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History: A green business (friendly to tourists), but also illegal
By Jason Lesley
There is no more titillating subject of conversation locally than the Sunset Lodge, a house of ill repute that thrived in Georgetown for 33 years with the blessings of the rich and powerful from the State House to the courthouse.
David Hodges, who has been interviewing everyone he can find with any connection to the house for nearly a decade with plans to write a book, drew 300 people to a Colonial Dames cocktail party — it was “a raucous event,” he said — at Hobcaw House last year There was little surprise that his appearance as an after-dinner speaker at the big house at Hobcaw Barony last week was a sellout.
He offered a “more balanced perspective” on the brothel, speaking about its economic impact on Georgetown. Make no doubt, Hodges said, the Sunset Lodge was an illegal and immoral business that operated three miles south of the Georgetown city limits from 1936 to 1969 under a single madam: Hazel Weiss. His challenge has been to separate truth from fiction.
Weiss was born in Indiana in 1900 and moved to Chicago by 1920. Ten years later she was operating a brothel near the train station in Florence. “What was the appeal of Florence?” Hodges asked. “My assumption is that she was either running from the Mob or was sent by the Mob.” Florence was known for its brothels. Most were within easy walking distance of the train station, where 14 passenger trains stopped daily. Hodges said Florence may have been where Hazel met Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team and plantation land in Georgetown County. In his younger days, Yawkey would take the train from New York to Florence, where he would relax for a few days before traveling to Georgetown by car.
The brothels in Florence were closed after an election in the mid-1930s turned out a mayor of 25 years and subsequently the police chief. Hazel probably felt the heat, Hodges said, and moved to Georgetown.
Boston sportswriters reported Yawkey owned the Sunset Lodge. Hodges doesn’t believe that’s true. “He was worth millions during the Depression,” Hodges said. “Why own a piddly little brothel in Georgetown?”
Hodges does believe that Yawkey loaned Hazel $2,700 to buy a house and four acres in August of 1936. He told an employee he had never been repaid as quickly as Hazel paid him. “She would walk in his office with bags of cash,” Hodges said. She bought more land in 1937, ’39 and ’41 until she had about 20 acres.
Businesses on Front Street benefitted financially from associations with Sunset Lodge. “It was a green industry,” Hodges said, “non-polluting, and a tourist destination. It would be hard to go broke selling sex.” Hazel and her “sporting girls” bought food at C.L. Ford’s Store for a dozen people, dresses, shoes, jewelry, eye glasses, toys, flowers, cars and insurance. “They had cash,” Hodges said. “Struggling business owners liked to see Hazel walk in the door.”
A cab driver told Hodges he took two girls to a jewelry store in Georgetown. The owner brought his wares out to the car at the curb, and the ladies picked what they wanted. No money ever changed hands, he said.
The ladies had savings accounts in town, often putting away as much as $1,000 a month. They bought clothing and shoes for relatives and had them shipped home, always wrapped in plain, brown paper without a return address to keep their whereabouts secret.
“Hazel ingratiated herself to the town and tried not to embarrass the people who lived here,” Hodges said. “She was a philanthropist, giving money for Little League baseball, Easter Seals, March of Dimes, Thanksgiving baskets for the poor, the hospital and there was a rumor she helped build a church. I’ve heard she tried to give away more money each year than IP. She was the type person who said yes to requests.”
Each month, Hazel had a doctor test her employees for venereal disease. Gertie Dorn of Waterford Heights was a nurse at the hospital who helped Dr. Phillip Assey do the tests. Those who passed got a certificate for a clean bill of health that went under a glass on top of a bedside table. “That was very important for some men,” Dorn said. If a girl was found to be diseased, she was taken off the line until cured. They were given chores in the kitchen or the laundry until they could get back off their feet.
Approval of Sunset Lodge was not unanimous. “Some people would not do business with her,” Hodges said. “One man sought an indictment of Hazel Weiss every year from the Grand Jury. It was hard to overcome her influence and money — and her business model.” Some ministers went to the sheriff and insisted he close the brothel. Hodges said he told them, “Preachers come and go, but we have to live here. Send me your leaders and deacons, and I’ll shut it down.” Nothing more came of it.
The ladies were not allowed to go into town alone. “Hazel told them they were ‘in’ Georgetown not ‘of’ Georgetown,” Hodges said. “She taught them not to speak to men on the sidewalk. If she didn’t like what a lady was wearing, she’d send her back to her room to change.”
A bank manager told Hodges the remarkable thing was how unremarkable they were, just regular girls. No one would pick them out of a crowd.
Georgetown’s men celebrated Hazel’s birthday every Oct. 28. Everything was free. Attendance was by invitation only, and the flower shop came to rely on record sales that day. She closed to the public for one week in the spring, reserving everything for legislators and judges. “This was a powerful woman,” Hodges said. “I’ve been told the legislature informally adjourned that week as men went by the Palmetto Club to pick up box lunches for the trip.”
Members of a Darlington fishing club were regular visitors. They bought fish as they left town. A golfing group from Charlotte named itself “Tesnus” — that’s Sunset spelled backward, Hodges said. Yachts in transit would invariably break down in Georgetown. After a few days, the marina manager would ask what the pilots wanted their bills to say.
It was comforting to claim that most of the lodge’s patrons were from out of town, but it’s not true, Hodges said. Raffles offered trips to the house as prizes. Men report bumping into their fathers in the parlor. “One said his dad asked if he needed any money,” Hodges said.
Sunset Lodge closed in 1969 without fanfare No one was arrested. Hodges believes Hazel was sick, though she lived five more years in her garage apartment behind the main house that she sold to a couple with two children. It took years for men to stop pulling around back and tapping at the door.