your rooms?” he asked at last.
“Come tonight at eight, and I will be ready for you,” Helen replied. “Be prompt,” she continued, almost adding “please” as a perfunctory courtesy. But she omitted the word as too conciliatory, and left the room without looking back.
He was prompt that evening, and when they stepped into her room, he sat down at her desk and quickly scanned her books. Helen unbuttoned her bodice to signal the beginning of the business of the evening.
“Tell me something else interesting,” he said looking directly at her. “No, something more than interesting, something provocative, suggestive, even obscene.”
A man of words, she surmised, a man needing words to stir him. The sight of her naked breasts would not do. Helen thought for a moment, and remembered the lines from 1795’s Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man, the perfect passage for a man by a mana celebration of his penis.
She began: “Now will I storm the mint of love and joy and rifle all that’s in it. I will enjoy thee, now, my fairest; come and fly with me to love’s Elysium. My rudder, with thy bold hand, like a try’d and skillful pilot, thy shall steer, and guide my bark in love’s dark channel, where it shall dance, as the bounding waves do rise and fall, whilst . . .”
City of Desire: Questions and Answers with Author Sidney Morrison
Why the title City of Desire
The novel is about New York in the 1830s, then the most populated city in the country, the place to which so many dreamers, immigrants, hucksters, artists, writers, fortune hunters, criminals, and lost souls came to remake their lives. Sex and prostitution are central to this story. Entire city blocks were devoted to the sex trade, and countless men, married and unmarried, rich and poor, found their desires fulfilled temporarily there. But the reference to desire refers more than to sex; it also refers to ambition, dreams, the journey to find oneself and fulfillment. In the remarkable opening of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator, Swann, has a sexual dream from which he is suddenly awakened; but the memory lingers, and he declares that if the woman in his dream resembled someone he already knew, he would abandon himself “altogether to this end: to find her again, like people who set out on a journey to see with their own eyes some city of their desire.” Proust could not have said it any better, and my novel is about Helen’s journey to see with her own eyes the fulfillment of her highest hopes, success in New York, her city of desire.
How did you first learn about Helen Jewett?
Reading a history of New York City, my hometown, I noticed a reference to the murder of a prostitute in 1836 and the ensuing press war between the New York Herald and the New York Sun about the guilt or innocence of the accused killer. At first, the press story intrigued me more because I had assumed that salacious press tales of sex and murder, commonly called “yellow journalism,” became popular at the end of the nineteenth century. Crime reporting with detailed depictions of corpses and crime scenes began in the 1830s, scandalizing traditional newspapers that lost readers to short, cheap sheets called the “penny press.” Central to its popularity was the case of Helen Jewett.
What attracted you to her? She is the center of the story, not newspaper reporters and publishers?
Originally, I had two central stories, the rise and fall of Helen, and the rise of the penny press. At first the manuscript was twice as long, but I progressively became more interested in Helen’s story, and she emerged as the heroine of City of Desire because Helen embodied a central theme of the city’s history as a place where people remake themselves and become successful through grit, guile and perseverance. She fell in love with New York because it allowed her, within the limits imposed on women in the 1830s, to become what she wanted to become, the most successful and well-known prostitute in New York.
Why did she become a prostitute, and why did you choose a prostitute to tell your New York story?
All the documentary evidence reveals that she was a remarkable young woman, intelligent, well read, curious, beautiful and charismatic. But nineteenth-century America imposed strict limits on women, especially the poor and uneducated with limited prospects. Add scandal and a damaged reputation, and the prospects for women were even more limited. Because of the tale related in the novel, Helen became a prostitute after her seduction becomes known, and she was thrown out of her employer’s home. Without references, she did domestic work in a house of prostitution, and then decided to become one herself after diligent study of prostitutes, their clients and their needs. Determined to be successful, she went to New York City, the center of prostitution in the entire country, and joined houses where she could reveal her charms and demonstrate her value. Helen attracted me especially because she chose success over victimization and blame, and made the most of her narrowly defined circumstances using her sexual and literary skills. She was a voracious reader and letter writer, and she used these attributes to attract and maintain clients. Writing for her became an instrument of sexual manipulation and fantasy; and she wrote hundreds, if not thousands, of letters. Reading them, I was fascinated. “Who is this woman,” I asked. I had to know more about her, and researched her story in books and newspapers.
What is true, and what is not? What is fiction, and what is not?
These are perennial questions for historical novels and their writers. Let me make this clear: this is a novel, not a history. Although based on the facts of a life, a murder, a trial, and a press war between two newspaper editors, this is an imagined retelling of a story. Historical facts of chronology and place have not been changed (after all, I was a history teacher), but these facts became the foundation for my story about what happened: the characters, their motivations, their internal thoughts, their comments to others, are all my creations, and therefore cannot be used as proof of anything. I make no claim that City of Desire is the truth about Helen and her rise and fall. Her murder is a historical fact, but there is no proof beyond doubt that Richard Robinson was her murderer. In fact, there have been arguments in novels and detective nonfiction for other people.
What about the trial?
There was a trial, The City of New York v. Richard P. Robinson, and there is a record of the proceedings by reporters. It is not a transcript because there were no stenographers, but reporters were recently allowed to attend trials and reveal the cases for the prosecution and the defense, and the treatment of witnesses. It makes for boring reading; most trials are boring. But this trial attracted more attendees than any other trial in the history of New York City up to that time; over a period of five days, thousands tried to get seats, eager to hear about New York City prostitution, see prostitutes on the witness stand, and cheer for the accused, now a popular icon for young men in town. For me, the trial demonstrated many of the themes of the novel. Robinson was ultimately acquitted, but the trial says more about the mistreatment of women than the guilt or innocence of Richard Robinson. I wanted to dramatize that treatment in the novel.
You claim that he is guilty. Does it matter?
As was his right, Robinson never spoke on the witness stand. But his acquittal was a travesty of justice. The “transcript” clearly revealed that important witnesses were not called, an entire range of questions and evidence was declared inadmissible, and the presiding judge was clearly prejudiced against prostitutes. He asserted to the jury that because prostitutes were morally depraved, their claims had no merit in the case whatsoever! However, the final decision of the jury, after only eight minutes of deliberation, deepened the press war and inspired some major investigations. Every quotation from the press used in the novel comes from actual newspapers of the day. But in the end, power and privileged prevailed, and Helen Jewett became a forgotten woman. I didn’t want her to be forgotten because her story, limited as it is, is an American story about ambition, recreation, renewal, and meaning making.
What is true and not true about her?
Again, this is a novel. The bare facts can be found in the history record, where she was born, where she worked as domestic before leaving for Portland, Boston and New York, and where she worked in the prostitution houses in New York. The history of NY prostitution is well documented, and many of the details of the sex trade revealed at the trial have been verified. Also many of Helen’s letters have survived. The letters she wrote to Robinson, and his letters to her are quoted, and they became the basis of dialogue and reflections. Those letters reveal the psychology of an intense, obsessive, manipulative and ultimately destructive relationship. I became very interested in the dynamics of such a relationship; how it began, its ebb and flow, and how it ended with murder, with all the hysteria, appeal, excuses, acts of forgiveness, and repeated cruelties that are part of abusive relationships.
Was Helen an abolitionist?
There is no documented evidence that she was an abolitionist and contributed to the American Antislavery Society. However, the evidence reveals that she discreetly contributed to charities and was generous toward those in need. The evidence also suggests that she was outraged about bigotry, injustice, and discrimination, and was willing to serve men of all colors who met her financial requirements. Nevertheless, New York City prostitution was segregated, and the most successful houses served only prominent white gentlemen. I made her an abolitionist because it made her more interesting, more complex, more ambiguous. She was smart, beautiful, controlling, obsessive, and reckless, believing that she could charm and subdue anyone. But she fell in love with a disturbed man, whose own father told him in a letter he was a child of the devil. Helen’s love and need to control Robinson blinded her to the truth of her situation, and she suffered the consequences. Helen was complicated, a bundle of contradictions. She was fascinating, but not perfect. I was devastated when I had to dramatize her growing depression, hysteria, her vain attempts at reconciliation, and ultimately her murder. She became so real to me I mourned her death.
How did you write the novel? What was your writing process?
It began with research, becoming familiar with the case, the customs of the time, the cultural, economic and political realities of that era, with a special focus on prostitution and the role of women in nineteenth-century America. Again, there are several sources, both primary and secondary, about New York City and life there in the 1830s. I list a partial bibliography at the end of the novel. But at some point, the research must take a back seat to writing, even though the history of New York City and America before the Civil War is endlessly fascinating. I took my cue from the great American Crime writer, Walter Mosley, who wrote a little book called “This Year You Write your Novel.” His advice proved to be invaluable. He said write daily and treat the writing as a job like other jobs. Write without worrying about correctness, quality prose. Write. Edit later. And this was crucial: research when the need arises. Don’t put off writing in the name of knowing everything before you write. For example, if you need the name of a specific street, rather than research it right then and there, stopping the narrative flow, draw a line and get back to it later. Don’t use research as a means to avoid the daily work. This made producing a rough draft within a year possible. Unfortunately, I wrote too much. There were several stories: Helen’s, Richard Robinson’s, the newspaper editors’, especially the rise of the editors of the Sun and Herald, the history of New York City in the 1830, and so much more. I submitted the manuscript for feedback, and several readers said that Helen’s story was the heart of the novel. One reader, also a writer, made an unforgettable comment: novels are about characters, and one of the major characters is New York City itself. The press story, although relevant, became secondary. Even so, the rewriting and editing process was grueling. I read the novel countless times, and familiarity blinded me to obvious mistakes. Thank goodness, I was willing to submit the novel to readers whose judgment I valued (see the Acknowledgment). My readers found mistakes and inconsistencies I didn’t see, and eventually entire chapters, with the vivid memory of their creation still intact, had to go. My copy editor for RiverWood Books was astounding with her eagle eye for errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Her questions for clarification were illuminating, and I remain in her debt. In the end, I had a better novel. Yes, novel writing is a lonely, isolating endeavor. But at some point, it becomes a collective experience. After all, you write for a community of readers. Enlisting their help makes a great deal of sense, as long as the writer takes responsibility for everything in the final product.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great read. You know from the start that someone has died. There is a murder and a trial. Although the main character Helen was a prostitute, I could identify with her love of books, and her strong in dependent spirit. It was interesting to learn more about New York City in the 1800's. The evidence for the trial did not include tweets, computer hard drives, or emails, but rather references to eloquent letters and journals. The physical evidence was not DNA or chemical analysis, but white paint on the pantaloons, and circumstances that should not be ignored. Historical fiction, mystery, beautifully written in the eloquent language of the time.