Miami might be known as a haven for sex and vice today, but not all that long ago community leaders were hyperventilating over a book they considered too obscene to appear on the shelves of local bookstores.
While the idea of censoring literature seems like a flashback to Puritanical America, in 1961 then-Miami-Dade County state attorney Richard Gerstein banned Pleasure Was My Business, a book by a local brothel keeper named Madam Sherry that detailed her illicit business in Miami. As the American Library Association is reporting an "unprecedented" number of book challenges and conservative parent groups in Florida are successfully petitioning to remove specific titles from public school libraries, New Times contacted local historian Antolín García Carbonell, who wrote about Madam Sherry for the Biscayne Times in 2008, to revisit the city's very own book-banning scandal.
"She had a complicated history," García Carbonell says of Sherry. "A lot of her customers were politicians who she would pay off with sex."
Madam Sherry — who also went by Ruth Barnes, Rebecca Levitch, and Rose Miller — arrived in Miami in 1929 and ran a brothel for more than two decades. Her most infamous bordello, dubbed the Moorish Castle for its turret and horseshoe arches, was located at 5400 NE Fourth Ave. in what is now Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.
According to clippings from the Miami Herald and Miami News, high-profile clientele frequented her establishment, including gangster Al Capone, King Farouk of Egypt, and an assortment of Miami socialites and politicos who probably didn't appreciate their surreptitious side trips turning up in Sherry's book.
She wrote about them anyway.
In 1961, following a 30-day stint in a federal penitentiary and a year at a Miami-Dade detention facility for perjury stemming from a prostitution case, Sherry published Pleasure Was My Business with a ghostwriter named S. Robert Tralins. The memoir begins with a friend suggesting to a woman named Ruth Barnes, who was looking to get out of the bootlegging business, that she open a brothel. The book goes on to reveal intimate details about the sex lives of Barnes' clients, including a "kinky Catholic priest" and an "insatiable Coral Gables society woman [who] asks Madam Sherry to provide her with several male escorts for marathon sex sessions."
When the publisher sent out advance review copies to various publications, including the newspaper for the local Catholic archdiocese, the book created an uproar. Carbonell says religious leaders testified that the book did not fall in line with "contemporary community standards of morality," and state attorney Gerstein called it "disgusting, vulgar, and obscene."
Gerstein banned Pleasure Was My Business and barred a Coral Gables bookstore from selling copies.
Though Tralins appealed the ban in county court and, when that failed, took his case to the Florida Supreme Court, Gerstein prevailed, as the judiciary maintained that the contents were too hot for community consumption. Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union decried the censorship, citing the First Amendment.
Carbonell says that although the banning and subsequent legal battle were centered on the sensibilities of Miami readers, the saga was more likely a political move on Gerstein's part in an effort to make a name for himself. (He eventually worked as an investigator on the Watergate burglarly case.)
"He wanted to use this case to make his career," Carbonell says. "The book also uncovered all the people in Miami who were involved in all this corruption."
Tralins v. Gerstein eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court at a time when the court was dealing with a number of obscenity cases, including a ban on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (also banned in Miami, in 1962).
In June of 1964, the Supreme Court sided with Tralins and reversed the lower courts' decisions, whereupon Pleasure Was My Business (and Tropic of Cancer) returned to Miami bookstore shelves.
The ruling was considered a win for free speech. Though Madam Sherry never issued a statement and it's unclear whether she lived to see the ban lifted, S. Robert Tralins deemed the victory "a pleasure."
It was in another 1964 case — Jacobellis v. Ohio, which centered on the screening of a film about adultery — that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave Americans the now-famous measuring stick for identifying pornography: "I know it when I see it."
The nebulous quality of Stewart's definition speaks to society's shifting attitudes about what is considered obscene and vulgar. In fact, a woman who reviewed Pleasure Was My Business on Goodreads in December 2021 called it a "boring misogynistic read" that didn't even have "any good sex scenes! Sigh."