Edna Milton Chadwell, the last madam of the Chicken Ranch, an infamous La Grange brothel which inspired a ZZ Top song, a Broadway hit and a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, has died in Phoenix. She was 84.
Robert Kleffman, one of Chadwell’s nephews, said his aunt died on Feb. 25 of complications from injuries she received in a car wreck last October.
The Chicken Ranch, which received national infamy after the staging of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, reportedly was the oldest continuously operating brothel in the nation when it closed in August 1973, following an expose by KTRK consumer reporter Marvin Zindler.
Madam adept at PR
Miss Edna, as she was known, joined the staff of the brothel in 1952 when she was 23, but with the owner, Miss Jessie Williams, in declining health, soon found herself assuming more of the day to day managerial responsibilities of running the business, said Jayme Blaschke, who is writing a book on the history of the Chicken Ranch.
In 1961, after Miss Jessie’s death, Chadwell bought the establishment for $30,000 from her heirs and ran it for the next 12 years with a firm hand, brooking no nonsense.
Chadwell proved as adept at public relations as she was at running a brothel. She established a good working and personal relationship with T.J. Flournoy, the Fayette County sheriff who put in a direct line to the Chicken Ranch so he could be easily apprised of any criminal activity, Blaschke said.
According to the Handbook of Texas, Chadwell also forbade any contact, other than that of a professional nature, with the citizens of La Grange, insisted on weekly visits by the girls to a doctor, shopped with local merchants on a rotating basis, and gave generously to local charities.
The business flourished. Generations of students at nearby Texas A&M University discovered that a visit to the Chicken Ranch was an established rite of passage for freshmen. Legend has it that a nearby military base ferried clients in by helicopter.
But in 1973, acting on a tip, Zindler aired an exposé that led to the brothel’s demise.
“Action 13 received an anonymous complaint about two alleged houses of prostitution,” was how Zindler opened his nightly segment in late July that year. “The complainant said the houses were operating openly in our neighboring towns of Sealy and La Grange. It’s illegal to operate a house of prostitution in Texas. And past history shows they cannot function without someone in authority protecting them.”
By Aug. 1, Zindler’s pressure resulted in Gov. Dolph Briscoe ordering law enforcement to close the two “bawdy houses,” as Zindler called them. The next day, Flournoy reluctantly complied.
8th of 11 kids
Chadwell was born in Caddo County, Okla., in 1928, the eighth of 11 children. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression forced the family to move frequently between Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona.
Edna stopped going to school in the third or fourth grade, said her nephew, Robert Kleffman. At 16 she was forced into an unwanted marriage and had a son, who died soon after birth.
Penniless, she turned to prostitution as a means of support, said Blaschke.
After the Chicken Ranch closed, Chadwell moved to Gladewater and got married. After her husband’s death, she married Clayton Chadwell and moved to Phoenix, where she lived in relative obscurity until she died.
In the late 1970s Chadwell sold the rights to her story to Texas writer Larry L. King, who wrote a piece for Playboy magazine and which was adapted by Peter Masterson for the stage as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” in which Miss Edna played a small, non-speaking role as the former madam.
“It was strange,” Masterson said. “She had no concept of acting. But we thought it would be a good thing publicity-wise to have her in the show. We didn’t want to praise prostitution. I thought this was a story about people just doing the best they could in life.”
The success of the show prompted the film of the same name starring Reynolds and Parton, which Masterson thought trivialized the story and which Chadwelll hated.
“She said the movie was a joke,” Kleffman said. “There was nothing about it right except that it happened in a whorehouse.”