Matild Manukyan: A Life of Secrecy

The most sensational character of the Republic's history. She was the last empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The most sensational character of the Republic’s history. She was the last empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.

When she died, she left behind a notorious name and a bordello empire.

Matild was born in 1914 as the only daughter of a well-to-do Armenian family in Istanbul. Her father Manouk Effendi was a successful draper and a World War I veteran, while her mom Rozine was a bookworm housewife. Remembering her upbringing, Matild once said in an interview: “I wouldn’t have imagined I’d become a madam in a million years. My family was extremely strict… All of our behavior was controlled, nannies would go around checking on our manners.”

She was later sent to the prestigious French high school Lycee Francais Notre Dame De Sion in Istanbul. During those years she decided to become a seamstress for the Turkish elite, a very profitable occupation of the day. She first was an apprentice to the well-known seamstress Madame Lucia and later a forewoman to the socialite’s tailor Maksoud. Her name started to be recognized by the elite and it wasn’t long until she had her name on the guest lists of Istanbul’s most exclusive ballroom parties. Soon enough, she hit the jackpot; she was to be married to the wealthy Armenian engineer Aram Chilingir in 1939. She left her profession and dedicated her life to be a full-time socialite.

However, her life full of glamour wouldn’t last much longer. About the time she gave birth to her son and only heir to her fortune Kerope in 1940, World War II would turn the tables around for Matild and for many others in Turkey. Although the country wasn’t in the War, the economy was in deep stagnation. She had the go back to Maksoud’s atelier and start sewing. So far, the story is not that of a madam but of an unfortunate woman. What could possibly drive such an educated, classy woman to be the governess of the largest brother empire in the Turkish Republic’s history?

Well, the times were hard for everyone. A woman called Behice started frequenting Maksoud’s atelier and ordering dresses from Matild. “It was all very tough. The years were troublesome. Her debt was about 4,000 Liras, a hefty sum of money for those times. She told me she couldn’t pay me but I instead I should be a partner in her house. I didn’t understand what a house was at first. Then I understood when she told me not to come over and that she would deposit the money through the bank. At first I was refraining from saying yes but then again I need money, so I said yes. I didn’t tell my family. My husband would leave me, my parents would disown me.” However, Behice wouldn’t keep her promise; Matild had to go get her money. “At first I was reluctant. Her house was on the Abanoz Street (a popular red light district until the 70’s, today called the Halas Street.) Then, without the knowledge of my husband, I hid my face with a shawl and went. I would keep on going there to collect my money in the upcoming months.” Just as Polly Adler, the Madam of New York,  described her own initiation to the profession, “it was in this informal, almost casual, fashion” that she started her career as a madam.

During her career, Turkey went through extreme ups and downs. One crisis followed another and one doesn’t have to be the wisest to guess that her business boomed in such times. Men have always sought shelter from the storm next to prostitutes; the gloomy atmosphere of bordellos are said to have a therapeutic effect on men. And so, the Turks always managed to spare some money for 15 minutes at Manukyan’s.

By 1963, she was a widower with 14 houses. She nurtured her empire by making smart investments in more brothels and real estate. Of her life as a madam for over 50 years, her proudest achievements were always her tax championships. This Armenian woman, whose face was always hidden from the public, managed to pay more taxes than the richest families in Turkey. Not just once, but six times! By the time of her death, her estate included: 500 apartments in Istanbul, 200 in Yalova, 3 hotels in Antalya, one acre of land in Yalova, a mansion on the Prinkipo Island, a Rolls-Royce, an 18-meter yacht and countless jewelery.

Nothing much of the personal details of her notorious career as the ultimate madam of Istanbul is known. Throughout her life, she declined to talk about her profession to anyone. She would simply dismiss the aficionados by gently whispering “In worship and business, the principal is secrecy.” She still wouldn’t even talk after she survived a bomb attack in 1996. After the bomb that was planted in her car went off, her driver was instantly killed and she was seriously injured. She never quite fully recovered from the attack but principles were principles, she wouldn’t talk. All of her life was strictly business.

Aged 87, she died of a heart attack in 2001 in her native Istanbul. Her funeral service at Beyoglu Yerrortutyun Armenian Church (Beyoglu Uc Horan Ermeni Kilisesi) was attended by a spectrum of people; from her family to government officials, to her beloved press to the prostitutes that called her Abla (big sister in Turkish.) During her life, she was awarded on several occasions by the Turkish government for her contributions to society and legal work of conduct of her business. 14 years after her death, she still is one of the most controversial figures in Turkish society.

H.K. tells his memoirs as a policeman working at one of Manukyan’s bordellos:

“There were 42 houses where the brothels were on the Zurafa Street (a cul-de-sac) in Karakoy. 5 of them were owned by this woman called Sumbul Yasar Karasu from Erzurum. The rest of 37 were Manukyan’s. Every of her house had a keeper, and they were all reporting to a liable manager. They had to be there all day. She would come every night but would never enter from the front entrance. There was another entrance from the Bankalar Street (‘Banks Street,’ a very prominent area of the district.) 70% of the office blocks there belonged to her. Room number 17 in the whore house was like her office. No one would work there, she would only hold her personal meetings there. She’d arrive at 1 am and leave at 4.30 am. We (the police) would shut the doors to the brothel at 11 pm, and would escort the people who were already inside at 12 am. In front of Number 17, all the keepers would form a line and present their daily accounts. Imagine, 37 people in a line reporting to her… She’d take the earnings every night and leave. She wouldn’t keep a bodyguard, only the manager called Oktay would accompany her. “

“Manukyan had a accounting office and a bureau in Sisli (a prominent district of Istanbul.) She would manage her other jobs (non-prostitution) there. As far as I know, she had 220 taxis. She made huge amounts of money. There was a safe vault in her office in Number 17 which had a height of a meter and half. She could barely fit all the money there… Police commanders and superiors from the law enforcement agency would call and ask if the “lady” was there. If she was, they would come over and tell her their requests. For example, a superior would come and ask if she could buy four tyres for the police car and she would. Commanders would call her “Mother.” This one time a lower ranking policeman saw her on the street and tried to kiss her hand out of respect. At first she wouldn’t let him but he insisted to kiss her “blessed hands” and she had to give in… A lot of very high ranking bureaucrats and police officers used to see Manukyan in Number 17. Some would come for just the conversation and some for other business…”

Journalist Mehmet Sevket Eygi’s account upon her release from custody after the allegations that she employed underaged girls:

“There wasn’t much time between the arrest and release of the Madam who employs underaged and illegal immigrant girls and operates unlicensed houses. Madam was sent to the Sisli Courthouse to stand trial. Did you know who the landlord of the Courthouse was? Of course Madam Manukyan… The day the rent was due happened to be the day of Madam’s arrival in court. What a coincidence! She should have taken the rent while she was there. The landlady’s file was inspected and it was decided that there wasn’t any reason for her to be put to jail. Madam, you’re free! Vive la liberte! Did the madam, who was driven to the court building that she owned with a police car, leave with her Rolls-Royce limo? I couldn’t find out about that.”

 An Armenian man who used to work for the Armenian Community (whose name will only be known to me) once arranged a deal with Madam Manukyan. She was to donate a considerable sum of money to the community. However, one of the Armanian leaders of the community at that time dismissed his approach with a simple “We don’t want that procuress whore’s money here.” The man had a hard time understanding. She was after all in a legal business that she paid taxes for. If money lenders could be respectable men in the community, how come she was to be marked as an outcast, an immoral demon?

With her proudest achievements: recognitions for her contributions to society and her tax championship awards. The framed newspaper on the floor reads
With her proudest achievements: recognitions for her contributions to society and her tax championship awards.
The framed newspaper on the floor reads “The Manukyan Empire”

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