How well do any of us know our grandmothers? They are worthy of in-depth investigation, because behind the gentle, maternal façade often resides astonishing courage, creativity, and commerce. Take the example of the three Claras.
Clara Watson, my own grandmother, was an uptight, wig-wearing, cold, judgmental Methodist bitch who made mouthwatering desserts. I inherited her name, her temperament, and her skills with sweets, but not her religion. My own grandchildren would have the following to learn about me: that I make award-winning candy and cookies; I have written erotic lesbian murder mysteries; I’m a wildlife gardening fiend; I skate as a jammer assassin with the Tulsa Derby Brigade.
Our third, Clara Palmer, a devoted family woman, was a Bible school teacher, mother, and Tulsa institution who established and operated the infamous “May Rooms” bawdy house from 1936 to 1979, under the alias Pauline Lambert—and her children and grandchildren never knew.
Pauline was born Clara Gilliam on March 14, 1890, in Finley, Tennessee, the daughter of a cotton farmer. She married George Sir Spinhouse, followed him to Oklahoma for his job, and produced two children prior to her husband’s death. Pauline married her second husband, Mr. Lambert, after her sons were adults. Pauline came to the big city of Tulsa and began renting hotel beds for twenty-five cents a night to professional men, most of whom were in the booming oil business.
Soon after, Pauline began the lucrative career of renting beds with girls already in them for the average time of seventeen minutes per customer. She took 40 percent of the girls’ earnings.
Tricks would come up one narrow staircase. The seventh stair had a loose riser under which a button was installed so that, when the stair was stepped on, the bell next to Ms. Lambert’s rocking chair located in the locked sitting room upstairs rang. It was up to Pauline’s discretion which customers were admitted. Anyone who wasn’t a regular customer was brought to Pauline, who judged perpetually from her rocker, for approval. There were couches lining the room on which the women lounged, waiting to be called. Once their transaction was completed, the men would leave through a separate exit.
Pauline had peepholes looking into the narrow rooms so she could check on her working girls in the progress of industry. She claimed most of her girls were from wealthy oil baron families and were not run-of-the-mill common streetwalkers.
She had friends in businesses downstairs from the May Rooms who would warn Pauline when Vice was on the way, and she would scatter her girls in the other adjacent hotels, connected by locked hallways or outdoor ladder bridges. Sometimes the raids forced the girls to hide behind rooftop parapets where they would be stuck outside in any weather until given the all clear.
Michael Sager, current owner of the May Rooms property, which he converted into the May Rooms Gallery, the “Best Little Art House in Tulsa,” said that before he remodeled the space, he found Pauline’s chair at the top of the infamous narrow staircase. On the arms of chair were numbered buttons with thick electrical cords running from the chair, down the long hallway, pinned in sloppy loops along the wall, to the corresponding numbered rooms and attached buzzers. According to legend, Pauline kept a clipboard and watched the clock, and when the time was up, she buzzed the room.
An unnamed relative of Pauline’s vividly recalls visiting her once during this time: “She was always a snappy dresser and she had loads of money and jewelry. She was a very pretty woman. When we went upstairs to see one of the rooms, Pauline had hundred dollar bills just covering the bed.”
At the peak of the May Rooms’ success in the 1930s and ’40s, Pauline employed eight to ten prostitutes. It was a ritual of initiation for high school boys to visit the May Rooms. Approximately one of every eight boys in Tulsa became a man in one of those narrow cots. Coaches arranged victory celebrations for winning football teams with Ms. Pauline. Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, by the time that area of town had undergone urban decay to become skid row, it was the same “old tomatoes” turning tricks. “I’m the only family these girls have,” Pauline said. “I can’t let them go.” But all cats look the same in the dark, an acquaintance joked.
In the 1960s, when Captain Skinner was in charge of Vice for the Tulsa Police Department, city commissioners ordered him to stop prostitution once and for all. The captain snapped, “Moses had the power of life and death over people and he couldn’t do it, and we’re supposed to do it with four officers on $20 per month?”
A retired Tulsa Police Vice officer tells about his intentions to close the May Rooms. He approached Pauline and said, “There’s a new sheriff in town and you’re outta business.”
Pauline replied with the same answer she gave to all police officers, “Sir, let me tell you this. I’ve been in business a long time and I’ve seen good vice squads come and go and they’re gone and I’m still here.” Pauline’s prophecy was correct. A year later, that officer was gone and she was still thriving.
That officer knew Pauline well, having arrested her many times and reported with undisguised admiration that Pauline was “a tremendous woman.” She was, indeed, generous to the Tulsa police. Any time an officer was killed in the line of duty, Pauline would send the widow and family $1,000.
Joe Lester, now sheriff of Cleveland County, was the Vice officer who finally succeeded in shutting down the legendary house of prostitution because, he said, he “had God on [his] side.” Sheriff Lester also recalled Pauline being a remarkable, sweet, friendly woman whose appearance belied her profession. She looked “ just like anyone’s grandma.”
Lester first met Pauline as a rookie cop in 1970. His initial visit to the May Rooms was to break up a disturbance in which an angry client was trying to beat one of the working girls. When Officer Lester appeared before Pauline next in 1975, she remembered him clearly from 1970 and would not allow him inside, even with a fake driver’s license, regardless of how plausible his story was. Lester told her he was there for “the chicks.” Pauline’s tart rebuttal was, “This isn’t your name, you are with TPD, and this isn’t a henhouse; we don’t have any chicks.” She read the paper daily and had a photographic memory for faces.
To be convicted, a prostitute had to name an act and a price. So Lester watched as two customers, seventy-eight and eighty-two years old, emerged from the May Rooms. Each had been with the same woman. Lester approached the bawdy house again, specifically requesting that woman, claiming, due to the previous customers’ ages, that “his daddy sent him.” He finally got inside and was quoted rates for “half and half,” and he got an injunction on the building as a public nuisance.
Upon her arrest, Pauline asked, “Why are you doing this to me? I’m only charging $15.00.” For his tireless efforts, Joe Lester received a court order to close the May Rooms in February 1979, when Pauline was 88. She had been convicted of pandering in 1978, and was facing several years in prison. Her attorneys appealed the conviction while she was free on bond and a judge delayed sentencing.
In a wheelchair, but still polite and sweet, Pauline had been in federal, state, and municipal court. The judges who knew her referred to her as a living legend. According to a family member, she never drank, smoked, or used coarse language. She threatened to sue a newspaper who claimed she had been arrested for public drunkenness.
After her arrest, Pauline lived in a nursing home in Henryetta. She died on October 31, 1979. Per her wishes, her obituary listed her name as Clara Palmer. She was fiercely private and protective of her family. She was originally buried in Potter’s Field, but her grandchildren had her body relocated to Rose Hill Cemetery in Tulsa.
Even her attorneys were unaware of her death. They continued to appeal her conviction for more than four years.
In April, 1980, a motion was filed stating that Lambert had suffered enough by losing her home and business. A district court judge indefinitely delayed Pauline’s sentencing. In December 1983, the appeals were over and one of Pauline’s attorneys asked Presiding Judge Hopper to give Pauline probation. Pauline’s bondsman, ordered by the court to produce her or forfeit the bond, looked for months before finally discovering that Pauline had been dead for more than four years. Judge Hopper closed Pauline’s file by dismissing all charges.
No mug shots of Pauline can be found. Her files and records have been destroyed due to inactivity and her death thirty-two years ago.
History has swallowed my own unremarkable grandmother Clara into obscurity, and time will probably erase me as well. However, the third Clara, the legendary successful entrepreneur, deserves memory and honor for enriching Tulsa’s past, and hopefully its future, for being an extraordinary lady in a ribald business and unapologetically providing us with one of the fascinating stories that made me fall in love with this city.