From the archives

The Odessa Files: The life and times of the queen of Washington's underworld

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; 1:36 PM

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post on Sept. 28, 1980.

The doorbell rang. Odessa Madre, 73, creaked slowly to the foyer and parked her walking stick at the door.

A real estate man.

"Yes, ma'am, Miss Madre, I'm prepared to make you an offer," he said. He was young and well-dressed. He carried a calculator and a Polaroid camera. He wanted the house. "Seventy-five thousand dollars -- cash," he offered for her spacious five-bedroom home in Northwest Washington.

"Please, come in. Have somep'n t' eat," the frail grandmotherly woman said kindly. Odessa Madre had just been released from prison and she was too tired to haggle much about money. Besides, she had left her teeth upstairs.

In the kitchen she mashed a panload of Jiffy muffins into two bowls of "stew." She served one bowl to the real estate man. Then, to his obvious discomfort, she slid the other bowl across the floor to Hero, her dog.

"Now," she said with a mischievous, toothless grin, "did you say $150,000 -- or did you think I was born yesterday?"

It was vintage Madre -- the disarming charming setup and biting quick wit that had made her one of the most prosperous and flamboyant hustlers who ever operated in the shadows of the nation's Capitol.

"You don' pull on Superman's cape. You don' spit into the wind," Madre recited deftly. "You don' tug the mask off the Lone Ranger and, baby, you don' mess with Odessa, okay?" With that, the real estate man was gone.

"I may be old, and I may be ugly, but I ain't dumb," she said. "That's why I was the 'Queen.'"

Having spent much of her life in and out of Washington's courtrooms and prisons for the last 48 years, Odessa Madre was finally back home -- and singing. That was the one thing that the 1952 Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce -- headed by Sen. Estes Kefauver -- was unable to get her to do.

She had started at age 17, first swearing off men and calling herself a "black widow," then spinning a web of jill joints, bawdy houses and numbers banks that eventually passed for "organized crime," albeit in a down-home sort of way. She became the self-described queen of Washington's underworld.

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