The Financial Times, September 8-9, 2001
A retired call girl and an antiques dealer are going to court to establish who owns a former brothel. Hannah Nordhaus explains.
In late September, a Montana court will hear arguments in International Sex Workers Foundation for Arts, Culture and Education v. Giecek. The suit pits Norma Jean Almodovar, a retired Los Angeles call girl, against Rudy Giecek, a Butte antiques dealer. The former business partners are battling for ownership of the Dumas Parlor House, a 43-room brothel built during Butte’s copper boom of the late 19th century.
The Dumas is said to be the last known example of “Victorian brothel” architecture in the US. The building features basement tunnels and hidey-holes which prostitutes could use during police raids, and its windows face inwards to the hallways instead of to the street, allowing clients to “window shop.”
The Dumas was a fixture in Butte’s notorious Red Light district from 1892 until 1982, when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company left town and the brothels ran out of customers.
In 1990, Rudy Giecek heard the building was going to be demolished. The son of a mine worker and union organizer, Giecek, 59, had a passion for Butte’s material artifacts and a particular fondness for the Dumas, where he delivered groceries as a teenager. For Christmas, the girls would offer him either cash or trade for his tip — “You can always get cash” he says with a wink.
He persuaded the building’s former madam to sell it to him for $1,000 and back taxes, placed its antique vibrators and opium vials in glass display cases, and reopened the place as a museum. Giecek felt that Butte, which once had the largest Red Light district in the American West, deserved a monument to its days of carnal glory.
Today, Butte has fallen on hard times. Its population – around 100,000 at the turn of the century – now hovers at 35,000. After years of open-pit mining, Butte is now the object of one of the largest and most expensive environmental cleanups in history. The city’s streets parade an assortment of forsaken mine frames, fenced-off tailings piles, thrift shops and half-hearted casinos, and the breezes that blow from the hills smell faintly of darkroom chemicals. The traffic lights seem to change without reason – there’s nobody waiting; perhaps the occasional pickup drives through with an elk, in full rigor mortis, propped upside-down in the bed.
In many ways, the town’s most vibrant institution is now its memory, and when Giecek acquired the Dumas, he designated himself caretaker of Butte’s ribald past. This was not easy work. The Dumas’ eastern end was sinking slowly into the mile-deep honeycomb of tunnels that lay beneath Butte, and Giecek was short on cash, manpower and moral support.
In 1997, while watching a talk show, he found what he hoped would be the building’s salvation – Norma Jean Almodovar, a former Los Angeles Police Department traffic cop, $500-an-hour call girl, artist, convicted felon (pandering), author (of the tell-all book, “Cop to Call Girl”), and 1990 Libertarian candidate for California Lieutenant Governor, whose campaign posters featured a nude Norma Jean wrapped in red adhesive (“Cut the Red Tape”). She was now president of the non-profit International Sex Workers Foundation for Art, Culture and Entertainment (ISWFACE, pronounced “iceface”), an advocacy group for prostitutes, erotic dancers, porn stars and phone-sex professionals.
Giecek found Almodovar via the internet and persuaded her to visit the Dumas. The minute she entered the building, she felt that she had found a spiritual home for her organization. “Never in my life have I encountered more whore-friendly people,” she wrote on her return to Los Angeles.
She signed an earnest-money agreement to purchase the brothel for $90,000, and in 1999, moved her organization from West Hollywood to Western Montana. The plan was to make the Dumas a cultural center that would debunk the myths of whoredom and hold regular summer retreats (“Ice Camps”), where sex workers would converge from around the world to show their unity and help restore the brothel. To raise money, the Dumas would host an annual motorcycle rally. Ultimately, this city of unemployed miners would become an “artist center” with a year-round theater and adult film festival.
Although pushing 50, Almodovar appears almost girlish. She has a soft, earnest voice, wears enormous false eyelashes, and adorns her bright red hair with a purple bow. For a woman of her credentials, she also possesses a surprising naivete. When she settled in Butte, for instance, she found the town far less “whore-friendly” than she’d imagined.
The “Concerned Citizens for a Better Butte” was formed soon after the town’s religious community learned of Almodovar’s plans. They placed ads in the newspapers (“Sex isn’t the greatest thing in the world!”), and organized the city’s politicos to harass the whores. “They said I wanted to turn Butte into the ‘sex capital of the world,’” Norma Jean remembers, with a giggle. “I said, ‘Where’d you get that idea?’” Her enormous eyes widen. “Not that it’s a bad idea, but that’s not what we’re trying to do.”
The Concerned Citizens needn’t have worried. The Dumas’ fundraising efforts were, to put it bluntly, a failure. Only a handful of sex workers made it to Butte, and the permits and security costs for the bike rally landed ISWFACE $80,000 in the hole. Almodovar and ISWFACE had agreed to cover Giecek’s mortgage payments and taxes until they found the money to purchase the place from him, but they soon fell behind. After a few months of missed payments, Giecek changed the locks and put the building up for auction on eBay, the internet auction site, for a minimum bid of $75,000. Norma Jean, who maintains they made every payment and that Geicek, in fact, stole money from ISWFACE, then sued Giecek for breach of contract.
When they reach court, it will be the first time since their falling-out that they have faced each other. Giecek, who says he has poured all of his money into the Dumas and can’t afford a lawyer, is representing himself. He’s certain, however, that he will win and be free to accept bids for his foundering whorehouse. His argument is simple. “The prostitutes,” he says, “never could come up with the down payment.”