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Newcomers to southwest New Mexico know Mildred Clark Cusey, if at all, from Max Evans' book, Madam Millie: Bordellos from Silver City to Ketchikan, tracing her colorful life as "an orphan, a Harvey Girl waitress on the Santa Fe railroad, a prostitute with innumerable paramours, and a highly successful bordello businesswoman." But to those who, like Phillip "Pep" Parotti, grew up in Silver City, "Madam Millie" — or just plain "Mildred" — was a real person as well as the subject of local lore and teenage tittering. The presence of the infamous madam celebrated today in the annual Millie & Billy Ball — claiming top billing over none other than Billy the Kid — was as much a part of being a teenager in Silver City as movies at the Gila Theater and root beers at the Ranchburger. All those icons of 1950s Silver City are gone, but Parotti brings them hilariously back to life in our 2007 Desert Exposure Writing Contest Grand Prize Winner.

 

Some Memoirs of Mildred's

The best little whorehouse in Silver City was also an irresistible magnet for teenage pranks.

By Phillip Parotti

 

Historically, mythically, every frontier town worth its salt had at least one good bordello hidden somewhere along its back streets. Silver City had Mildred's, and in its day, Mildred's was supposed to have been worth its salt. The thing is, as everyone now knows, Mildred's day lasted well into the 1960s. Whether it deserved the reputation that it has since earned — after the passing of the Apache threat, after the gold camps, and after the cattle barons — is a matter of pure conjecture. Before I graduated from the eighth grade and moved on to high school, I had never heard of the place, so for me, the Mildred's of yore remains a relative blank. What I do know about the establishment is that as a catalyst for juvenile high jinks and monkey business, Mildred's has never been surpassed.

In the long-gone golden Fifties, most freshmen at Silver City's Western High School did not drive cars. Utterly dependent, most freshmen, if they wanted to go anywhere, had to ingratiate themselves with upper-classmen so as to be able to "go along for the ride." The ride, as I quickly learned, invariably involved at least one daring pass by Mildred's.

"Where?" I asked. "What's Mildred's?"

"The whorehouse, you twit!"

Plunged like the rest of my generation into the hormonal throes of youth, I nevertheless wanted out of the car. Green, innocent, unworldly to a fault, I couldn't believe that Silver City still harbored such an establishment. What would the mayor say? What would the police say? What would the good ladies of the First Methodist Church say? I suspected a snipe hunt and wanted to skip it. And suppose there was such a place down one of the town's back streets? I knew I wasn't ready for it and never would be.

This watercolor by Pat Hopper shows the stucco building that at one time housed the infamous "Madam Millie" and her "girls."
(Courtesy Silver City Museum)

Forget the fear of disease (my father had not yet discussed that idea with me). Forget money (every kid in Silver City was as poor as a church mouse). What I had on my mind was a girl! At 14, I had barely gotten beyond holding hands on a date and still looked forward to the prospect of some serious necking. My occasional date in those days, a girl name Ethel Pure, would have been so outraged by the mere mention of a brothel that she would have cancelled forever the prospect of any serious necking at some distant future date. You bet I wanted out of the car. I knew where my bread was buttered, so I didn't want to go anywhere near Mildred's — not then, not ever.

"We'll have to pick up some . . . appliances" said a senior.

My imagination ran wild. This was the Fifties, well before the Pill, well before the sexual revolution and . . . knowledge. In so far as we freshmen knew, there weren't three guys in town who even knew where a condom was to be found, and all three were seniors. I thought they were about to disclose one of the most closely guarded of all national secrets.

Five minutes later, with the lights off and with the car creeping forward in low gear, we edged to the curb at the corner of Market and Black, in the vicinity of the old Black Street Playground.

Impossible, I thought. Those things would never be sold anywhere near a place where the town ran its summer recreation programs.

Immediately, seniors and juniors leapt from both sides of the old Hudson in which we were riding. Within seconds, I heard the trunk open and felt several hard thumps against the back seat.

"LET'S GO!" barked the upperclassmen, charging back into the car and slamming the doors. The driver, in admirable imitation of James Dean, flipped on the lights and peeled out; then, with the cunning of a mature fox, he slid through the darkened streets, doubling and redoubling on his track, in order to throw off imagined pursuers.

After about 10 minutes, one of the seniors said, "I think we're clear." As soon as he said this, the driver turned down Broadway, moving slowly so as not to attract attention, crossed the old rickety Broadway bridge, and turned north up Hudson Street. Today, Hudson Street has four lanes, multiple stop lights, impossible traffic congestion around the post office, and new sidewalks, which are due to be completed . . . someday. Today, Hudson Street is the main link between US 180 West, running toward the Grand Canyon, and NM 90, which runs southwest toward Lordsburg and Tucson. But in 1955, Hudson Street continued to be what it had been since before the turn of the century: an unlighted, dirt street on the east side of town.

Once again, the driver killed the lights and crept in low gear past the deserted Southern Hotel where Mark Twain was rumored to have once signed the register. I didn't know where we were going. I hadn't been over to the east side of town much, so the prospect of a snipe hunt loomed even larger. I tried to disappear into the seat cushions, and for a while, I think, I thought seriously about the efficacy of prayer.

Suddenly, about two blocks up the street, the car stopped in the middle of the road. After a moment's hesitation, one of the seniors shouted, "Now!" Chaos followed.

Instantly, all doors were thrown open, and like coiled springs, everyone sprang into the street. To say that I reacted on instinct would be putting it mildly. At 14, seeking safety in numbers seemed the height of wisdom; with the greatest number leaving the car, I left with them.

Once outside and behind the old Hudson car, the trunk was thrown open — revealing a variety of darkened shapes.

"Let's get 'em outta there!" a junior barked.

With the concentration of fighter pilots, we dove for the trunk, removing three diamond-shaped "MEN WORKING" signs, which we instantly positioned in the street. And then, as we paused to admire our accomplishment, I finally noticed the house, surrounded by an old wire fence and a generous crop of weeds.

"That's Millie's, kid," said our leader, bolting for the car. "Now let's get moving!"

As the car sped away, leaving the three signs as a mute announcement to the activity within, I glanced back through the rear window and fixed in my memory the high Victorian outlines of what I later learned had been the McComas house, the residence of the ill-fated Judge McComas and his family before their massacre by Chato and his Apaches. At the time, of course, I didn't know that; at the time, all I could see was something that struck me as semi-Gothic, and I was glad to get away from it.

Our relatively harmless prank in placing the signs nevertheless carried the risk of "trouble," but our successful escape bonded us together even as it urged us to greater exploits in the weeks and months ahead.

By my recollection, within that one year, the "MEN WORKING" prank was so often repeated that it became a bore. When it did, smudge pots, red lanterns and fast flashing orange lights made up the next variation. Eventually, a "DETOUR" sign came into play. Finally, on a warm April night, using two pickups and a horse trailer, my bunch — for on other nights, other groups made their own stunning moves — drove in fast, erecting six black-and-yellow street barriers so as to divert all Hudson Street traffic straight into Mildred's driveway. In each instance, we got away clean, the legend attending these monkeyshines swelling large with each new triumph until the year ended, the seniors graduated, and a vacuum of leadership brought peace and quiet to the summer vacation.

 

According to local lore, Mildred had started in the Klondike as a girl, made her stake, trekked down to Silver City in order to prospect for business opportunities, established her house, and struck gold. I learned about the place only in 1955, but Mildred's had apparently been an established fact for decades, a holdover from the days when Silver City had been the hub for all the hard-rock miners in Grant County.

What's more, everyone in town, save for the kids, knew all about the place and accepted it. Once my parents knew that I knew, I was given strict orders never to go within two blacks of the address. But so far as I knew at the time, no one had ever tried to shut Mildred's down. One might expect corruption, and who knows, there might have been some, but in fact, plenty of people could give plenty of good reasons for leaving the house alone. "As long as that place exists," one mother said to me, "our girls can walk downtown and feel safe on the streets." "Mildred's is just like the slot machines that we're not supposed to have at the Elks," said dozens of others, adding, "She foots the bill for more scholarships up at the college than you can count." Mildred was also thought to be paying a large part of the public schools' milk bill, and whenever the miners went out on strike, she was believed to have sent out boxes of groceries to needy families.

On the matter of Mildred's philanthropy, I can speak more directly. On the Sunday evening before Halloween in 1957, my friend, Rollo, and I went as usual to Methodist Youth Fellowship. Silver City remained a very small town in those days, and speaking plainly, there wasn't much to do. High-school students went to school and, after school, to sports, and after sports, to work. In the evenings, in a town where TV was not yet an accomplished fact, we sometimes studied, sometimes listened to the radio, and sometimes went for a mid-week Coke date. On Friday nights, after the game, we went to high-school dances; on Saturday nights, we danced again, usually to the music of our favorite band, Meredith Neal and the Boot Heel Boys. In a manner of speaking, we were dancing fools, dances being our primary social activities, the places we went to have fun, the places we went to meet girls. In looking back, those times were as tame and safe as Doris Day movies.

On Sunday nights, though, we went to the Methodist Youth Fellowship, not so much for spiritual uplift but because the girls went to "MYF" (probably for spiritual uplift), and a dance could be expected to follow in the fellowship hall. The urge was decidedly sexual but in a very minor key, our movies — those Westerns and musicals of the Fifties — having taught us that the chase was everything and that life faded out immediately thereafter.

So Rollo and I went to MYF, and on the night in question, we discovered that "the program" for the evening was to be a "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF." We immediately looked around for a couple of girls with whom to "trick-or-treat," only to learn that wiser heads had already segregated the sexes into competing parties, our sponsor informing us that a collection for UNICEF was serious business. "You may dance later," she said straightforwardly, "but for the first hour, I hope that charity will be foremost on your minds." Our sponsor, I think, hoped for a major collection, something that might put the Baptists in the shade.

Here, perhaps, I ought to say a word or two about Rollo. Although fun-loving to the core, Rollo absolutely refused to settle for the norm. When Rollo took up golf, he took it up competitively; Rollo intended to be the best high-school golfer in Silver City, and at the time, I think he was. When Rollo got ready to buy a car, he wanted the best used car that money could buy, so for two long summers, he flipped hamburgers, saved every penny, and bought the best used car ever to be seen in the Western High School parking lot. Well dressed, bright, handsome and as lively as a wasp on a griddle, Rollo had an amazing sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic that was so impulsive that he was irrepressible.

Assigned to our own group of two, Rollo and I stood on the steps of the First Methodist Church and watched some eight or nine other groups disappear into the night. For my own part, wistfully thinking about what might have been, I watched the disappearance of Ethel Pure's particular lamentation of swans with considerable regret.

"We're gonna beat 'em all," Rollo said forcefully.

"At what?" I asked.

"At the big money," Rollo said.

"Planning to canvass the bars?" I cracked. Around the neighborhoods, I thought that 25 cents per household might be about Silver City's limit for a UNICEF collection.

"No," Rollo grinned. "We are going to canvass Mildred's."

During the previous week, as reported by the newspaper, a teenager had been shot to death after banging on the door of a house in the red-light district of Danville, Ill. I expressed reservations.

"It's Sunday," I said.

"So much the better," said Rollo. "We'll take my car."

Ten minutes later, having threaded his way between two "MEN WORKING," a "YIELD" and three "CAUTION" signs, Rollo parked directly in front of Mildred's side door, leapt from the driver's seat, negotiated the path in the dark, and rang Mildred's bell. Having screwed his courage to the sticking place, Rollo didn't hesitate. Anticipating bullets rather than charitable contributions, I guarded the car and waited to recover his body.

Eventually, the porch light came on. Mildred herself appeared at the door. Through the crisp October air, I heard Rollo say, "Trick-or-treat for UNICEF."

Mildred, a short, slightly dumpy woman with a cigarette hanging from her lip, looked him up and down, turned without a word, and disappeared into the house. Seconds later, she came back, and I could see her stuffing folded bills through the slot in Rollo's collection box.

For the remainder of the hour, Rollo and I sat in front of the Ranchburger (now the Grinder Mill on College Avenue), knocking down root beers. From time to time, we spotted one or another of the groups with which Rollo had elected to compete, but alas, until they finally returned to the church, our lamentation of swans remained out of sight. Finally, at 7:30 p.m., Rollo started the car, drove across the street, and parked in front of the church. Everyone else had returned; the time for our entrance had arrived.

"Nice of you guys to come back," said Stella Clean, the particular apple of Rollo's eye. "Merry, Misty, Muffy, Ethel and I have collected $6.25. I'll bet we've got you guys beat by a mile."

"And don't think we didn't see you bums sitting over there at the Ranchburger either," said Ethel.

Muffy Till, no doubt overcome by a sudden religious fervor, was more direct: "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," she said with contempt. "This is for children, you know!"

"How much, all together, has everyone collected?" Rollo asked.

"Everyone," Muffy mimicked, "has collected $56.75. How much did you and Pep collect? Ten cents?"

"We collected $50," Rollo said suavely.

We were generous; we didn't rub it in. And concerning the source of the contribution, we . . . dissembled.

"I'm sorry," Rollo said gravely. "I'm afraid we can't say."

"Our benefactor," I added, "wishes to remain anonymous."

Later, after the applause, after the dance, on the way home from more root beers at the Ranchburger, in that golden moment when both Ethel and Stella were about to reward our toil with three minutes of serious necking — on impulse, Rollo sought to highlight the drama by irrepressibly disclosing the source of our evening's triumph.

"MILDRED'S!" both girls shrieked.

Rollo had style, I'll give him that, but in those long-gone days, his political instincts were as yet undeveloped. Nearly two weeks passed before Ethel and Stella deigned to speak to us, and even then, the rules of courtly love that the two of them established for our observance would have given Tristan and Lancelot migraines and involved, for the two of us, an excess of worshiping from afar.

But if our Vestal girlfriends were outraged, the rest of Western High School was euphoric, the details of our accomplishment having excited pure joy and a rash of imitation. During the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Mildred's received the attention of teenage collectors for the March of Dimes, the Cancer Fund, the Heart Fund, the Lung Association, the Cemetery Project and one wag who tried to sell her an ad in the high-school yearbook. In the end, in an act of desperate self-defense, Mildred erected a bold sign on her gate that said, "NO SOLICITING."

 

Let it be stipulated that when it comes to monkey business, high-school students can't begin to compete with college students, and college students who are also veterans top the lot. In those days, when my father was still alive, he was chairman of the Music Department at New Mexico Western College, today's WNMU. As I recall, he had a 50-piece concert and marching band, a 40-to-50-piece Grant County Community Symphony, and a large mixed-choral program. Mrs. Ruth, a diminutive widow of nervous habits and innocent disposition, had been the department's choral director for more than 20 years, and annually, before Christmas break, she took the college chorus caroling. As a rule, 30 or 40 carolers and their dates, driving private cars, sang for the college president, the deans, the mayor, my parents, Hillcrest General Hospital and several of the wards at the VA hospital at Fort Bayard. Approaching a Christmas in the mid-Fifties, two members of the chorus, who also happened to be veterans of the Korean War and who also happened to be chauffeuring Mrs. Ruth, suggested after their departure from Fort Bayard that the chorus might make one more stop to sing a round of carols for the residents of the Rest Haven Nursing Home.

"Why, what a splendid idea," Mrs. Ruth declared, "but I believe that it has moved away from College Avenue." (Previously, Rest Haven had been in the Tudor-style house that is now home to Smith Realty.) "Do you boys know where Rest Haven's new location has been established?"

Both veterans knew. So did everyone else.

Minutes later, the caravan of carolers drove back over the hill into Silver City, turned south down Hudson, negotiated the light dusting of snow that had powdered the road, and stopped on a dime before their intended destination. With Mrs. Ruth almost having to run to catch up, the members of the chorus darted instantly from their cars, lighted their candles, and broke into joyful song, singing in quick succession:

Oh, come all ye faithful. . . .

Joy to the world. . . .

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay . . . .

At the completion of these anthems, the porch light went on, and a short, slightly dumpy woman with a cigarette dangling from her lip emerged onto the gallery.

"Thank you all for the beautiful music," she called from the porch, "but if you're looking for the rest home, it is across the street."

"Everyone seemed quite jovial about our mistake," Mrs. Ruth later told my father. "In fact, we all had quite a good laugh about it. I wonder who that woman was?"

In so far as I know, my father, a gentleman of the old school, never revealed to Mrs. Ruth that, with a chorus of mirthful voices, she had caroled the local brothel.

 

Eventually, the spring of 1958 arrived and, with the spring, disaster. By mid-1958, what we called "The Clan" had gathered. The Clan, an allusion to Scottish antecedents, consisted of Vinny, a senior, Rollo and I, both juniors, and J.F., a highly intelligent freshman. Typically, on a Friday or Saturday night, The Clan assembled at Druley's restaurant on Pope Street, where, for $1.25, we dined on rib steak, French fries, green beans and the best homemade coconut cream pie in New Mexico, completing the feast in time to catch the first showing at the Silco or Gila Theater.

Invariably, on Friday and Saturday nights, one or the other of the theaters showed a Western, and invariably the movie met our needs in two ways. First, it allowed us to renew our basic sense of direction in life, suggesting that like Gary Cooper in High Noon, Jimmy Stewart in The Far Country or Alan Ladd in Shane, we were destined, like other American males our age, to "ride" through life strong, silent and tall in the saddle. Our second purpose in going to the movie was more pragmatic: We went to scope out the girls who most probably would be going on to the dance afterward. In those days, exotics often drove into town from Cliff, Glenwood, Reserve, Hurley, Lordsburg, Animas or Deming, intending to take in the dance, and those who did usually took in a movie as well, so an early reconnaissance proved useful in alerting us to possible windfalls, like an early view of Latitia Snap, who was thought to be residing on her father's ranch near Alma.

After the movie, we headed for the ballroom of the Murray Hotel, the standard affair kicking off at 9 p.m. and lasting until one or two o'clock in the morning. During the break, around 11 p.m., The Clan's duty driver for the night ran each of us home so that we could return by 11:30 p.m. with our own cars — so that we each could act independently when it came time to offer Ethel, Stella, Misty, Muffy or Shelley Cream a ride home from the dance, an act of chivalry which carried with it the implicit possibility of some serious necking.

Week after week, this was The Clan's program until, alas, we hit a wall: a weekend in which there wasn't a decent movie in town, a weekend in which a dance had not been scheduled.

As usual, we gathered at Druley's for our gourmet meal. Afterward, we should have gone home, but we didn't. Instead, we engaged in stimulating conversation:

"Well, wha-da-ya-wanna-do?"

"Beats me. Wha-da-you-guys think?"

"Beats me."

On the off chance that we might run across our girlfriends, who might also be out for a ride, we decided to cruise. The streets turned out to be deserted. In fact, as we later discovered, Ethel, Stella, Misty, Muffy and Shelley were all at Missy's house, all doing their hair, all anticipating their mutual vision of life as made manifest in the Sunday afternoon musicals shown at the Gila Theater: Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl lures boy back — through song, dance and vague promises of sex — into 70 years of marriage, fade-out. And then Rollo turned down Hudson Street.

In the calamity which followed, to be perfectly truthful, Vinny, J.F. and I were innocent bystanders. None of us had Rollo's flair for the dramatic; none of us could act so quickly on impulse.

"Let's cruise Mildred's back drive and honk the horn!" Rollo said enthusiastically.

"Let's not," I said quickly.

"Don't!" said Vinny.

"No!" said J. F.

Too late, our protest. Mildred's, located on a corner lot, boasted a curved drive that entered from one street, rounded the back of the house, and exited onto Hudson Street. Before we could stop him, Rollo hit the gas, turned swiftly into Mildred's drive, and in the next second, we were behind her backdoor, Rollo shouting "Hey Millie!" through the driver's window even as he hit the horn: Taaa-ta-ta-ta-Taa . . . Ta-Ta!

Vinny, J.F. and I were paralyzed. Somewhere, we knew, we had crossed the line, but if we were momentarily struck dumb, Rollo was not. Rounding the back of the house with a driving style that would have put Sterling Moss in the shade, Rollo floored it, fish-tailed down the drive toward the Hudson exit, and then, with all of us yelling at once, hit the brakes hard in order to avoid the massive chain that had been suspended in front of us between two equally massive cement gateposts.

"OH S___-!" everyone roared at once.

Equal even to this interruption of expectations, Rollo swiftly reversed course in an attempt to take us straight back out the way we had come in. But as soon as we rounded the corner of the house, we knew that we had had it. In 1958, Silver City still used discarded oil drums as trash cans, and five or six of the big ones blocked our exit. Standing behind them, amidst a gaggle of her "girls," holding a double-barreled shotgun, Mildred looked angry.

Rollo's first impulse was to gun it, but with everyone yelling for him to stop, Rollo finally bowed to the inevitable and stopped. Within a split second, any illusion that any of us might ever have had about Mildred's "girls" was shattered irrevocably. In the first place, I fully expected Mildred or one of her "girls" to unload that shotgun right through our front windows. In the second place, something I seemed to notice in a flash, Mildred's girls seemed to be about as far from looking like Ethel, Stella, Muffy, Misty or Shelley Cream as it was humanly possible to be. Teenage perceptions being what they were, those "girls" looked to me like they had walked all the way down from the Klondike toting Mildred's chuck. And then they opened their mouths and scared the hell out of us.

"Shoot 'em," one said.

"Yeah," said another.

"The little creeps," said a third.

Forget that "heart of gold stuff" with the Miss Kitty image; this was the real thing.

Slowly threading her way between the garbage cans, Mildred came forward, and we began to get an earful.

About 15 minutes before our run, someone, it seemed, had pulled the same stunt, only that someone had thrown a brace of cherry bombs through Mildred's backdoor. Mildred was convinced that we were the culprits, and trying to convince her that we weren't by telling her that cherry bombs were illegal didn't seem to work. Rather than a mere earful, we got the police — after a 15-minute wait — and all four of us were so glad to see them come for us that we could have wept for joy. Some readers of scripture might find it difficult to understand how the Israelites felt upon seeing the Red Sea close behind them, but after that night, I thought I knew; from my point of view, the police, like Moses, delivered us from bondage. Moses questioned us, of course, and we spilled our guts, each of us telling precisely the same story, a story that denied absolutely the employment of cherry bombs. Fortunately, while we were down at City Hall trying to clear ourselves, other bombs began going off all over town, so Moses gave us a terrific earful but let us off with a warning and — wonder of wonders — did not call our parents. And for our part, all four of us went forth that night feeling not at all like Cooper, Stewart or Ladd but, nevertheless, like free men who resolved to live clean and sin no more.

 

Today, Mildred's is gone, and the US Post Office is located on the site. But on my desk, holding down papers and propping up books, I retain a single, red, hard-baked Silver City brick adorned with a small plaque that reads, "From Mildred's." Sometimes, I look at that brick, think of my youth, and realize that I still want to know who threw those cherry bombs through Mildred's backdoor.

 

Phillip Parotti grew up in Silver City during the Forties and the Fifties and has recently retired and come home after a long teaching career at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

 

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