A bawdy Milwaukee classic is getting a makeover next spring when Pacific Northwest-based publisher Feral House releases an updated version of "Dirty Helen," the autobiography of publican, bawdy house owner, bon vivant Helen Cromwell.
The book, the idea of which was launched by Milwaukee’s Christina Ward – who is Feral House’s VP – and which is being published with the cooperation of Cromwell’s family, is called "Good Time Party Girl: The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell 1886-1969," and includes family photographs and a new afterword that talks about what happened to Cromwell after the book’s initial publication by Sherbourne Press in 1966.
The new paperback edition features a cover design by Boston-based illustrator Tony Millionaire, who is best known for his Maakies and Sock Money comics.
Cromwell, born in Cicero, Indiana, in 1886 and ran the Sun Flower Inn at 1806 W. St. Paul Ave. – first as a speakeasy and then as a tavern – from 1926 until 1960, and claimed, according to one news report, to be able to "outswear anybody in town."
Cromwell’s moniker reportedly derived from her potty mouth and her belief that the only choice a drinker needed to make was between bourbon or Scotch.
After the Sun Flower Inn closed, Cromwell briefly owned another tavern, but that proved short-lived and in 1965, she was arrested for the first time, on a charge of vagrancy. Luckily for her, she appeared before Judge Christ Seraphim who said that he used to go to the Sun Flower Inn during his college days and dismissed the charge.
Later, according to Ward, Cromwell would share a room at Muirdale nursing home with Seraphim’s mother. Cromwell died at Muirdale in 1969 and was buried in Indiana.
"It's interesting to look at her life in a modern context," says Ward. "She was, in the popular phrase, a difficult woman. Helen was, as she described herself and why we changed the title of the book, a good time party girl. She looked at the opportunities she had and when they didn't fit into societal norms, she said, ‘f*ck it.’
"Not to say that she was a hardened soul, I think that's why she was so beloved, in her later life, by the Milwaukee elite. She was something they could never be – a free woman – but she was generous with herself, in all ways! Make no mistake though, she did turn tricks, work with Capone, run a speakeasy, run a brothel and abandon her kids. Again, a problematic woman!"
Ward says that she, "unbowdlerized the text. The 1966 editors made silly silly changes to avoid pornography accusations. I put all the 'f*cks' back in."
Helen behind the bar at the Sun Flower Inn.
The book carries a July publication date at the moment but is likely to arrive in bookshops earlier than that. Most likely in late spring. Ward says that she’s working with a local historical institution on a "Helen party" to coincide with the book’s publication.
Here’s the publisher’s description of the new edition:
This long-lost autobiography of a woman who lived life with no regrets from the 1880’s to the 1960’s offers a rare look into the colorful criminal underworld from New York to San Francisco and every whorehouse, tavern, and mining camp in between. Dirty Helen, with the self-assurance of a defrocked debutante, takes you through her life and adventures. Demure, sweet, and wild teenage Helen flees from small-town Indiana to Cincinnati with her first of six husbands. She soon realizes that the traditional role of wife and mother isn’t for her. She meets cunning millionaires, bank robbers, detectives, and gangsters as she hustles her way through life. Her friends were everyone else’s enemies – Al Capone, Big Jim Colosimo, and Johnny Torrio all spend time with Helen as she bounces from adventure to adventure. It’s the true-life story of a woman who never said "No" and carved out an independent life that transgressed every societal boundary. Her life is a rarely seen look into the reality of a working-class woman who chose sex-work as a path to the good life.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.