Sydney Biddle Barrows, to Marian Christy, ''Mayflower Madam' Tells All,' Boston Globe, 1986
There is a reason why they call prostitution the oldest profession. Its been around since probably man first walked upright, and the debate on whether or not to legalize it as raged almost as long. Recently with the Eliot Spitzer trial and now the alleged suicide of the 'DC Madam,' Deborah Jeane Palfrey, prostitution is once again in the news. But there was a time when the idea of high class call girl rings or escort services was still something of a shocker.
Recognize the woman on the left? If you don't, then you weren't around or old enough in 1984 when Sidney Biddle Barrows was once of the biggest stories in the news.
She was dubbed The Mayflower Madam because her ancestors had come over on The Mayflower. The Biddles in Philadelphia are an old Mainline family, the type that only have their names in the paper 3 times, when they are born, when they get married and when they die. Various Biddle family members have been Ambassadors, philanthropists, and one illustrious member, Nicholas Biddle, was the President of the Bank of the United States in the early 19th Century. Born on January 14, 1952, young Sydney attended all the right schools, before arriving in New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where she studied merchandising and business management (which came in handy for her future career). Graduating first in her class, she won $1,000 to advance her studies.
After graduating, she got a job as a buyer for Abraham & Straus, a department store in Brooklyn (which sadly no longer exists), poor Sydney realized that its hard to live on only $18,000 a year (and this was back in the 1970's). Then she was laid off. What's a girl to do, particularly when she comes from a wealthy background? Why take a part-time job working for an escort service of course, to supplement that unemployment check. It was the go-go 80's, the years of Dynasty and Dallas, the rise of Donald Trump, when money was being spent as fast as investment bankers and corporate raiders could make it. Upscale strip clubs like Scores and Stringfellows were opening, offering men the chance to watch girls take their clothes off in a classy environment without sticky floors and cheap beer.
Most escort agencies turn a blind eye if the girls are making a little extra money for some schtupping, others add it to the bill. Sydney had no qualms about her girls having sex with the men they were paid to escort. She even helped them out, taught them how to dress better, how to talk to wealthy men, along with a few sex tricks. According to Wikipedia: "Unlike other escort agencies, Cachet offered an unparalleled service at the time, catering to the wealthy and powerful who either visited or lived in New York City. Some of its clients included industrialists, high-powered business executives and lawyers, foreign diplomats and Arabian oil sheiks. Barrows was well-known for treating her "girls" with respect and dignity while also maintaining strict codes of conduct to preserve high standards and a reputation for outstanding service with elegance."
Sydney chose the name Cachet because it was hard to pronounce, weeding out the riff-raff who might be calling. She advertised in papers like the International Herald Tribune. A Cachet girl never wore pants, she wore expensive lingerie, garter belts, and stockings without seams or patterns. She showed off her legs in short skirts and high heels, but nothing overtly sexy. Painted toenails were fine, but hands were to be left au naturel. Girls carried briefcases, or a theater program as they strode through hotel lobbies or restaurants. There was nothing about Caachet girls that suggested they were any different than the average New York businesswoman. None of the women had a noticeable New York accent, they all had exotic names like Sonja, Kristen, or Natasha if they were foreign, Heather, Jennifer or Anne if they were American. No noticeable hooker names like Tiffany or Monique. None of the girls were African-American or Latina, although there were a few Asian girls, and all of them appeared to be highly intelligent and articulate.
They all had fictitious work indentities, stewardesses being the most popular, models less popular. All Cachet girls were requited to be up on current events, they read Newsweek and the paper of record, The New York Times. They were also given clippings from a wire service with the top news stories of the week.
On Cachet's client list, among the usual list of businessmen, diplomats, stockbrokers, and doctors were 340 lawyers, which put a great deal of pressure on the district attorney, after Barrows was arrested. There were no African-American clients on the agency roster, and very few African diplomats (whether this was Barrow's prejudice or the girls is anyone's guess). However, gay men, who were hiring the girls strictly as beards were accepted.
Cachet's girls were also known for being notoriously clean, and they demanded that their clients be clean and respectful as well. If a client opened a hotel undressed, he was told to get dressed, if he seemed unhygenic, it was suggested that he take a bath. In her autobiography, Sydney described her philosophy that made her business so successful, 'Hire good people and pay them what they are worth.'
However one looked at it, the police in New York were not happy about it and were anxious to make a bust. They worked diligently for about a year,under the direction of a police officer named Elmo Smith, a former CIA operative with a desire to be famous, before making a move on the agency. A million dollars of tax-payer money was spent on the operation. The police finally raided Sydney's operation without a search warrant, and Sydney willingly went to the DA's office to avoid any further unpleasantness. The media had been alerted that a madam would be arriving but completely overlooked the two well-dressed women who entered the building, believing them simply to be lawyers. Barrows spent one night in jail, where the working girls who pounded the pavement were surprised to find that the well-dressed, prim and proper blonde was actually a madam.
When her background was revealed, quickly became a celebrity. After all, it was like finding out that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had secretly been turning tricks in the White House. She was beautiful, blonde and aristrocratic. There are just certain things that women of that class just don't do. It was shocking to people why a girl of her background and education would willing set foot in the sex industry. After pleading guilty, Sydney was given a slap on the wrist and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. Unlike Heidi Fleiss, her nineties counterpart, Sydney had been careful to pay her taxes, rent and telephone bills. Even her phone receptionists were employed legally. Making a case stick against her was going to be hard. The police were incensed that she was not being prosecuted, but pressure was apparently put on the district attorney's office to keep her client list secret, which would inevitably come out at a trial.
Barrows only had 20 girls at a time on her books, raking in $1 million dollars a year (in 1984 money). She apparently conducted grueling interviews. The girls were ranked A, B, or C in ascending order, depending on their 'talents.' 'A' girls received $125 an hour while 'C' girls could command up to $1,000 a night. For $2,000 a customer could sign up for a 10 hour session which included dinner, dancing, and recreation. The girls even carried credit card machines for those clients who didn't pay cash. Barrows took 60% of her girls earnings, and kept meticulous records of their menstrual cycles and their weight. Any girl who got a bit flabby was suspended from work for two days for each pound that she gained.
She also kept meticulous notes on her clients. When her brownstone that housed the business was raided (after police were tipped off apparently by a disgruntled former employee), they found her little black book (why are they always black?) with the names of more than 3,000 clients. Each client's pet peeve was listed next to his name. One notation cautioned a girl that the client reeked of garlic.
Sydney apparently took good care of her girls, living by the maxim that a happy employee is a happy worker. She threw lavish Christmas parties for her employees and clients. To celebrate New Year's Eve, she allowed the girls to keep half of the take, any woman who worked the entire night got 60%.
Sydney and her mother were removed from the Social Register after her arrest which in an earlier time would have meant social death. Nude photos taken from by an old boyfriend were obtained by the tabloids and flashed discretely on the front pages. After legal fees, Sydney was left without much in the way of funds, so a charity ball was held to help out at Limelight on April 30, 1985. Sydney showed up, dressed for her ball, wearing a rose-colored strapless gown, elbow length white gloves, and ropes of diamonds and pearls. Male and female cousins showed up carrying balloons that read "We don't condone everything, but the family stands together," (Ringdal, page 353). Next morning Newsday reported that, "Sydney Biddle Barrows showed up her body to the upper crust, for a price as usual. The snobs paid through the nose to see her."
Afterwards, she wrote her memoir, Mayflower Madam, which was made into a TV movie starring another icy-blonde, Candice Bergen, a member of Hollywood royalty (unlike Heidi Fleiss who had the underwhelming Trisha Fisher and Jamie Sigler portray her in TV movies). She wrote 2 more books on etiquette and finally married in 1994. Nowadays, she pops up occasionally in the Society columns, while working on a book on plastic surgery of which she is quite the cheerleader, having had a facelift at the age of 46. She's also popular on the lecture cirtcuit, teaching everything from sexual ettiquette to business practices.
Recently she was back in the news, giving her comments on the Eliott Spitzer debacle. "These people have nothing better to do?" Ms. Barrows asked. "We have terrorists out there. We have murderers, we have rapists, child molesters. And they're worried about somebody getting [sex]?"
According to her random sex is less hurtful than say having a long-term extra-marital affair with someone. "Who are we to pass judgment on other people?" she said. "For instance, if he'd gone and had a girlfriend, now that's a relationship. That is something that is truly a threat to a marriage. A relationship would be the worst thing for him to do morally, but he would be in less trouble for that."
She also said that Empire Club's contention that they sometimes charged $5,300 for high-flyers is exaggerated. Apparently back in 1984, her top charge was $400 (However Time magazine in their story in 1984 claimed that she charged up to $2,000 for her girls). Let's just forget the fact that this was 24 years ago. There's a little thing called inflation, and some of those diplomats in DC probably don't have a problem paying that kind of money, not to mention rich billionaires. After all, some people feel the more you pay, the better value you get. Isn't that why some people pay $650 for a pair of shoes rather than going to Target or Payless?
The question remains why a woman from a patrician background would get involved in something so sordid as the sex trade? Was it rebellion, as one former boyfriend claimed, or was it simply a woman who saw a way to make money, treating prostitution like a business? More than likely it was a little of both. She took the oldest profession and brought it forward into the modern age. Her business was so successful that the venerable publication Barron's did a story, praising her for Cachet's sound business management and suggesting that her only punishment should be to teach adminstration classes in business school. Whatever the reason, the story of the Mayflower Madam was an interesting chapter in the long and varied history of prostitution.
Love for Sale: A World History of Prostitution - Nils Johan Ringdal
The Mayflower Madam, The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows - Sydney Biddle Barrows