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An Ex-Madam's Not-So-Happy Family Memoir

June 11, 2002|LAUREN SANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — At the Manhattan nightclub Spa the other night, the Lady Bunny--New York's preeminent drag queen DJ--flipped back her blond bouffant and selected a disco track while a man in a red bowler hat and matching zoot suit used his cigarette to slowly pop balloons that were tied, bondage style, around limbs of his female partner.

As the music quieted, a pudgy man with a lisp and heavy black eyeliner took the microphone. "I just want to propose a toast to the woman of the night, the reason why we're all here, and the reason why we all went to bed satisfied after reading under our covers with a flashlight, Miss Xaviera!" Every head turned to the heavy-set, silver-bobbed, 60-year-old woman holding court in a white vinyl booth. There she was, in the very flesh that the crowd knew in literary detail: the Happy Hooker, Xaviera Hollander.

Such moments are all in a night's work--and play--for Hollander. Ever since her infamous 1972 tell-all of her career as a legendary New York madam, she's often been the center of attention. Decades since she was exiled from the country after exposing her business (double-entendre intended), Hollander is back--legally--to bask in the glory of the 30th anniversary reprint of "The Happy Hooker," as well as her new memoir and 21st book, "Child No More" (both published by Regan Books), an exploration of her parents' death and the role they played in developing her famed sexuality. "It's utterly serious, this book," she says, studying her aging hands. Then she looks up with a seductive smirk. "It's the book that makes me a mensch again--not just a love machine."

During the afternoon before her party, Hollander relaxes at a hotel just five blocks from where she ran her brothel. In lavender flip-flops and a flowing black peasant dress painted with an enormous pink amaryllis, she orders a cup of tea and begins to ruminate on a career that truly lives up to the cliche of illustriousness. Hollander lightheartedly spews anecdote after unprintable anecdote, peppering her stories generously with profanity and glorying in physical details that would be shocking from the mouths of most people. It's just her way.

Her conversation is halted occasionally by appearances of her entourage. Hollander's "slave of 28 years," a thin, unsmiling woman with close-cropped brown hair, pops by with an envelope of press photos, prompting a quiet aside in which Hollander explains, "See, slaves need love, too," she says, speaking quite literally. "That's the hardest thing about being a masochist, is their partners so rarely understand that." Next comes a polite interruption from a young man who runs the Web site for the "bed and brothel, I mean bed and breakfast" Hollander runs in Amsterdam, where she lives with her female lover of many years. "I'm not gay, and I'm not bisexual--I'm try-sexual. I'll try anything," she announces frequently.

Hollander reveals two moods, which she enters and exits as if through a perpetually revolving door: her humorous sexual side ("humor is what got me famous, what made me famous and what kept me famous," she says), and the mournfulness that drove her new book. In some ways, "Child No More" may be just as taboo-breaking as her previous writing, as she takes on themes of incest while exploring her own sexual infatuation with her parents, graphically imagining intercourse between her parents and offering a detailed account of her mother's genitalia. But this book is more of an investigation of death than sex.

Xaviera DeVries (her real name) was born to a gentile German mother and a Jewish Indonesian father and spent her infancy during the Holocaust in a Japanese concentration camp in her father's homeland. Her mother was captured and brutalized after attempting to steal some sugar to feed a feeble baby Xaviera. Given up for dead, she miraculously climbed from a pile of corpses to return to care for her baby, a story Hollander held back tears to read aloud last week during a sold-out engagement at Fez, another downtown New York club with an occasionally lascivious reputation.

"Child No More" is book-ended by scenes of her mother's actual death, with her beloved father's passing providing its centerpiece. Her history traverses oceans to bring her from Indonesia to the Netherlands, where she grew up, to her New York years and back. "I cried a river writing this book," she says. "It was my mourning process. It substituted [for] sex for me. I couldn't have proper sex when I was writing those tough scenes, like my father dying and the scenes in the camp. But when the book was done--whew--I had five different partners in two weeks!"

Though Hollander's professional life has mellowed, she's hardly leading your typical 60-year-old's existence. She's a regular at Dutch fetish parties and at international conferences on sex. She continues to write the Call Me Madam column for Penthouse that she began 30 years ago.

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