Times Staff Writer

In 1620, the good ship Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to America. They sought freedom of worship. Now, one of their descendants has brought a New York state agency to court. She seeks freedom of speech and income in a case involving the sale of rights to the tale of her life of crime.

On Sept. 19, a New York Supreme Court judge will rule whether Sydney Biddle Barrows, widely known as the “Mayflower Madam,” can keep the book and TV money paid for her story or if the state’s Crime Victims Compensation Board gets to hold the money for five years.

At issue: a 1979 New York law requiring criminals who earn money from literary or dramatic re-enactments of their crimes to turn their profits over to the state for possible distribution to their victims. The victims have to sue to get the money.

Barrows, 32, made headlines last year when arrested for running a Manhattan escort emporium that prosecutors later said actually was a high-class call-girl operation. After plea-bargaining last month, she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of promoting prostitution. She was fined $5,000, but received no prison term.

Rights to her story have been purchased by two publishing companies and producer Robert Halmi. He plans to make a TV movie for CBS, basing it on the book that Barrows and writer William Novak are writing about her life and times.


“The idea is that it (the movie) will be funny,” a lighthearted dramatization of that which made Barrows a leading Fun City celebrity, according to her literary agent in New York, Steven Axelrod. “It won’t be a drab, depressing docudrama.”

He said a script already is being written and hopes are that the dramatization of Barrows’ story will air on CBS next May during the all-important ratings sweeps.

(A CBS spokesman in Los Angeles said the project still is in development. The start of production and an air date for the film are not certain, he said. It depends on when and if CBS officials approve the script and give the go-ahead for filming to commence.)

Axelrod said Arbor House bought the hardcover publishing rights to Barrows’ story and hopes to have her tome--entitled “Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows"--on the stands by late May or June.

He said Berkley Press bought the paperback rights. He declined to comment on one TV report in New York that the film and book rights may earn Barrows $600,000. All agent Axelrod would say of the total amount paid is that “it’s very fine money.”

Angelo Petromelis, a member of the state board seeking to temporarily hold this money, said the court fight began after the board subpoenaed Halmi, CBS, Barrows, Novak, and the two publishing firms in an attempt to learn how much she’ll earn from her TV and book deals.

Her attorneys, fighting the subpoena, contend that the board has no jurisdiction and that her crime had no victims because her girls’ customers--or “johns,” as they are said to be called--were willing participants in an illegal act and can’t be considered victims.

“A participant can’t be a victim,” Barrows told a New York press conference last Wednesday, during which she read a two-page statement that criticized “overzealous and extralegal actions by misguided public officials.”

Axelrod, interviewed by phone, said a key element in her attorneys’ fight against the subpoena is their contention that the board’s action “really imposes on Sydney’s First Amendment rights. It casts a chill on anybody’s right to be publicly heard.”

Petromelis, who did not address the issue of free speech, said it is not up to his board to decide if there were any victims of Barrows’ operation. But the board is required to seize and hold for five years the profits in this and similar cases, he said.

The reason, he explained by phone from New York, is to give those who think they were victims time to decide whether to seek damages. If they take that course, he said, they then have to sue for damages in civil court. If they lose, or if no suits are filed in the five-year period, then the board returns the money.

While no one has claimed yet that he or she was a victim in the Mayflower Madam operation, “we don’t know that there won’t be any victims,” he said. He gave one hypothetical example: a “john” may get AIDS and claim he got it from one of the ladies dispatched into the evening by Barrows’ escort service.

“A jury may well decide that the crime he participated in was minimal compared to the injury he suffered,” Petromelis said.