by Mark Ellinger
Annie May Wyant, born 1867 in New Orleans, arrived in San Francisco sometime in the early 1890s and by 1895 at the age of twenty-eight was boarding at Mrs. Nina Hayman’s place at 225 Ellis (the same establishment that madam Dolly Adams held sway over some twelve years earlier), taking Jessie Mellon as her house name. Near the end of 1898, madam Nina Hayman retired to marry a wealthy San Francisco lumber dealer. As the house favorite, young Jessie took over her mentor’s name and business, and it was as Jessie Hayman or “Diamond Jessie” that she became famous.
It is not my intent or purpose to tell Jessie’s full story here. For those who are interested, it has been told with great warmth and wit by Curt Gentry in his book The Madams of San Francisco*. Suffice for me to say that she was strict yet fair and generous with her girls, her parlor houses were the most lavish and fashionable in the district; she was an elegant and shapely redhead, a lover of diamonds whose charms (and prices!) were legendary in her own time, as illustrated by the following anecdote.
In the late 1890s, after being introduced by photographer Arnold Genthe, a Grand Duke of the Imperial Russian Empire wanted to take Jessie back to Russia with him. When Jessie politely declined, the Grand Duke commissioned a life-size enlargement of an Arnold Genthe portrait of her. At a Newport luncheon in the Grand Duke’s honor the day before he returned to Russia, His Royal Highness proposed a toast: “To the most beautiful woman I have met in your country. She shall be nameless. Even if she were not many miles away, she would not have been included in this gathering. I ask you all to drink her health.” And thus it was that ladies of unquestioned virtue, the cream of American society, raised their glasses and drank to a demimonde, for a request from a Grand Duke was a command.
"Dawn Over Taylor Street"
(340/14) 136–142 Taylor Street; Dunphy Building. Stores and offices/lofts. 4B stories; brick structure; decorative window frames including third level arches, bracketed cornice and pediment; two-part vertical composition; Renaissance/Baroque ornamentation; vestibule: tile floor, sign painted on north wall: “United Railways Telegraph Schools”; alterations: ground floor, storefronts, aluminum windows, vestibule. Original owner: P. Dunphy. Architect: E.A. Bozio. 1906.
Photo: Mark Ellinger
When the 1906 fire destroyed the 225 Ellis establishment, Jessie moved with her girls into the top two floors of the Dunphy Building, where they stayed until the fall of 1907, when she acquired a new lodging house at 44 Mason and furnished it as a deluxe bagnio.
(341/7) 34-48 Mason Street; The Glenwood (1906); parlor house (1907); Polo’s Restaurant (1952). Storefront and loft; brick structure; decorative brickwork including rusticated piers, galvanized iron cornice; two-part vertical composition; Renaissance/Baroque ornamentation; vertical neon blade sign. Alterations: ground floor remodeled. Architects: Meyers and Ward. 1906.
Photo: Mark Ellinger
From 1907 till 1912, when she moved her girls and furnishings to 130 Eddy Street, Jessie made the Glenwood her parlor house. Years later it would become Polo’s Stadium Club, for many years one of San Francisco’s most popular meeting spots for fine food and drink.
(331/7) 128-132 Eddy Street; The Gotham Lodgings, parlor house, Belva Hotel, Crystal Hotel. Rooming house with forty-seven rooms and twenty-eight baths. 4B stories; brick structure; rusticated second level, upper level with decorative panels, bands, window surrounds, galvanized iron cornice; two-part vertical block; Renaissance/Baroque ornamentation. Alterations: ground level completely remodeled, lobby remodeled. Original owners: Daniel O’Neil, contractor, and Cora M. Twombly. Architect Charles R. Wilson. 1908.
Photo: Mark Ellinger
From 1912 until her retirement in 1917, this was the last of “Diamond Jessie” Hayman’s brothels. The first floor was leased out as a saloon, the parlors and madam’s suite were on the second floor, and the girls’ suites, dining room and kitchen were on the upper floors. With the help of her backing, one of Jessie’s girls later became a leading Hollywood madam under the name Beverly Davis. In her autobiography Call House Madam†, Ms. Davis devotes several chapters to her mentor, wherein she describes the brothel at 130 Eddy:
Jessie’s prices were staggering. She had a champagne cellar with wines from all parts of the world. Whoever furnished the house knew his Place Pigalle stuff. There was the red room, the gold room, the Turkish room, the French room, the blue room. oriental couches and shaded lamps, plush parlors one after the other with deep carpets on the floor. The bedrooms upstairs were done in the best style. It reflected ‘tone’ for a parlor house all the way through.
When she died in 1923, Jessie’s net worth in diamonds and Tenderloin real estate was $100,000, equivalent in 2009 to well over $1.2 million.
"Joy of Life"
Crystal Hotel, 128-132 Eddy Street.
Photo: Mark Ellinger
One of my germinal photographs, this view of the Crystal Hotel as seen from Mason Street is also one of my favorites because it captures the essence of what makes the Tenderloin for me such an endless source of fascination. I was captivated by these walls long before I had a camera to photograph them. The two archaic painted advertisements were wonderful enough, but the peculiar room hanging on the back of the hotel was a real enigma. I often wondered why it was built and if it was still used. (Could it have been a meat locker for the brothel’s kitchen?) A couple of years after I took this photograph, I met someone who knew a person who had lived in the adjoining room. Of all things, she had used the tiny annex as an extra bedroom, which was barely large enough to contain a folding cot. Alas, the origin of the curious extension remains a mystery and the rear of the Crystal Hotel has been hidden by new high-rise affordable housing; thus all in this photograph is now just another page in history.
∗1964, Doubleday and Company.
†1942, Martin Tudordale Corporation.