Anna Gristina, a suburban mom who was arrested yesterday for allegedly promoting prostitution in a New York City brothel, joins a long line of notorious madams to the rich, famous and powerful. From Hollywood’s bootlegging Sally Stanford to Texas’s Chicken Ranch runner Jessie Williams, the history books are rich with stories about women who have turned a profit by running a sex business.
Headline-Grabbing Hollywood Madam: Heidi Fleiss
In one of the biggest headline-grabbing scandals of the 90s, Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam,” was arrested for pandering and eventually convicted of federal tax evasion for money made from her escort service. Fleiss, who learned the business as a prostitute working for Madam Alex, was hugely successful, and claims to have made millions of dollars by catering to A-list Hollywood stars (yes, Charlie Sheen). She eventually went on to write “The Player’s Handbook: The Ultimate Guide on Dating and Relationships,” an illustrated guide for women who want to take control of their love lives. In 2005, Fleiss announced plans to run a legitimate all-male brothel called Heidi Fleiss’s Stud Farm in Pahrump, Nev., an idea that she abandoned a year later. She has also faced arrests for drinking and driving and drug possession. Most recently, Fleiss has appeared on reality shows like “Celebrity Big Brother” and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.”
From Prostitution to Politics: Kristen M. Davis
In March 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was accused of patronizing a prostitution service. Spitzer resigned from his post two days after the story broke. Further investigation exposed the illegal activities of Kristin M. Davis, a madam from a competing service. Davis ended up serving four months in prison for her involvement in the scandal. In her tell-all book, “The Manhattan Madam: Sex, Drugs, Scandal And Greed Inside America’s Most Successful Prostitution Ring,” Davis shares the story behind her successful (illegal) business and hints at some of the clients in her roster. In 2010, Davis ran for Eliot Spitzer’s old post on the Anti-Prohibition ticket. Coming in dead last, she was beat by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The Mayflower Madam: Sydney Biddle Barrows
After a brief stint in the fashion industry, Sydney Biddle Barrows found her way into the sex business in New York City, building her own escort service—Cachet—under the alias Sheila Devlin. Barrows claims to be a descendant of one of the first colonial families, earning her the tabloid moniker “Mayflower Madam.” She pled guilty to charges of promoting prostitution after Cachet’s takedown in 1984, and went on to publish a bestselling memoir, “Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows,” which was adapted into a film starring Candice Bergen. She has since co-authored a 2008 book on business, “Uncensored Sales Strategies: A Radical New Approach to Selling Your Customers What They Really Want—No Matter What Business You’re In.”
From Madam To Memoirist: Xaviera Hollander
In 1971, Xaviera Hollander published her landmark memoir “The Happy Hooker: My Own Story.” The book is filled with the salacious details of her time as a leading New York City prostitute turned madam. Notable for its liberal views of sex for the time period, her book was published the same year Hollander was arrested for prostitution and forced to leave to United States. She returned to Amsterdam where she continued her career as a writer.
The Darling of the Underworld: Polly Adler
During Prohibition, Polly Adler was the number one madam in New York City. Working under the protection of gangsters like Lucky Luciano, Adler built a business that serviced the biggest names in the underworld. Her brothel sold more than sex. According to her memoir, “A House Is Not A Home,” celebrities like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker used her club as a social hangout. In the 1930s, Adler was to serve as a witness under the Seabury Commission, which had been set up to expose corruption in the New York police department and judicial system. She refused to give up any information, and in 1935, she was arrested and served 24 days in jail for prostitution.