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Mayflower Madam: THE SECRET LIFE OF SYDNEY BIDDLE BARROWS by Sydney Biddle Barrows with William Novak (Arbor House: $17.95; 291 pp.)

September 07, 1986|John U. Loudon | Loudon is a senior partner of CoVenture Associates, a Berkeley book development company. and

Sydney Biddle Barrows is a tabloid story inflated into a book. In fall, 1984, media all over, panting after the trailblazing New York Post and Daily News, carried detailed accounts of the "Mayflower Madam." A young woman who could indeed trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower through a minor tributary of the prominent Biddle family of Philadelphia, Barrows was arrested for running a call-girl ring in New York City that reportedly grossed $1 million a year. Ever enterprising, she is capitalizing on the scandal by selling herself, laying out the whole TV-movie tale of her background, her accidental career and its demise with prim self-righteousness and mild spice.

The book betrays what hype the story was in the first place. The mix of aristocracy and prostitution made for delicious scandal-sheet fare. But the facts are quite banal. By the time Barrows came along, the blue blood was running mighty thin. She's actually the daughter of divorced middle-class New Jersey parents, attended boarding school at her grandparents' expense, and worked her way through the Fashion Institute of Technology. After being graduated in fashion and merchandising, she became assistant buyer for a department store and eventually accessories buyer for a boutique wholesaler.

Abruptly fired for not playing along with a kickback scheme, she got a part-time night job answering phones and accidentally stumbled into the escort service business. She soon realized that she could easily run the best escort/call-girl service around and set up Cachet. So hers is a case of nice Manhattan girl-next-door becomes a high-class pimp.

The book does, I suppose, answer the age-old question of what do affluent males (or apparently lots of corporate honchos, diplomats, lawyers, doctors, entertainers, athletes) want: discrete sexual encounters with a veneer of class, preferably with leggy, busty blonds who wear matching pastel lingerie, stockings with garters, and very high heels under their Saks Fifth Avenue suits and hats. In fact, what Barrows really offers here is an "In Search of Excellence"-style handbook on how to manage a call-girl operation. She selected only clean-cut, educated, non-professional "girls," most with day-time jobs or attending school, set up the best working conditions in the trade, dressed them up as junior executives (complete with attache cases and charge-card imprinters), and connected them with well-heeled, carefully screened "gentlemen." Barrows gives profiles of the girls and the clients and presents herself as simply a very efficient, responsible merchandiser of fantasy and flesh.

But things began to unravel with outbreaks of venereal disease, an eviction notice, more and more elaborate security procedures, wiretaps, surveillance, and finally the big bust. Like cocaine dealing, what was once tony, harmless became more and more risky, and Barrows landed in the clink along with the streetwalkers. In the end, she plea-bargained down to a misdemeanor and a nominal fine, mostly--she thinks--because the prosecution so feared the consequences of her calling as witnesses her whole client list, including prominent judges and lawyers. Though she regards herself as a sophisticated martyr for sexual free choice, she emerges in these pages as a savvy manager with the personal depth of daytime TV, a Christie Hefner/Kathy Keeton soul mate who found profit in cleverly acquiescing to the male subjugation of women.

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