All we know about her is that her first name was Claire and she was a sex-trade worker in Halifax in the 1960s. She fascinated me after I came across her self-published memoir White Boots: Sex For Sale Trade in Halifax. (You can find it in the non-circulating collection at Halifax Central Library).
The 67-page memoir is an honest self-portrayal, coupled with a number of human-interest yarns and intriguing accounts of the team she worked with and the men who patronized them. She describes the people she worked with as loving, lonesome, and generous women.
She also discloses that when one woman became pregnant and didn’t want to have an abortion, her friends at the brothel raised money to help her keep her child, even providing a place for her stay.
She never divulged the exact location of the brothel where she worked, but the description puts it on or near Gottingen Street. She says a successful sex-trade worker in those days could make “thousands of dollars a year.”
She recalls that her madam, like most of her counterparts, imposed strict rules, such as fining anyone who was late for work. They were also told which taxi companies to hire, which restaurants to patronize, and even where to shop, which hints at owners’ common business interests. And, if a woman broke any of the rules, she’d often be sent home and have a hard time being “reinstated.”
Claire did focus a lot of attention on the type of women who shared the same role. There was Sandy from Windsor, Sarah from the Valley. and Karen from Yarmouth. Also, especially mentioned was Jeanette from Montreal, whose favourite haunt was the Derby Tavern.
Most of employees at the brothel where Claire worked were country girls, but there were also housewives who wanted “to earn a little extra money” and even women with professional day jobs.
Also noteworthy in the book are descriptions of the men who visited her establishment. Not to be forgotten: Leroy, a fisherman from Yarmouth. It seems he came to Halifax on an Acadian Lines bus and always arrived with gifts like lobsters and pickled herring, which the women enjoyed.
Another client, an older gentleman, actually turned up one day with a $14.95 nightgown from Woolco that he planned to give his wife. Anxious to make sure it would fit, a helpful worker tried it on.
Even the kinkier stories seem sedate by today’s standards: the man who enjoyed wearing women’s underwear, another fellow who liked to have his body smeared in strong-smelling perfumed lotion. (The women worried his wife couldn’t help but become suspicious when he came home smelling like a rosebud.)
Seafarers who arrived on ships from all over the world were frequent customers. Russian and Chinese sailors weren’t popular because they didn’t have much spending money; well-paid Japanese sailors (who preferred blondes and small-framed women) were favourites.
Claire took a dimmer view of the women who worked on the street and the pimps who controlled them, forcing them to work long hours and plying them with drugs and alcohol. (Although she did express admiration for an attractive woman who patrolled the area in front of the Government House on Barrington Street.)
According to her, the woman in question was sensitive to the bad PR her presence would create when the lieutenant-governor had high-profile guests. When dignitaries were in town, she’d discreetly move down the road.
Near the end of the book, the author speaks briefly of Ada McCallum, one of Halifax’s most renowned madams. Ada received full marks: “Her employees are well kept, her clients are not robbed and she herself is a most charming person!”
At the end Claire makes a forward-looking foray into public policy, calling for the lottery commission to take charge of legalized prostitution: “Think of the tax dollars to be gained by having a tax or a cover charge on all sex sales.”