She was foxy, plucky, irreverent and dressed to the nines, a working girl who would become both famous and infamous in the city of San Antonio, Texas. Some even called her beautiful.
This was my friend Madam Theresa Brown on the day we met. I was a cub reporter for the San Antonio Express and News, she was getting her brothel business recognized and well known. It was in the early 1960s.
We were in Phil Sfair’s Navy Club on Pecan Street, one of the most popular of San Antonio’s after hours emporiums. It was frequented then by judges, lawyers, media people and sports figures. I had asked the bartender about the looker chick on the barstool a few stools down from me.
“Theresa Brown,” the bartender said.
I knew the name and the reputation. When I walked over to introduce myself, T-Brown (by her own eye-twinkling admission the biggest whore in town), turned to me with a knowing and mocking smile.
“The newspaperman,” she said. “I know who you are.”
Maybe she thought I was hitting on her. And maybe I was, depending upon the level of Jack Black I had in my system. It’s hard to remember now. But I never forgot her words.
“You can’t afford me, newspaper boy. So don’t even try. But I’m gonna buy you a drink. Maybe more than one. And you better not go back to that newspaper and write something about me.”
T-Brown, as I always called her, and I sat right there and got shit-faced drunk together. I think she picked up the tab. She probably did for I had little spending money in those days. I can’t recall all we discussed that evening and night. I do know we didn’t leave there and jump into the sack, and I know that our Navy Club meeting was the beginning of a friendship that would endure for more than 50 years. She was right. I couldn’t afford her. Little did we guess at the time that Theresa would help get me and golf great Lee Trevino kicked out of a popular San Antonio restaurant, or that T-Brown would someday run against a man she called one of her former whorehouse clients for a seat on the San Antonio City Council; or that Brown would terrorize the Bexar County Court House and political environs with a 3,000 name trick list that she threatened to make public.
T-Brown was a rebel with a cause. A divorcee with two little boys to feed, she put her back to the snapping dogs of derision and faced the world of shame and disclaim like the tigress she was. She was tough as a pig snout in many ways. She called the manager of the San Francisco steakhouse a motherfucker in a screaming embroglio for the ages, but deep down inside was a sad little girl with a sweet and caring spirit that few got to witness.
When my son Grady committed suicide, T-Brown was one of the first to offer love and comfort. And I was able to reciprocate when her son Cecil died in a one-car roll-over. We both meant it from the bottom of our hearts when we expressed our mutual sorrow.
But her unique sense of humor was always there, an omnipotent threat to the sensibilities of the sanctimous and the phony. Especially those good ole politico boys who had trouble keeping their peckers in their britches.
My World Championship Menudo Cookoff was about to kick off in Raymond Russell Park. The beginnings of a crowd that would number in the thusands were starting to arrive. Willie Nelson and 30 other bands were tuning up for the event. Attorney Alan Brown and homicide detective Roy Aguilar were warming up for their 3-round boxing match that Brown won by a knockout.
Then came Theresa and her girls, arriving in a Winnebago with untrammeled fanfare and a huge sign that proclaimed: Hot Pants Menudo.
The throng was already spilling over into the adjacent Sunset Memorial Park where they would litter and overturn more than one grave marker.
“Damn you Theresa,” I recall hollering, “we have enough heat without you and the girls.”
T-Brown was unflappable.
“We know more about cooking menudo than you do,” she told me. “Leave us alone.”
As the years rolled by, Theresa’s notoriety increased exponentially. She was living in Kyle between San Marcos and Austin when she died in a San Antonio hospital of natural causes. We had maintained an email connection until shortly before her death September 18, 2012.
When the standard funeral home death notice reached the Express and News city desk, the editors didn’t realize whose passing they were publicizing. Theresa merited only a short obit with her name listed as Theresa Brown Burquette and nothing about her sensational background. A young and beautiful photo of Theresa accompanied the printed copy. No cause of death was given and the notice asked that all donations go to the San Antonio Women’s Shelter. The official obit did note that Theresa “will always be remembered for her adventurous nature and love of travel.”
Once again, the Express and News city desk had blown it, opening the door for my full-blown Theresa Brown column in Action Magazine, identifying her as the notorious San Antonio madam who terrorized politicians and hobnobbed with sports stars and members of “the fourth estate.”
An Express and News staffer called me in a panic after the Brown column in Action Magazine.
Yes, I told the newspaper person. This was indeed the famed Theresa Brown, and, yes, I had been her longtime friend.The San Antonio Express then quoted me in a comprehensive obituary which covered the sensational and troubled life of San Antonio’s Madam Theresa Brown.
Here, in part, is how the daily newspaper story went:
Theresa Brown, who has died at age 78, was a brothel madam from San Antonio, Texas, who caused palpitations in many American households after it was revealed that she had carefully maintained a catalogue of more than 3,000 men – politicians, sports stars, religious “pillars of the community,” and at least one district judge – who had visited her establishment.
The so-called “Trick List”, whose existence was revealed after the FBI raided her bordello in 1980, was made even more combustible by the fact that, alongside the names, Theresa Brown had noted each man’s sexual preferences and peccadilloes. America’s Establishment breathed a sigh of relief when the lawmen who had confiscated the list burned it, but agonies were later renewed when it transpired that Theresa Brown had kept a back-up.
At some point after her arrest she was said to have given the list to a journalist working for a leftist local newspaper, but she later regretted doing so and won a temporary restraining order preventing the paper from publishing it. The paper, meanwhile, found itself deluged with threats from husbands and phone calls from wives anxious to know if their husbands’ names were on the list.
In February 1981 the chief District Judge William Sessions (later director of the FBI) decided not to renew the order and the paper subsequently published the names of 19 of Theresa Brown’s alleged “high and mighty” clients, whose sexual preferences, the paper claimed, were “too indecent to print”.
Theresa Brown was subsequently sentenced to five years probation, and in 1982 the remnants of her brothel, including a selection of clients’ underwear and a circular bed bearing the legend “please remove your clothes” were sold off.
Theresa Brown never divulged the identities of other clients, though for years local and national newspapers continued to speculate about its contents. For many men, the possibility that the list might some time be published in full remained a Sword of Damocles hanging over their lives.
Theresa Brown was born in San Antonio in 1934. According to a later interview she had two children and worked as a bookkeeper and clerk before opening her brothel in the 1960s. “I was getting $50 a month for both kids, and we lived in a (housing estate) project,” she explained. “I decided to better myself in the grand tradition of free enterprise.”
In the ranks of such establishments, Theresa Brown’s brothel operated to the highest standards — and prices were set accordingly. House rules banned her girls from wearing religious symbols or wedding rings during working hours and instructed them never to use drugs, to bathe daily, to keep the house clean and to wear shoes when clients were arriving or leaving.
After her establishment was closed down, she ran a bric-a-brac store for a short time and also ran, unsuccessfully, for San Antonio City Council – against an alleged former client, Gene Canavan.
Canavan, of course, denied the allegation, but Theresa said Canavan was one of her tricks and I believed her. She also told me that District Judge Ted Butler was on the list, no big secret since the entire courthouse crowd knew of judge Ted’s affinity for Theresa’s damsels of ill repute. But Theresa never publicly identified a one of her johns.
By court order in 1985, San Antonio police had torched the original list confiscated when they raided the bordello at 315 Northtrail Drive in San Antonio.
The publication Theresa gave the backup trick list was a left-leaning west side tab called El Pueblo. The reporter who received the index card file of client names was one Amanda Saldivar, and it was Saldivar who passed the list on to El Pueblo’s editorial board.
I know Theresa never wanted the list published. When El Pueblo named 19 of Brown’s clients, Theresa flew into a rage. She didn’t want the wives and the children hurt.
The tabloid called those 19 clients “the high and mighty of San Antonio, who in the past have constantly accused the Blacks, the Mexicns, the poor and working people of being immoral, corrupt, and law breakers.”
Represented by ace San Antonio attorney Pat Maloney, Theresa sought and was granted a temporary restraining order against the paper.
Maloney told The Associated Press: “She is terribly, terribly worried about the families of these poor men. Theresa Brown is not a kiss-and-tell person. This is viciously and tragically unfair.”
The backup list was eventually returned to Theresa. She promised to torch it, too, but nobody known what happened to the list.
In later years, I asked Brown why she didn’t turn her list over to me.
She fairly cackled: “I never thought of it at the time, but that’s what I should have done. Wow. You wouldn’t print the list, but you just having it would have been enough to scare the shit out of the entire world. Why didn’t we think of it?”
That October of 1980 was a wild and rollicking time in San Antonio history. Jack Hanratty was running his Castle Hills sports book, much to the chagrin of several DAs. And shotgun-toting Arthur Harry (Bunny) Eckert was blasting fellow pimps into eternity with his trusted sawed-off 12 gauge. What seemed like the eyes of the world were on Theresa Brown when vice cops came swooping down on her stylish whorehouse.
Theresa had a hand in getting me and golfing great Lee Trevino kicked out of the San Francisco Steak House. But the true villain in that little caper was notorious sports bookmaker Jack Hanratty, who took a perverse delight in walking bar and restaurant tabs, the bigger the bills the better.
Golfing great Trevino was here for the Texas Open. Larry Trader, who had caddied for Lee the Flea, was there at the San Francisco SteakHouse with me, bookie Hanratty, Theresa Brown, and a few others from the skull orchard scene. Trevino was an unrepentant Brown friend who visited Theresa on every San Antonio visit.
With an expansive wave of his hand, Hanratty ordered Porterhouse steaks for our party, then excused himself for a break in the men’s room. In predictable Hanratty fashion, Jack never returned, and when the steak house maître d’ tried to present Trevino the bill, Theresa blew a fuse, chastising the waitperson for bringing embarrassment to the “world’s greatest golfer.”
I didn’t have any money, and “the world’s greatest golfer” had left his in his hotel room. Jack Hanratty had disappeared, along with Larry Trader, andwhen security kicked us out of the restaurant, Theresa Brown left in a cab, probably with more money in her purse than the rest of us combined.
Trevino was on foot. I don’t even know how he got to the restaurant. But I gave him a ride to his hotel, where he fished a roll of $100 bills from under a mattress. We returned to the San Francisco Steak House where Lee paid the
I never learned exactly what caused Theresa’s death. She told me by phone a year or so before her death that her health was failing. Quietly and without publicity or the usual fanfare, Theresa went quietly about her charitable avocation of helping disabled and underprivileged women.
Theresa and I exchanged Christmas cards until shortry before her passing. She had embraced Christianity several years after selling her bordello property and dropping off the local radar.
“I have Jesus Christ in my life,” she said.
And that was it. No more rhetoric on the subject.
T-Brown was the real product. And I believe the same could been said about Mary Magdalene. I will always harbor a corner of love and respect in my heart for Madam Theresa Brown.