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Did Father Know Best? : Paul Fleiss Was Everyone's Favorite Baby Doctor and the Perfect Dad of Six of His Own. So How Did He End Up Facing a Federal Rap With His Daughter Heidi?

April 09, 1995| Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a Times staff writer who broke the story of Heidi Fleiss' call-girl ring in 1993.

From the beginning--both as a practitioner and a father--Paul Fleiss was unconventional. While most doctors train initially at traditional medical schools, he started out as a pharmacist and osteopath. In 1962, California passed legislation that for a brief time allowed an osteopath to convert the degree to an M.D. So Fleiss moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Detroit to take advantage of the new law. With his revised credentials, he could specialize--something an osteopath could not do--and he used them to become a pediatrician, performing his residency at what is now Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

He hadn't intended to stay, but soon after his arrival, a friend introduced him to Elissa Ash, a teacher. Within six months, they were wed. Three months later, Elissa's teen-age sister gave birth to a girl, and the newlyweds took in and eventually adopted the baby, named Kim.

The following year, Paul's sister became terminally ill, and they adopted her infant daughter, Amy, as well. Then, nine months later, Elissa Fleiss gave birth to Heidi. It was 1965. They had been married two years and already had three baby girls.

The Fleisses loved all their children, but from the outset, "Heidi and I had a special bond," recalls Elissa Fleiss, a striking woman who strongly resembles her now-famous child. Heidi, she said, was the quick one, the leader of the pack, the one who could make you laugh.

Daughter Shana arrived in 1967, son Jason in 1968. In 1970, running out of room, they scraped up $77,000--a small fortune at the time--and bought the house where the now-divorced Elissa still lives, a hillside hacienda below Griffith Park.

It was a bustling household, overrun with pets and kids. Elissa Fleiss remembers how, for years, the kids were afraid to sleep in the spooky ground-floor bedrooms, so they congregated on the third floor at bedtime--she and Paul in the master bedroom, the daughters next door in what they called the "girls' dorm," and Jason on a converted patio. (Their youngest, Jesse, wasn't born until 1977.)

"Before they would sleep at night, I'd lie down with each one of them, and I'd always save Heidi for last because she was the most fun," her mother recalls. Before her on the white sofa of her elegant living room are heaps of dogeared snapshots. Here they were when they were little, all holding their pet pups and bunnies. This was a ski trip to Big Bear. See? There's Heidi, skinny and brash even at age, what? 7? 8? See what a tomboy she was, in her little football jersey and jeans?

If Elissa Fleiss was, by her own description, "a flower-child mother," Paul Fleiss was the prototypical nurturing male. "My dad never spanked us," says Shana Fleiss, now 28. "He would say, 'I'm not going to ask any questions. This has happened, and now it's too late, and we're just going to figure it out.' "

Gentleness, his patients and colleagues agree, was the touchstone of Fleiss' philosophy. That, and his single-mindedness about holistic health care and breast-feeding. While most mainstream pediatricians were still pushing the bottle for newborns, he became involved with the pro-nursing La Leche League International, on whose professional advisory board he would eventually sit. Later he became the protege of a UCLA professor, Dr. Derrick B. Jelliffe, an authority on public health who spent his career campaigning to restrict the marketing of infant formula.

Their views emphasized closeness between parent and child, breast-feeding in the early years and treating children with the respect accorded adults. Today, such ideas are commonplace. But in the late 1960s, they were fringe medicine. "There was a time when people thought (Fleiss) was a crackpot to be so much behind the idea that mothers should develop a bond with their children," recalls Anson Levine, a psychotherapist and friend of the physician for more than 20 years.

By the mid-1970s, however, those views had made him a hero among advocates of natural childbirth. Poor and middle-class patients in Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park knew him as the neighborhood doc in Birkenstocks who practiced out of that funky bungalow on Hillhurst Avenue. But he had thousands of other clients from throughout Southern California--celebrities among them.

"He taught me my three main rules for child-rearing," says actress Susan Anspach, whose children are now in their 20s. "First, that all feelings are acceptable--that only behavior must be limited. And second, to accent the positive and ignore the negative--but in a real way. So that when the orange juice gets spilled, you clean it up quickly, act as if your employer had spilled it, and then later, when things are nice, talk about how nice it is that you are having a harmonious dinner.

"And third, no rewards or punishments, no threats or bribes. His main philosophy was love and kindness."

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