1959: Indiana Reporter Poses As B-Girl

The city of Gary, Indiana, is famously name-checked in the Broadway musical, The Music Man. Okay, maybe that’s a dated reference to a great song. The steel town was also, at one time, home to the Gary Post-Tribune newspaper. And in December of 1959, the Post-Tribune sent an intrepid reporter undercover. As a B-girl. At least she lived to tell the tale.

In a story entitled Reporter Becomes B-Girl, Mary Burdelak, 22, tells of her short-lived transformation from church reporter to make-believe B-girl. As is often the case with these cautionary tales, the end is foretold at the beginning, when Mary writes, “I soon learned that practically any young woman could get a B-girl’s job in Gary at the drop of a beer bottle.”

“All she needs is a tight sweater, wild hairdo and lots of makeup.”

Mary Burdelak, Gary Post-Tribune reporter
Gary Indiana, 1959 (courtesy Chicago Tribune)

There’s no denying that Gary, Indiana, can be a rough town. For years, it was the home of a U.S. Steel mill. Of renowned strikes. Of hard-living, hard-drinking steelworkers. Indeed, steel is its lifeblood. Has been since the turn of the 20th Century.

U.S. Steel, Paul Sequeira (public domain)

Given the back story, Mary’s editor had the good sense to send along what she describes as “a husky male reporter.” He was to act as a protector in case things went sideways. Her first lesson came shortly later.

The Hustle

“Get customers to buy drinks for themselves and you,” she wrote, quoting the owner of one establishment. “The money is good. Your drinks would be tea instead of alcohol.” Her salary was $25 a week and a 60 percent cut of every drink she pushed. With one little wrinkle, of course. She paid the $1 cost of the tea. Nothing is free.

And then, forebodingly, Mary noticed the rear door. The door leading to an upstairs room. “That’s where the B-girl takes the next inevitable step into prostitution,” Mary noted, her reporter’s instincts unwavering. Noting her trepidation, another employee approached and tried to soothe her nerves.

Making Good Money

“Now, you don’t have to worry in this place,” he told her. “There won’t be any mickeys, nobody’s going to paw you and you won’t have trouble of any kind.” That’s when he told her about the pay. And, to close the deal, he brought over one of their more successful B-girls. Asked her how she’d done the previous Saturday.

“Last Saturday? I made one hundred and four bucks. You can make good money, as long as you don’t sit around all day like some of ’em.”

B-girl “Sue,” Gary, Indiana

Mary was determined to point out that Sue was a barmaid, dressed in a “bulging sweater.” And that, among her reporter’s skills, was a facility for math. Mary Burdelak calculated that to make the $104, she’d have to push 236 drinks over an eight-hour shift. That’s Mary, calling bullshit.

1950s Cocktail Girls (courtesy Mary Evans Picture Gallery)

Mary’s career ended a little while later, when a very drunk and obstreperous patron joined her in a tavern booth. “Hey, I got a hundred dollars in my pocket, and I’ll give you $15,” the patron offered. Mary demurred. “Okay, $20,” he smirked, putting a hand on her arm.

Her editor had told her to “just go so far, but no farther.” Mary Burdelak was out of there. She was still a reporter. She had a deadline to meet.

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2021). All rights reserved.


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