A parking lot on West St. Paul Avenue veils the long-gone days of Roaring ’20s promiscuity.
The building that stood at 1806 W. St. Paul Ave. was once home to the Sunflower Inn and Helen Cromell, an illustrious Milwaukee speakeasy and tavern owner. She was a madam, too. The structure has since been razed, replacing colorful memories with a stodgy, gray parking lot.
Helen was born into a wealthy Cicero, Ind., family in 1886. In her early 20s, she took a train to Cincinnati to marry the man she loved. Her father never approved of the relationship, let alone the marriage, and disowned her. Soon after marriage, Helen was a mother of one, with another on the way. Deep into her pregnancy, she found out her doting husband was sleeping with one of Cincinnati’s popular madams, Florence Gosset. Upon confronting Florence, and nearly scratching off her face, Helen learned the diamond ring on the flaunting mistress’ hand was a gift given by her husband.
She describes the scene in her autobiography, Dirty Helen, a fascinating page-turner she wrote with Robert Dougherty.
“I put my foot on her wrist, the way farm wives put a foot on the neck of a chicken when they are about to pull off the chicken’s head, then I reached down and yanked off the ring and clutched it in my hand. With that, I turned and stepped out into the fresh air of the night.”
She forever kept the diamond ring.
“Here in Cincinnati, nobody really knows her,” says Ashley Bauer, Helen’s great-great granddaughter. “She was the typical housewife and stay-at-home mom. If you ask around, no one really starts knowing of her until you get to the Milwaukee and Chicago areas.”
Helen ventured all over, with a few stops in San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Superior, Wis., before landing in Milwaukee – all the while working as a bordello girl or madam. She also dabbled in clothing sales.
“My career as a woman of pleasure was paying splendid dividends – and I was never lonely,” Helen recalls in her book. She would marry six times.
Wisconsin was fairly uncontrolled by any crime syndicate, meaning easy entry for a madam and speakeasy runner. For $300 in 1926, Helen acquired the place at 1806 W. St. Paul Ave. With rooms upstairs from the bar, it was a perfect spot for a bawdy house. Al Capone, a close friend of Helen’s, would later send his “engineer-designer” to create a concealing contraption so grand, the feds were never able to bust Helen’s place during the prohibition. In her book, Helen discusses its construction in great detail:
“The main reservoir was a long metal tank about 15 inches wide which fit into the ceiling above the kitchen. The floorboards above the kitchen, and directly under the bed in my second-story bedroom, were neatly cut away and hinged to make a trap door. A narrow copper tube ran from the tank down inside the wall, and its outlet was the metal latch plate on the doorjamb between the dining room and kitchen. To activate the spigot, I had a hollow tube-key which I would stick in the little hole in the metal plate and booze would start flowing out.”
It could hold 20 gallons of booze.
Although the book leads Capone and Helen to be just friends, Ashley’s grandmother, Joann Sellmeyer, doesn’t buy it.
“She believes they were in a relationship or were in a much more friendly relationship than they put out,” says Ashley.
Joann still tells the story of when she was a young girl, and Helen visited Cincinnati from Milwaukee, wearing a big fur coat. Helen took Joann downtown and bought a pearl bracelet for her, the first she’d ever owned. Joann and Helen would write letters to one another, maintaining a relationship kept secret from Joann’s father, who never approved of Helen’s lifestyle.
As to what Helen’s profession once was, there’s no sugarcoating it.
[quote align=’left’]“She straight up came here in a taxi, wearing a fur coat and no underwear,” says Ashley.[/quote]
Helen would always say, “If you have a clean butt, you don’t need to wear underwear,” Ashley recalls. “My grandma [Joann] refuses to wear a bra or underwear because she has a ‘clean ass.’”
Helen was a spitfire, even after the days of brothels and prohibition. When wives would call the Sunflower Inn looking for their husbands, Helen would chase the men out of the establishment with a bat or a broom. She was never one to break up a family.
The Sunflower Inn operated from 1926 until it was seized in foreclosure in 1959. Until the very end, liquor was delivered to the tavern via taxi, dropped off at the back door. Only two kinds were ever served: bourbon and scotch. If clients requested anything different, they’d receive a wrathful stream of colorful rebukes, the kind that gave Dirty Helen her nickname.
Helen died in a nursing home in 1969 at 83, flat broke, her family unaware. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Noblesville, Ind., which has only recently been located. Ashley has no qualms about the lifestyle her ancestor led. “I understand,” says Ashley, “she was forced to make money and to provide for herself and provide for her son.”
Ashley still receives emails from relatives of Helen’s former friends, husbands and lovers. Just one example from a note received June 2013:
“I live about 12 blocks from Dirty Helen’s in Milwaukee, or what once was. I remember fondly as a child my dad telling stories of bringing hifalutin businesspeople to town, and the main attraction was her place on St. Paul.”
In 2012, Ashley and her family started a custom invitation company in Cincinnati, naming it Dirty Helen Paper Co. in honor of her great-great-grandmother’s tenacity in the bustling business world.
“We decided to name it after her because if she can do it, we can do it,” says Ashley. “My parents are OK with [the name], and Grandma loved it. But we knew it could cause issues with the family,” says Ashley.
“We did it anyways.”