It is perhaps a defining characteristic of Texas Chicken Ranch: When it comes to Texas’ most famous whorehouse, people apparently enjoy being in the dark.
In its bedrooms. In the telling of its history. On stage and on the silver screen.
But a Texas writer is turning on the lights in the story of the Lone Star State’s iconic brothel, unearthing for the first time what he says is the true history of the La Grange “boarding house” — steeped until now in fables told by whispering locals and far-away Hollywood characters.
“The real story is just so outrageous, you don’t need to embellish it to make it unbelievable,” New Braunfels writer Jayme Lynn Blaschke, who has spent the better part of a decade researching the Chicken Ranch, said in a telephone interview.
Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is due out on August 1, exactly 43 years after an exposé by TV reporter Marvin Zindler shut down the brothel.
Its story was made world famous by a play in 1978 and later a movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, in 1982.
“Believe it or not, that was not a documentary,” Blaschke laughed. “The movie is a shadow of the original Broadway play, and the Broadway play was reality painted in broad strokes.”
For starters, the original Chicken Ranch was never officially called the Chicken Ranch, Blaschke said. Contrary to a popular story that clients paid with live poultry during the Great Depression, that nickname for “Edna’s Boarding House” actually came from a one-time strategy to avoid prostitution charges, Blaschke said.
The brothel itself wasn’t a mansion, but a farmhouse with bedrooms built on haphazardly as business grew, he said.
As the major players in real life began to die — Sheriff Jim Flournoy in 1982, Zindler and Attorney General John Hill in 2007 — Blaschke realized that the fascinating story of the Chicken Ranch, the real one, might one day only exist in Hollywood-style folk tales born of prurient and active imaginations.
“It was kind of staggering to me that such a high profile and scandalous episode in Texas history had never gotten a serious historical treatment,” said Blaschke, a native of Columbus, a few miles from La Grange.
Blaschke interviewed, among others, Madam Edna Milton, who emerged from years in anonymity in Arizona to help his research, as well as reporter Larry Connors, who went undercover for the television expose, a Texas Ranger, former Assistant Attorney General Herb Hancock and a Chicken Ranch employee.
The chain-smoking Madam Edna was no cheeky, cheerful Dolly Parton character, Blaschke said.
Her hardscrabble childhood in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl ended in a forced marriage at age 16. She had a child who died of jaundice, and she wound up a broke, itinerant young woman with a third-grade education. She arrived at the Chicken Ranch in 1952.
When it was shuttered, she sold the property and worked as a hostess for a Greenville Avenue club and restaurant in Dallas built around the brothel’s distinctive parlor.
She opened a restaurant that failed, had a bit part in the Broadway play, got some cash out of the movie deal, and moved to obscurity near family in the Phoenix area. She lived in a ranch-style house with an orange tree in the yard and neighbors who had no idea who she was. She died in 2012 of complications from a car accident the year before.
“She was not the stereotypical prostitute with the heart of gold,” Blaschke said. “She was a businesswoman.”
Prostitution in La Grange is purported to date as far back as 1844, but the property that would become the Chicken Ranch was purchased by prostitute “Aunt Jessie” Williams on July 31, 1915.
In 1961, Milton purchased the farmhouse and ran it until its 1973 demise.
As brothels shuttered across the state, the Chicken Ranch remained standing — mainly because, while it was illegal, it played by the rules, Blaschke said.
Employees passed along criminal intelligence to investigators, staved off unruly drunks that might cause problems, sold no alcohol nor allowed drugs, and behaved well while law enforcement dealt with bigger problems in bigger towns.
Some of the tallest tales stem from the reason Zindler took out after the Chicken Ranch, Blaschke said.
The stories the locals told him about the “real reason” Zindler targeted the ranch ran the gamut, he said: Zindler had gotten a speeding ticket and the sheriff wouldn’t dismiss it. His son had lost a high stakes poker game and the sheriff wouldn’t help. His daughter was working in the brothel and he was outraged.
“None of these are true,” Blaschke said.
Zindler was recruited, he said, by Hancock, who had been named to an organized crime task force created by Attorney General John Hill.
Leaving his boss in the dark about his plans, Hancock recruited Zindler, whom he knew from Zindler’s previous stint at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to do an exposé on the Chicken Ranch. They never proved corruption, as they set out to do, Blaschke said.
Zindler, Connors and the others became laughingstocks — but the plan worked. The governor and Hill, who did not want to admit he’d lost control of his own task force, were caught in the position of either shutting down the Chicken Ranch or publicly defending an illegal brothel from outsiders who found it offensive.
They went for the politically easy option and shut it down on August 1, 1973.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.