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On 86th Street, the Brothel that Scandalized Bay Ridge


125 86th Street
From The Spectator, 1964

For months, neighbors in “the plush Colonial Road section of Bay Ridge” had been suspicious of what was going on inside 125 86th Street—“the canopied house with the blackout curtains,” as The Spectator put it, “where the stream of male traffic and the noisy parties, when practically everyone else on the block was asleep, was an almost nightly phenomenon.” The “innocent-looking, red shingled, two-story, white brick house,” was locked down with padlocks, dogs and a burglar alarm.


The house, built around 1927, was the middle of a series of five almost identical, relatively modest dwellings. Neighbors started calling it “Lana’s Rest” and “Homestead House.” “Patrons talked of rooms with vivid wallpaper, mirrors on the ceiling, and a first-floor kitchen converted into an extra bedroom,” the Spectator reported.


In August 1963, reporters at the local paper tried to scheme their way inside. Working with local police, they set up all-night stakeouts, taking down license plates. They got the unlisted phone number—SHore Road 5 7392—and the codeword, and on a Thursday morning in October, a little after 1 a.m., a reporter placed a call.


“Hello?”

“Hello. Siegel from the M——— sent me.”

“Have you got a card with Mr. Siegel’s signature on it?”

“Yes.”

…“When are you contemplating an appointment?”

“As soon as possible.”

“My work is by appointment only.”

“Well, for what hour can I make an appointment?”

“Do you realize the hour? Will you hold on a minute?”


The phone was left off the hook for twenty minutes, with music on in the background. The woman had become suspicious. Several days later, plainclothes policeman got inside the house—and found nothing to warrant an arrest. But they kept investigating.


Five months later, on Sunday, March 15, 1964, around 5 a.m., another pair of plainclothes policemen posed as “a couple of big butter-and-egg men,” gaining entry to the house. The madame, known by various names but usually as Maggie, brought them inside, each to a room with a blond woman inside.


All three women were arrested.

Karin Iversen, a 25-year-old native of Harstad, Norway, who said she was a baby nurse, was nabbed on morals charges with Elizabeth Huiley, a 44-year-old “hostess.” Also arrested was Maggie, aka Lana (her middle name), aka Margaret Lettera, aka Margaret L. Quintsy, the 36-year-old “real estate broker” who owned and operated the house. (The paper also distastefully printed the women’s heights and weights, presumably so readers could judge for themselves whether they were sufficiently attractive.)


“Following the early morning raid, men, obviously not aware the house was not still in operation, were seen ringing the bell and knocking at the windows,” the Home Reporter later reported. “There must be plenty of disappointed people,” said a mother who lived on the block, pushing a stroller.

 

The issue of The Spectator that broke the story, on Friday, March 20, 1964, caused a scandal, not least of all because the paper reported, of the license plate numbers it had collected, “All were checked out. The owners ranged from known hoodlums to highly placed local citizens.” At the regular meeting of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, no one wanted to talk about the scheduled topic of fluoridation. “Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk about the Spectator’s story of the ‘house on 86th Street,’” the paper reported.


Journalist Gay Talese was in the neighborhood, covering the construction of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge (which opened eight months later), and he writes about the mood in his book The Bridge.

Some people, of course, blamed the boomers [bridge construction workers], recalling the sight of those slinky blondes who lingered along the shore behind the bridge…Many respectable, old-time Bay Ridge residents were shocked by the disclosure, and there was the familiar lament for yesteryear. And a few people, apprehensively gazing up at the almost-finished bridge, predicted that soon the bridge might bring many more changes for the worse—more traffic through residential streets, more and cheaper apartment houses (that might be crowded with Negroes), and more commercialism in neighborhoods traditionally occupied by two-family houses.

“Not only was every copy suddenly sold out,” Talese continues, “but the newspaper office was left with none for its files, and it hastily had to announce that it would repurchase…any copies of the…issue in good condition.” At the time, The Spectator was available at three hundred newsstands, some of which sold four hundred copies per week.


“Curiously enough, most of the praise for printing the story came from women,” the paper reported the following week, “several of whom telephoned to tip us off on other locations [that] they would like to see rooted out. Real-estate interests, some of whom have been trying unsuccessfully to sell homes near the house involved in the arrests, were particularly gratified at the story.” So too was the local councilmember Angelo Arculeo, who had received complaints.

The women’s hearing on April 13 was adjourned until the 30th, at which time they were acquitted. “Of course I was acquitted,” Quintsy told The Home Reporter in May. “It was a case of mistaken identity. Those two girls were only friends of some of my business associates.” The reporter, Jack Deacy, noted he could hear a din of women’s voices in the background during their phone conversation.


He was in touch with Quintsy because she’d been arrested again, at least according to police at the 17th Precinct in Manhattan. (“I was not arrested,” Quintsy told the paper. “There must be some mistake.”) “Looking for a good time, buddy?” she had reportedly told a plainclothes vice officer in East Midtown. “I can get two girls for you.” The cop played along, and when Quintsy made a phone call, he arrested her.


Not only had she not been arrested, Quintsy said, but she had also sold the house on 86th Street and expected the new owners to move in in about thirty days—which was a relief to the neighbors. “I think everyone knew what was going on,” said one mother who lived a few doors down. “We’ve been complaining about it for months now, and all I can say is that I’m glad we’re rid of it.”

“You should have seen the traffic around the place,” said a man who lived on 86th Street. “Some days I used to have trouble parking there were so many cars around. And they even had kids going into that place.”


“Some nights I couldn’t sleep with all the damn noise coming out of that place,” said an old man on his porch.


Little did he know, soon there would be an even greater commotion—what The Home Reporter would call “the closest thing to a Cecil B. De Mille production Bay Ridge has ever seen.”

 

Early on Sunday morning, July 31, 1965, a plainclothes police officer, Edward Lynch, called the house’s unlisted number and asked to speak with Maggie.


“This is Eddie, a friend of Bob’s, the fruit man.”

“Where do you know Bob from?”

“The market.”


He asked “if he could be fixed up for a short time,” the Home Reporter reported.


“If you got money, honey, you can come right in. Come around about 1:30 at the rear door and knock twice.”

At the appointed hour, Lynch, in a tailored, checked suit, followed Maggie’s instructions. He was brought to the basement. Lynch said he wanted to stay for an hour; Maggie told him it would be $25 [about $200, adjusted for inflation]. He should go upstairs and ask for Geraldine. “The other girl I have is busy.”


When Lynch got upstairs, he “heard some yelling from a front room,” the paper continued, “and suddenly a man screaming threats was coming at him with a gun in his hand.”

The plainclothesman ducked out onto the back porch and identified himself. The man kept coming and…told the [patrolman] he didn’t care who he was.
As Ptl. Lynch retreated into the driveway, the man later identified as Thomas Cox, 40, of 8415 Fourth Avenue [Anastasia Court], let go with one shot, which sailed over Lynch’s shoulder. Returning the fire, Ptl. Lynch joined his waiting partner, Edward Neuguth, and Patrolman Gerald Cochrane.
Within 20 minutes, the street was ablaze with floodlights as [at least forty] police from the emergency service squad swarmed around the house [in bullet proof vests]. During the battle—which lasted from 1:45 until almost 4 a.m.—police unloaded seven pellets of tear gas into the house, yet Cox continued to fire [at least eight shots in all].
Finally ten men—led by Ptl. Lynch—crashed the front door and subdued Cox, a lumbering 6-foot-4, 270 pound seaman. Others dashed upstairs where they found the three women quietly lounging in a rear bedroom next to an air conditioner, which had been reversed to get the tear gas out.

(Extra details in brackets from the Daily News.)

Geraldine was Geraldine Bernstein, 22, arrested along with Kathleen Sherman, 30, and Quintsy, who around this time the Daily News took to calling “Maggie the Cat,” a reference to Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for some reason. Maggie was accused of providing the gun to Cox, then hiding it in a wall safe before police burst in. All three women were freed on bail.


Cox of course was also arrested. At first, his lawyer said Cox had mistaken Lynch for a burglar, because the house had been robbed several times—a defense many found incredible. “The assistant district attorney said the badges and tear gas should have been enough to convince him otherwise,” the Daily News reported. The paper added that Lynch had shouted, flashing his shield, “Don’t shoot! I’m a cop.”


“I don’t care,” Cox reportedly answered. “I’m shooting anybody.”

Later, Cox explained that he had nothing against Lynch, but was angry at Maggie, whom he described as his girlfriend. He figured he’d get even with her by shooting someone, he told the plainclothesman.

Cox was held on $25,000 bail [about $200,000, adjusted for inflation].


Quintsy, who’d been released on $2,500 bail, gave her version to the Home Reporter. “This whole thing is another frame-up contrived by the police department,” she said. “They had to make up some wild story and I must say they did a pretty good job of it, judging from newspaper reports.”

“I was sleeping at the time when I head this huge crash of glass downstairs in the back. Thinking someone was breaking in, I phoned for help. But the next thing I knew the house was filled with tear gas.
In reference to Thomas Cox…Miss Quintsy said he was only a friend.
“Naturally when police began attackig the house,” she explained, “Mr. Cox merely tried to protect himself.” Miss Quintsy further charged police brutality in the handling of Mr. Cox. “They handled the poor man harshly,” she said. “I am definitely in favor of a Civilian Review Board to investigate civilian charges of brutality by police.”

Furthermore, Quintsy revealed she had been unable to sell her house. “I couldn’t find a buyer,” she lamented to the paper. “How could I with all that adverse publicity?”

 

Edward Lynch, the officer who’d gone inside the house through the backdoor and then burst in through the front to end the standoff, had been singled out for his “heroic action” by Councilmember Arculeo. Lynch also “drew congratulations from his superiors and fellow cops,” the Daily News reported. “There was scuttlebutt he might even be slated for promotion. He was the pride of his family, and small neighborhood boys talked of him as they talked of Matt Dillon [the marshall of Dodge City in Gunsmoke] and Wyatt Earp.


“Then…came disillusionment.”


On September 8, Lynch approached Cox and Quintsy and asked them for $3,500 [almost $28,500, adjusted for inflation] in exchange for changing his testimony against the two when the time came. They told their lawyer, who told the district attorney, who set up a sting.


Cox and Quintsy met Lynch in the lounge of the Lincoln Hotel, in Midland Beach, Staten Island. A microphone, “disguised in a tie clip,” was attached to Maggie’s bra, The Home Reporter later reported (with excessive titillation). “We got the whole thing and a lot more on tape,” Cox said. They gave him $300, which he reportedly accepted—the first payment for a bribe on the installment plan. The bills had been marked with a special powder.

Lynch was arrested on September 15 and charged with “two felony counts of asking and receiving bribes and taking unlawful fees,” the Daily News reported. The married, 26-year-old cop of four years was suspended—“the intrepid hero was in black disgrace, his bravery tarnished.”


The newspapers stopped following the case after that. There’s no record of Cox, Quintsy or Lynch ever going to prison. Perhaps the charges were dropped against all in this now convoluted, corruption-tarnished case.

 

On October 5, 1970, 125 86th Street was raided another time. “It’s THAT House Again!!!” announced the cover of the next issue of The Home Reporter.

The house was now “a medium-sized white stucco…with black trim around the windows and doors,” according to The Home Reporter. “The fenced in front yard is adorned with white flamingoes that sit propped in the sparse lawn. Two lions guard either corner of the yard, and a gaudy blue butterfly nesting in a large pink flower is painted on the lower part of the stoop.”


The house had been soundproofed and the basement windows sealed. “The basement has been fixed up into a ‘party’ room, where music and loud voices cannot be heard across the driveway, a mere three or four feet to the next house,” the paper continued.


On “a quiet, sunny Monday afternoon, as children rushed home from school to their expensive dwellings on 86th St. between Ridge Blvd. and Colonial Rd., a telephone rang in [the] white stucco two-story house at mid-block,” reporter Dennis C. McMahon wrote. “At the other end of the phone a man uttered some words, a key phrase which unlocked the reportedly well-trodden entrance to 125 86th St.”

Police had been investigating the location as an alleged house of prostitution for several months. Until this Monday, their efforts to enter the reputed vice den failed. They lacked the necessary “code,” the password which would give its speaker admittance to the alleged brothel. On Monday afternoon, police…cracked that code.

An undercover officer, in a blue jacket, blue shirt, gray pants and a royal blue tie, “looked like any blade out for a ‘good time.’” He knocked on the screen door and Maggie answered. Now forty-two years old, she wore a heavy yellow neck brace because she had broken her collarbone. The officer entered and Maggie assembled three young women: Caroline Harris, 25; Sandy Michelle, 22; and Margaret Porter, 28. They were seminude, posing provocatively. Maggie said “the usual” would cost $20—less than it had just five years ago.

He showed them his badge and arrested all four: Quintsy, whom McMahon rudely described as “dumpy,” and the “three young models,” one of whom had a history of arrests for sex work in California and New York. Almost $4,000 in cash was seized [about $26,000, adjusted for inflation], as well as typewriters and an adding machine, believed to be stolen. There were also six cartons of untaxed cigarettes, two untaxed bottles of Johnnie Walker and fourteen bottles of assorted liquor. Police also confiscated a Bell and Howell movie projector and three reels of a black-and-white pornographic film. The telephones and extensions were also taken, “put[ting] out of business…the house’s reportedly famous phone number.”


The four women were taken to the precinct on 86th and Fifth, where Harris, who was black, sat in the squad room, writing a poem about her arrest. They were brought to a paddy wagon to go to court, covering their heads so as not to be photographed. “A visibly shaken Maggie could hardly walk as she was helped into the wagon by police,” the Home Reporter reported.

They arrived too late for night court, were taken to the 78th Precinct, which had no more room; they were brought to the 14th Precinct in Manhattan. The next afternoon, the four “tired, haggard and fearful-looking” women were arraigned, with bail as low as $100 (for Harris and Michelle) and as high as $1,500 for Quintsy. “A hearing was set for January 4, 1971,” McMahon reported. “After their hard night’s day they returned to home sweet home, 125 86th St.”

 

“Perhaps one of the most unusual things about Maggie’s place on 86th St. is that no neighbor ever complained about it,” Marian Leifsen wrote in the Home Reporter.

Six years ago, when Maggie’s house was first raided, neighbors were more vociferous about it and made their distaste about the goings on very plain. Nowadays, nobody talks about it. Perhaps, the fact that six years later, that house is still in operation…has something to do with it. Or perhaps, in 1970, a house of ill repute is just not that shocking. Maybe people pretend it doesn’t exist. Or maybe they don’t care.
…The block is a quiet one. Persons walking by don’t seem to be impressed or even curious with Maggie’s house, if indeed, they know anything about it. A woman who was watching a small child play Tuesday and a few houses away didn’t seem too surprised when asked about the alleged house of prostitution. She shrugged and said, “Well, it’s not for me to say.” No one else on the block would say a word about it.
…The house quiet, it looks just like any other house on the block, perhaps just a little shabbier than the others, mostly $40,000 houses, but well kept up. Letters and bills waited in the mailbox…Bay Ridge ignores the whole thing.
“It’s like something out of the 1920’s,” said one observer.
 

The house doesn’t appear in anymore news reports I could find. Maybe Quintsy gave up; maybe the press gave up; maybe the community gave up; maybe the police gave up; maybe everyone gave up.

In 1991, the deed for the house was transferred from Margaret Lettera, one of Quintsy’s known names, to another woman with a different last name already living at the address—who had Letteras in her family. If she isn't Quintsy’s daughter, perhaps she's a niece. The house is still owned by this woman, though a public records search suggests she resides on Staten Island.


Quintsy died in 2005, at the age of 86, with no known addresses listed on background-check sites but the one on 86th Street.


The only present-day complaints about the house I could dig up are from 2008 and 2018, when anonymous reports to the department of buildings complained that the house had been illegally converted to a multiunit dwelling—the scourge of modern times, as brothels had once been decades before.

 

Read more Bay Ridge crime stories in the book True Crime Bay Ridge and more about the history of the neighborhood in How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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