Belle Brezing was a madam in Lexington Kentucky who achieved national acclaim – or notoriety, depending on the point of view – for the brothel she ran there in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many believe that Belle was the basis for the fictional Belle Watling, who ran a similar establishment in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. Belle first worked in a brothel in Lexington in 1879 at the age of 19; the house had been the former residence of Mary Todd Lincoln and remains standing today.
When she opened her first house of her own is unknown but she was granted a pardon by Governor Luke Blackburn in 1882 for operating what the governor referred to as a “bawdy house.” Another house she operated is now on the campus of Transylvania University where it serves as a women’s locker room.
Belle became nationally known when the United States entered the Spanish-American War, and units of the army were encamped in Lexington prior to being shipped overseas. Officers in the army were mostly volunteers from established eastern families in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, and they passed along to their friends in society the pleasures available at Belle’s.
Belle’s earlier establishments were of a less expensive nature known as dollar houses but by 1898 she had established a more luxurious house on Megowan St. known as a $5 house (Megowan street is known as Northeastern Avenue today).
Belle’s employees purchased their clothes in Lexington’s best-known stores, although Belle herself favored New York as the source of her outfits. Her profession was well known throughout Lexington but she encountered little hostility in town. When the Army returned in 1915 it ordered the brothels closed as a means of controlling the incoming troops. After World War I ended most of Lexington’s houses reopened, but Belle did not as she preferred to enter a quiet retirement, which ended with her death in 1940.