Ten-year-old Laura Frazier gazed up at the large lady in the open door. “She almost filled the entire doorway,” Laura later remembered. The girl had talked her mother into letting her sell magazine subscriptions to earn money for a scooter. Little did she know, however, that the woman standing before her was Big Bertha, proprietress of the best-known parlor house in Williams, Arizona. “She kind of scared me, but I gave her my best sales pitch,” Laura said. “She opened the door and ‘scooped’ me inside.” Laura followed the madam to the kitchen. “Now honey,” Bertha said, “you just sit down and have a piece of cherry pie while I go find my purse.”
Bertha was kind like that. Born Cordelia “Cordie” Bell Curbow (aka Kirbo) in Georgia in 1881, the future madam moved to Texas as a child. She grew up learning the meaning of true Southern hospitality, a trait she carried with her even after she fled the Lone Star State following a short-lived marriage and the death of a baby. Life on the road was tough for any 17-year-old—especially Bertha, who first embarked on a career of prostitution in New Mexico Territory. While there, the girl shot a man over some unknown skirmish. Afterwards, the authorities “basically ran her out of town because she was underage,” according to Bertha’s great-great niece, Michelle Bowers.
For nearly 20 years, Bertha traveled from place to place, apparently changing her name as often as she changed her stockings. Not until 1917 did she resurface, as Cordie Kirbo, in Arizona. On November 1, she married Wiley “Whitey” Whited in Clarkdale. The union appeared blissful, but Bertha had dreams of her own. By 1923 she was running the Arizona Rooms in Miami, Arizona. The large wooden affair was not far from the town’s most notorious brothel, the Keystone Hotel.
Bertha preferred not to keep all of her eggs in one basket. In a 2012 interview, Laura Frazier Cole guessed that it was around 1924 when she met the madam in Williams, over 200 miles from Miami. Bertha may have first worked for Longino Mora in the Tetzlaff Building, a brothel which is now home to a delightful bakery/bed and breakfast called the Red Garter Inn. “I was led to believe by an old-timer, Nick Otero, that Bertha was working in my building prior to getting her own house,” says the building’s current owner, John Holst. Laura said the Red Garter was called the Fashion Apartments when she was a girl, and that ladies of the night could be seen waving from an upstairs balcony in the evenings.
Laura’s memories of Bertha were quite vivid. That day at Bertha’s, as she sat eating her cherry pie, another “real pretty lady in a fancy housecoat” visited with her. The woman “asked a lot of questions about the magazine, and told me she would buy a subscription, too.” When Bertha came back and paid Laura, the girl was instructed to “go across the street to Mr. Martin’s plumbing shop and tell Mr. Martin that ‘Big Bertha’ said he would buy a subscription, too.” Martin was not interested at first, but when Laura told him who referred her, he replied, “Oh, Bertha sent you here?” and promptly bought every subscription the girl had left.
Later, Laura remembered seeing Bertha as she and her employees strolled down the street in their finery. Laura and her mother were sitting in the family car. Upon spotting Bertha in her “red satin dress and high heels,” Laura got out and started toward the women. To her mother, she said, “There comes a friend of mine. I know that lady. She is so nice and pretty. I just want to go talk to her and hug her.” The girl was ordered back into the car and hid on the floor, lest Bertha see her and think she was being rude. “When we got home, my mother told me that was the end of my magazine sales,” Laura said.
Later, Bertha opened “Bertha’s House,” at the corner of 1st Street and Railroad Avenue. But she also alternated her time in Williams with visits to Miami. Both she and Whited were there in 1928—although the couple had parted sometime before 1927, when Whited married someone else. Bertha, meanwhile, was running the Copper City Hotel on Sullivan Street and renting a room at the Garden Rooms, pretty much right next door to the old Arizona Rooms. Her landlord, George Downen, also dabbled in billiard rooms and pool halls, and it was he who would eventually set Bertha’s heart aflutter.
At the time she met Downen, Bertha was still quite busy with her brothel in Williams. She also maintained a relationship with Whited, who had relocated to Williams by the time he died of a heart attack in 1939. It was “C. B. Whited,” not the man’s wife, who informed authorities of his death. Bertha told the census taker in 1940 that she was indeed a widow. More notable is that for the first time in official documents, Bertha’s employees appeared in the census. They were 33-year-old Frankie LaMarr, 28-year-old Helen Johnson, and 22-year-old Carol Willison.
Later that same year, Bertha’s nephew, John Kirbo, and his wife, Jewel, came to visit from Texas. “She had some ranch land, and she made him foreman,” says Michelle Bowers. Obviously, certain members of Bertha’s family knew, and accepted, what she did for a living—a rare instance in the days when most women in the prostitution profession were shunned by their relatives. John also accompanied his aunt to Miami on at least one occasion, where she warmed her friendship with George Downen. But the man had a wife, Cora. When Cora died unexpectedly in 1946, Bertha took her place.
When, where, or even if the Downens officially married remains unknown. The couple portrayed themselves as husband and wife, however, when they both left Arizona for Hot Springs (now known as Truth or Consequences), New Mexico. They may have retired, although Bertha’s family believes they ran a hotel, and possibly another brothel, there. Their last years together appear to have been blissful. Downen died in Phoenix in 1952. Bertha followed three years later and was buried next to him in Hot Springs Cemetery. Back in Williams, those who knew the well-liked madam faded into the past, along with her real name and any information about her. Today, she is simply referred to as “Big Bertha,” the flamboyant and friendly madam of Railroad Avenue.
Jan MacKell Collins is the author of several books about prostitution in the West, including Good Time Girls of Arizona and New Mexico: A Red-Light History of the Southwest.