It was 1978, and Hazel Davidson wasn’t feeling so good. She worked from home, so to speak, and was being hounded by the cops, whose increasingly frequent raids had gotten her evicted from one West Knoxville apartment complex after another – Westcliff, the Meadows, Sutter’s Mill.
Then, as now, such raids were complaint-driven. Neighbors were probably complaining about traffic, about noise and about the whores, a label Hazel never applied to herself, preferring the term “playgirl.”
She was management, a status she’d enjoyed since she took a trip to New Orleans years before with a friend named Betty, whose “date” left her a $20 bill at the end of an evening of fun, triggering in Hazel an a-ha moment that led her to suggest an arrangement that would change her life.
“Something clicked,” she told a Knoxville Journal reporter in 1986. “I said, ‘We’re going into business. From now on, I’ll be the boss and you’ll be the hired help.’”
For a long time, the police had let Hazel be, said retired KPD detective Don Wiser, and on the occasions when one of her employees got hauled in, Hazel would call in to the jail to intercede.
“She’d say, ‘Honey, you take good care of my girls.’ Hazel had a franchise, like McDonald’s. That’s the way prostitution worked back then,” Wiser said, adding that Hazel’s joints shouldn’t be confused with the Ponderosa, an establishment on North Central also nicknamed “The Riding Academy.”
A Knoxville man who lived across the hall from Hazel at Westcliff said he never complained, and that he and his roommates, who were all in their late 20s, enjoyed hanging out with her and playing cards.
“She loved blackjack,” he said. “Her ‘girls’ weren’t too appealing, and we never had anything to do with them. Instead of going out on the town, we’d just step across the hall and smoke and drink and crack jokes and play cards with Hazel, who was probably around 50. She was a lot of fun.” He recalls that one of his buddies sold her an overpriced TV set in a futuristic round, white plastic case.
Nothing about the known facts of Hazel’s childhood suggests that she’d end up on the path she chose. Born in 1923 to Luther and Imogene Brooks, she was one of six children. Luther, known to friends and family as “Lute,” worked for the railroad and ran a grocery store with Imogene on Jaybird Hill in the Blue Springs community, near Strawberry Plains, and was a deacon in the Strawberry Plains Baptist Church.
Later in life, Hazel told people she liked to have drowned in the muddy water when she was baptized in the Holston River. Maybe it was a sign.
Luther and Imogene were kind-hearted, hard-working country people who obviously valued education. The Brooks kids attended Rush Strong School, which accommodated grades one through 12. Hazel was a good student, and later she told various reporters that she captained the girls’ basketball and/or the debate teams.
Her much younger cousin Cherel Henderson, whose family lived on Gobbler’s Knob a couple of roads over from Jaybird Hill, is related to the Brookses through at least two different Jefferson County family lines and remembers that when her family’s house burned down, Hazel’s sisters gave her a bunch of nice clothes, some of which were Hazel’s.
“I was the best dressed kid in seventh and eighth grade,” she said. “Hazel’s mother gave me a full black petticoat. I never wore it, just looked at it. It was beautiful.”
Was the family embarrassed by Hazel? “Ours wasn’t,” Henderson said. “They may not have even known, unless they were from up on the Knob.” It was harder to connect in those days, long before social media.
But although Henderson never got to know her notorious older cousin, she remembers being vaguely aware of hearing that Hazel was “doing things she oughten.” And sometimes people would say, “Don’t send your kids to college. They’ll turn out like Hazel.”
Hazel finished up at Rush Strong in 1941, and her graduation photo shows her looking bright eyed and pretty in her cap and gown. She later told interviewers that she’d been hooked on movie-star glamour since childhood. Luther and Imogene couldn’t have been pleased when she ran off and married Aaron Ralph Freeman a few weeks after graduating.
The union was short-lived, and when it was over, they shipped Hazel off to the University of Kentucky, where she spent an unhappy semester living with the family of a preacher friend of her father’s. The following year, she talked her parents into letting her transfer to Carson-Newman College where, she later told reporters, she majored in Bible studies because she had some interest in missionary work, and/or art – because she liked to “coordinate colors.”
Clippings from her file at the East Tennessee Historical Society (where Cherel Henderson is executive director) show that Hazel rarely told her life story exactly the same way twice.
There’s no record of her speaking of the tragedy that struck her family April 17, 1945, but it beggars belief to think that her younger brother’s death in World War II didn’t affect her.
Paul Milton Brooks had gotten married and volunteered for duty in the U.S. Navy in 1943, not long after his graduation from Rush Strong. His obituary in the Dandridge Banner is headlined “Strawberry Plains Boy Killed On Guam” and says he was “one of the few men chosen” for advanced training to qualify him to serve on the staff of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, where he met legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle and got his picture and an autograph. The family hadn’t been able to see him since he enlisted, and they didn’t get to attend his funeral, which was held in Guam, where he was buried with full military honors. In addition to his parents, Paul left his wife, Mildred, and sisters Hazel, Shirley and Dorothy and brother Edward. The Navy sent Mildred the flag that was on his coffin.
It was during this time that Hazel finished up at Carson-Newman and told people she took off for Philadelphia to attend June McAdams Model and Finishing School, the same school that turned out Grace Kelly.
Note: Fact-checking Hazel would require time and travel (and maybe time travel, too, given the length of time that has passed) beyond the budget of this publication. Given that she was a notorious fabulist, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction in her life story. Biographical information on Grace Kelly, for example, is very detailed but makes no mention of the McAdams school, which appears to be defunct.
In some interviews, Hazel talks about being spotted by a man from a modeling agency on a trans-Atlantic flight to Italy, where she was going to teach Bible studies. Instead, she started modeling high-fashion knitwear that was so form-fitting “that you couldn’t wear underwear.”
Hazel’s claims of having hobnobbed with movie stars and celebrities were corroborated, at least in part, by Appalachian Media Archives archivist Bradley Reeves, who, along with WBIR’s Bill Williams and videographer Jim Martin, met with Hazel’s sister in 2007 and were able to video some of her scrapbooks. The sister, who didn’t want her name mentioned, had been watching WBIR’s “Our Stories” series celebrating 50 years of television and wanted Hazel’s story told, too.
“She was not in good health and so afraid of upsetting her (surviving) sister that she did the interview off-camera,” Reeves said. She directed him to the closet where there was a stack of books that she let her visitors inspect before beginning the interview.
“Bill was masterful. He came right out and asked about the ‘Little Black Book.’ She said it was burned right after Hazel died. We spent at least two hours looking at pictures from the young years, the Miami years and finally back to Knoxville. Then all the fun seemed to end. I asked, ‘Ma’am, what’s going to happen to these scrapbooks?’ She said, ‘They’re going to go when I go.’”
Reeves tried to talk her out of that plan, but she wouldn’t relent, and he believes that’s what happened when she died a few years later. He mourns the loss.
“There were pictures in the scrapbooks of her with Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope in Miami – I saw them. And there was a guy here who would fly charter planes to Vegas. Hazel had a lot of fun there for a while,” he said. Over the years, others have reported seeing Christmas cards from big-time celebrities preserved in her scrapbooks.
Hazel married five more times after Freeman (sometimes spelled Friedman), who joined the Knoxville Police Department and was killed in a wreck a few years after they divorced. None of the marriages lasted very long. Her other husbands, in chronological order, were Elbert O’Neil Davidson, whose name she kept because she liked the sound of it; Dr. Joe T. Smith, a socially prominent pediatrician; Carl W. Montgomery, the wealthy president of a drugstore supplies and sundries distributorship; Morris Lounsberry, manager of the Senators Club, to whom she stayed wed for three days; and Leonard B. Newman, a New York lawyer who died four months after they split.
Hazel didn’t give out dates of her life’s landmark events, but it appears that she didn’t take up the brothel business until she returned to Knoxville and had her fill of marriage. She told numerous reporters she had loved none of her husbands nor the men with whom she had affairs, and that she’d never been happy, ever.
In her prime, she was beautiful. The looks and sassy personality that won her international modeling jobs also got her noticed by rich and famous men, including movie stars she’d dreamed about since childhood. Men had freely given her money – evidently lots of it.
Her liaisons frequently ended badly, sometimes landing her in court and on the front pages of the newspapers. She was named the “other woman” in at least two divorces, one of them the result of a scandalous whirl with the married founder of Miller’s Department Store. A wealthy LaFollette industrialist who claimed they were platonic “friends” took her to court to try to retrieve nearly $60,000. He said it was a loan; she said it was for services rendered. Nobody except for one chancery court judge believed the “platonic” story, and that judge’s decision was reversed by the court of appeals.
Hazel was represented by Knoxville’s most celebrated lawyer, Ray H. Jenkins, who had gained national prominence when he served as special counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings. He gave Hazel half a chapter in his memoir, calling her his “most glamorous client beyond compare,” but left out the part about her giving him a diamond ring in lieu of payment up front, which he kept in a safe until she was able to settle up.
Jenkins’ associate Jim McDonald said that one weekend, Hazel asked Jenkins if she could borrow her ring back to wear to a party. He agreed, and she returned it promptly. Much later, when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to pay up, Jenkins had the ring appraised. It was a hunk of worthless cubic zirconia. She’d pulled a classic bait and switch.
He was nevertheless gracious in his assessment of her in his memoir, calling her “fundamentally and essentially, and to the core of her heart, body and soul, a good woman,” proving that the Terror of Tellico Plains had a forgiving nature.
None of Hazel’s other relationships ever ended as badly as her dalliance with jeweler Harry Busch, whose wife, Rose, was stabbed, shot and beaten to death in 1968 at their sleek, mid-century-modern home in the heart of Sequoyah Hills. The killer interrupted her late one November afternoon while she was icing a cake she’d made for the dinner she planned to serve when her husband came home from work. It was determined to be a contract killing, and Hazel’s name hit the newspapers and the rumor mill, although she was never charged.
Her relationship with lead detective Bob Chadwell was another connection to the Busch case.
“Chadwell was the greatest detective there ever was in Knoxville, and Hazel was his snitch,” retired detective Wiser said. During this time, it was widely known that her gambling debts were piling up and that she was dependent on her gentlemen friends to help her stay afloat financially. She was never charged or even formally connected to the still-unsolved Busch case, but her association with the victim’s cheating husband set the gossip mill ablaze.
During the 1980s, Michael David McNeely worked at the Sculptress, a fancy salon on Bearden Hill where lots of wealthy women got their hair done. He remembers Hazel fondly. He’d first heard of her as the wife of Dr. Joe T. Smith, but the marriage had ended by the time he met her.
“She and Dr. Smith were members of Cherokee Country Club and, according to some people here in town whose hair I did, Hazel used to run her girls out of there, but later on, she ran an honest-to-God bordello and she always had a new white Cadillac that this lovely black woman drove her around in,” he said.
“I started doing Hazel’s hair probably in 1983. She always had me dye her hair jet black, and she’d come in and say, ‘Honey, I want you to put that shoe polish on my hair.’
“Her poodle’s nails were painted baby blue, and so were Hazel’s finger and toenails, and she always had a glass of what she called ‘bourbon and branch’ in her hand. My best Hazel story is one day she was sitting under the hairdryer and fell asleep. She slid right out of that chair onto the floor and held her hand up when she hit the floor and said, ‘I didn’t spill a drop!’”
McNeely said Hazel could be sharp-tongued at times, and on one particularly busy day she surveyed the room full of society dames as she walked through the door and bellowed, “Honey, how many of these bitches I got to wait on before you get to do my hair?”
He still laughs at the memory. Hazel was a mess, and he thinks she may have felt at home at the Sculptress because the salon’s damask wallpaper – blue velvet on a shimmery silver background – and white French Provincial furniture had a Best Little Whorehouse on Bearden Hill kind of vibe.
“My mama always said, ‘You be nice to that lady because your daddy’s probably been in that house.’”
But it wasn’t like being nice to Hazel Davidson was a chore, he said. “She was a big tipper and scandalous enough to be entertaining. We all loved her. I loved her. Jesus died for Hazel Davidson, too.”
Knoxville was a two-newspaper town during Hazel’s heyday, and her legal problems were reported in salacious detail – not that she minded much. She liked publicity, but at 55, the life she’d chosen was wearing her down. Decades of booze and pills were catching up to the once-glamorous “playgirl,” the term she preferred over “madam.” She told reporters that her liver was shot and she was done with men – except as a means of making a living. She preferred the company of her miniature poodle, Pepe (usually called “Peppy” by reporters), whom she eventually replaced with another similarly pampered miniature poodle named Buttons.
Once upon a time the glamour was undeniable. A copy of Hazel posing nude – allegedly commissioned by one of her six husbands – hangs in the Time Warp Tea Room, censored for public consumption by owner Dan Moriarty, who has covered her naughty bits with a duct tape and paint bikini, perhaps to protect her nonexistent modesty. Hazel was proud of the portrait and could be counted on to point out the resemblance to her idol, Elizabeth Taylor. She claimed to have dated rich and famous celebrities like Joe DiMaggio and Harry James and counted stars like Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Perry Como as friends.
In a lengthy and detailed 1978 interview with Barbara Aston-Wash of the Knoxville News-Sentinel (probably the sine qua non of Hazel Davidson stories) Hazel bragged about the money she’d made and talked about the funeral she’d planned complete with a baby-blue casket and a fancy designer gown.
She said she’d picked out a final resting place in Highland Memorial Cemetery, and later she showed friends a list of honorary pallbearers who were to be present at the big, ecumenical going-away party she had in mind:
Charles and Henrietta Avery (Henrietta was her maid, chauffeur and best friend)
T.G. and Carolyn Brown
Dr. Robert Whittle (her physician)
Dr. Rubin Robinson (her dentist)
Imogene Fowler (Pepe’s groomer)
Elbert O’Neil Davidson (her only living ex-husband and the one she still liked)
Bill Sanders (the guy who unsuccessfully sued her to get back $60,000 he claimed was a loan but she said was a gift)
Mayer Abramowitz (a Miami Beach rabbi)
Rita Lewine (walked into the ocean with her when she converted to Judaism).
And here’s who she wanted to preach at her funeral:
J. Bazzel Mull (white radio preacher, best known for hosting Mull’s Singing Convention)
The Rev. W.F. Parker (prominent African-American religious leader)
Rabbi Seymour Friedman from Miami Beach
She told Aston-Wash that she didn’t want her family mentioned in her obituary because they disapproved of her lifestyle, and out of deference to them, she said she was leaving instructions for the tell-all she’d been working on for years (aka the Little Black Book) to be published after her death.
Despite the frequent raids, she stayed in business in a little house on Hoitt Avenue. In 1987, it became a felony to run a brothel. She got raided and told an undercover cop that she planned “to sell pussy till I die” and was charged with using a juvenile for prostitution. She exacerbated her problems by taking a flask of liquor into the courtroom and getting caught swigging off it by Judge Jimmy Duncan’s bailiff.
Duncan sent her to jail for contempt for a few days, and reporters were there to meet her when she got out. She was sick (probably suffering withdrawal) and in need of a drink. She said her liver was failing and she dreaded the considerable jail time she was facing. Her lawyer said a long jail stretch could kill her. Shortly thereafter, both newspapers announced that she was too ill to serve her time and that she’d be allowed to go home to Strawberry Plains.
Hazel’s big-hearted family is as good an example as there ever has been of the truth in Robert Frost’s famous observation that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Cherel Henderson said they built her a house on the Brooks property, and she beat the odds by living another 12 years, although the last of them were spent in a Jefferson City nursing home with her suffering from liver disease and dementia.
She died in 1999, and her final resting place is not some fancy West Knoxville memorial park, but with her people in Strawberry Plains Cemetery.