"Every woman is interesting for at least one evening": The Short-Lived Escort Boom of the 1930s and Ted Peckham's Gentlemen For Rent
I’ve recently been expanding my Marjorie Hillis collection – having mistakenly believed for years that she’d only written Live Alone and Like It and Orchids On Your Budget, it’s been a delight to pick up You Can Start All Over (a guide for plucky widows), Work Ends at Nightfall (apparently a one-off go at comic poetry), and New York, Fair or No Fair: A guide for the woman vacationist. It’s in the last entry that I first heard of Ted Peckham, whose escort service Hillis recommends:
“The Escort Service…is an organization of young men prepared to show ladies the town, and I really mean ladies. The young men have college educations, perfect manners, and impeccable evening clothes. They will take you where you want to go, dance with you or not, as you prefer, and be faultless companions.”
The business was short-lived, being busted up by the New York City licensing commission shortly before the World Fair began; Gentlemen For Hire casts a breezy glance back on the chaste, snobbish boom-and-bust of the Guide Escort Service, which billed itself as the independent woman’s key to the city, when many nightclubs, restaurants, and clubs still barred unescorted women from entry. The Table of Contents alone is worth the price of admission.
Peckham’s origin story reads like a lightly censored Scotty Bowers parallel — always ingenuous, always plucky, always in the right place at the right time, simply solving a problem that already existed by the best of luck and timing:
At the height of the Great American Depression, countless young men were confronting the jagged, stony face of New York City, stripped of their dreams of success and challenged by a grim reality for which neither their inherited beliefs nor their training had prepared them. This was no longer the kind of world in which an average, presentable young college graduate could get a job as a matter of course, nor, fort hat matter, were ambition, perseverance, and loyalty any assurance of the golden fruits which former generations had taken for granted as the American Style and the inevitable American Reward. If the thousands of young men plunging into a maelstrom of bank failures, breadlines, and apple stands were to achieve success now, they would do it only as the result of their own ingenuity and resourcefulness, their stubborn refusal to accept the hard economic facts of life. This is the story of one of these young men — my story — and I very much doubt if it could have taken place in other times or under any other conditions.