Miss Belle’s Mirror Finds Home at KHS
By Sara Elliott, curator
One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a curator is getting to work with objects that have a real history behind them. Recently the Kentucky Historical Society acquired a mirror from a famous brothel in Lexington. Belle Brezing, the owner of the “most orderly of disorderly houses” and the purported model for Belle Watling in “Gone with the Wind,” purchased this mirror around 1890. She had just bought a new house and wanted the best of everything—velvet drapes, the latest fashions in furniture, the best food and drink and, of course, companionship.
When the donor called me this past winter to see if we were interested in the mirror, I was so excited. I really wanted to say “we’ll be there tomorrow” but we have procedures we have to follow, so that wasn’t possible. She told me that she had purchased the mirror in the 1970s at an auction of items from Belle’s house. More importantly she told me she had photographic documentation that proved the mirror was Belle’s. (Proof of ownership is highly desirable when considering objects from someone as notorious as Belle.)
When we received the mirror, sections of the decorative finish were loose or had become detached. David McElrath, head of our fabrication team, painstakingly reattached the pieces and stabilized the mirror. I cleaned it and discovered layers upon layers of smoke residue in the corners. I couldn’t help but wonder at the number of cigars that had been smoked in front of that mirror.
Born and raised in the harshest of conditions Belle Brezing did not have much choice in her career path. She was ostracized by polite society but protected by powerful men from the community. Earlier this month we hung the mirror in the Victorian parlor in “A Kentucky Journey,” our permanent exhibit. I wonder how Belle would feel if she knew that her mirror is now hanging in the same room as items from the homes into which she would never have been invited.
(Editor’s Note: Our Oct. 15 Food for Thought program will focus on Belle Brezing as author Maryjean Wall discusses her new book, “Madame Belle: Sex, Money and Influence in a Southern Brothel.” See our Events Calendar for more information.)