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Love Hurts

THE HAPPY HOOKER: My Own Story, By Xaviera Hollander, Regan Books: 288 pp., $13.95 paper CHILD NO MORE: A Memoir, By Xaviera Hollander, Regan Books: 306 pp., $23.95

June 30, 2002|TRACY QUAN | Tracy Quan is the author of the novel "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl."

Xaviera Hollander's "The Happy Hooker" is a kitsch classic, a memorable slice of New York life with a life of its own. Its title is part of our vocabulary. Today, affluent prostitutes are playfully referred to as "happy hookers." One eccentric wing of the international prostitutes' rights movement has used the term as a political insult since the 1980s.

Many who use "happy hooker" as a backhanded epithet have never even read Hollander's 1972 memoir, a sign of her cultural clout and a good reason to republish. And for many, the 30th anniversary edition of "The Happy Hooker" is a reprint of a book that opened our adolescent eyes to a new career path.

Of course, there is nothing new about the oldest profession. Nor is there anything new about children earning a living at it. The streets of Victorian London and 19th century New York were filled with youthful hustlers who, by modern standards, were much too young to be having sex for money. But prostitution seemed new to us, middle-class pubescent youths of the 1970s and early-'80s whose parents thought of hooking as something "other people" did.

Hollander's book was not hidden from us, unless you regard a book hastily stashed by one's parents beneath their bed as hidden. It was read by an entire generation of future sex workers whose parents expected us to become doctors, schoolteachers, engineers. We found it on the bookshelves in the homes of families where we baby-sat or on top of a half-open box on moving day. Its author was in the news and on TV: New York's most notorious madam before the age of 30.

Hollander was not the city's first celebrity madam and hooker. Nineteenth century New York had its share of celebrated prostitutes, but their media exposure was limited. When Polly Adler published her 1950s memoir, "A House Is Not a Home," she made it clear that she had become a madam without ever turning a trick. Hollander was unabashed about describing her evolution from (unpaid) one-night stand to full-time call girl to front-page madam.

I have met prostitutes, male and female, from Brooklyn, Idaho, Australia and Canada who regard Hollander as their inspiration--a "trailblazing freak," as one New York call girl puts it. A surprising number of today's sex workers can cite "The Happy Hooker" as a childhood influence, a book that made us think: "I can do that!"

Revisiting "The Happy Hooker" as a sexually experienced adult is quite jarring, especially for a veteran of the oldest profession. Anecdotes that seemed like happy-hooker high jinks to a child now read like tedious ordeals that a prostitute would want to avoid.

Most adult readers will agree that the first page of this story, which begins in a jail cell, doesn't sound very happy: Six terrified call girls stand cowering in a corner; 20 "jail-toughened" streetwalkers dominate the cell with bawdy catcalls and menacing remarks. There is racial tension, physical fear and not enough bench space. Hollander doesn't shrink from describing the smells of the jail cell or the battered body of a sad prostitute she encounters at Rikers Island.

The first chapter is heart-rending and hardly titillating. When Hollander gets out of jail, she returns to a doorman-guarded apartment building--which might seem glamorous to some--but her problems have just begun: Now she must move because she has been busted.

Despite its upbeat title, its erotic passages and enticing glimpses into Manhattan's top-tier brothels, "The Happy Hooker" also describes the most trying aspects of sex, whether for recreation, true love or naked profit.

Hollander is frank about the hard physical work of prostitution, the discomforts of taking on multiple sex partners, the dangers of encountering a too-kinky or boorish client and the indignities of working as a beginner.

She has sex in New York's Garment Center on a pile of dresses only to discover--two hours and many clients later--that imprinted on her back are the "impressions of zippers, hooks and eyes" and other trimmings.

On her way to becoming a successful call girl and madam, Hollander pays her dues. Although she likes sex quite a bit more than the average person--I think her appetite exceeds that of most prostitutes--her job is illegal, dangerous and often exhausting. There are terrifying entanglements with mobsters who expect to be paid off with free sex, blackmailers who threaten to have her deported and police officers who threaten to break women's legs. She is often stressed out by a lover's sexual jealousy--one of the perennial hazards of prostitution.

Hollander never denied that her career of paid pleasure required almost all of her emotional and much of her physical strength. When you realize that she has finally retired from it, you are relieved. Hollander paints an impressive portrait of herself as a survivor who prospered in style, but this is no pretty picture of "the life."

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