No wonder California was in the poorhouse, she wisecracked after the arrest--they had sent three police agencies and two canines to nail a 115-pound party girl. The cops leaped from her shrubbery as she was taking out the trash. “LAPD!” they barked. “Which one of you is Heidi Fleiss?”
It surprised her that they had to ask. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood knew Heidi. Gliding right in to the best booths at Jack Nicholson’s place, the Monkey Bar. Clubbing with Billy Idol and Peter Sellers’ daughter, Victoria. Hobnobbing with Robert Evans, the producer of “Chinatown.” And wasn’t it at Fleiss’ house that they held that bash for Mick Jagger?
And now what a ruckus her arrest has raised.
She’s not an actress, not a director, not even a producer, but she has surely been a player in this town. Most of the summer, her case has captivated the entertainment industry on both coasts and ignited speculation--lists of celebrity clients, heads rolling at studios, a mysterious tape-recording that names names.
For although formal charges have yet to be filed, police say that Fleiss, the 27-year-old daughter of a prominent pediatrician, has for the last three years filled a time-honored niche: madam to the stars.
Within a week of Fleiss’ arrest--according to her, her friends and a tape-recording of her phone conversations--four major producers had called directly to express their condolences. Eight more producers and entertainment industry executives had friends call on their behalf. Six big-name actors checked in, as did an international financier, a Sunset Strip rock impresario, a Texas real estate heir and a Beverly Hills real estate agent calling on behalf of an Italian multimillionaire who, for sentimental reasons, wanted to buy Fleiss’ $1.6-million Benedict Canyon home.
Some called out of friendship. Others, Fleiss said, were concerned that the names in her big black book may come out when she goes to court Aug. 9. “A lot of people are nervous,” one well-known producer said. “She . . . fixes everybody up (and) there are a lot of married people in this town getting some booty.”
As long as there has been a Hollywood, there has been a Hollywood madam. But rarely has one arrest offered such a ready window into the world whose unspoken motto has been “discretion, discretion, discretion.”
“I have warned her, you cannot mention johns, not even privately--it ruins careers,” sighed Elizabeth (Madam Alex) Adams, whose 20-year reign as Beverly Hills madam ended with her arrest in 1988 and who has known Fleiss for at least the last five years.
But, from Fleiss’ standpoint, the potential for leaks of her client list could be a benefit.
Two well-known producers, according to a tape-recording of one of Fleiss’ phone conversations that she confirmed, have anted up several thousand dollars apiece toward her legal bills. Meanwhile, two other producers and a screenwriter have inquired about the rights to “The Heidi Fleiss Story.”
“It’s self-explanatory,” said screenwriter Matt Tabak, who called Fleiss to offer his help and ask for a 30-day option, minimum $300,000 on her end.
“How does someone go from being a nice Jewish girl whose father is a doctor to being arrested as an alleged Beverly Hills madam? How does that happen? It’s gotta be an amazing story.”
She was raised in a Spanish-style home in affluent Los Feliz, the third of six children born to Dr. Paul Fleiss and his now ex-wife, Elissa, an elementary schoolteacher.
Success ran in the family. Dr. Fleiss lectured at UCLA’s School of Public Health. Elissa Fleiss specializes in teaching gifted children. Their eldest daughter is a veterinarian. Their elder son is in medical school.
But Heidi--although charming and popular--was somewhat less than a model student. Pressed to earn straight A’s at John Marshall High School, she found herself unable or unwilling to compete.
“I was always in the classroom staring at the blue sky, thinking, ‘Gotta go, gotta go’,” the green-eyed brunette said. “After a while, I hardly went to school at all. I’d cut class and go to the beach or the racetrack.”
Hoping to challenge her, her parents enrolled Fleiss at the local parochial high school, Immaculate Heart, but she flunked out after one semester, school officials said. By her senior year, she had become so alienated that she dropped out, telling her parents she wanted to get a GED and start college early.
But that summer, there was an automobile accident. Fleiss was driving, and her sister was injured, nearly losing an arm. The guilt, her family said, sent her into a tailspin. “It was July 10, 1984,” said her sister, Shana, 26, “and after it happened, it changed everyone’s lives.”
The next year, Fleiss and a crowd of friends went to work waiting tables at a trattoria on Sunset Boulevard. One night after work, a friend invited her to a big party at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, and Fleiss--at all of 19--embarked on a four-year affair with her then 57-year-old host: the jet-set financier Bernie Cornfeld.
“We weren’t really a couple in that sense--it’s not my thing--but we were good friends. We saw a lot of each other,” Cornfeld said from his London home.
He took her to Europe, the Caribbean, his 12th-Century castle in France. But Cornfeld, she said, “was much older and not monogamous"--and neither was Fleiss. By the time the relationship ended, Fleiss had a new attachment, a Hungarian director named Ivan Nagy.
Like Cornfeld, Nagy was older--50 to her 23--and on a downswing in his career. Though he had a steady string of credits--TV movies and action shows such as “Starsky and Hutch"--it had been several years since his last job.
Their romance was brief and harsh; their breakup was protracted. They still beset each other with restraining orders and speak of each other in hostile terms. At one point in 1991, they were convicted on misdemeanor bookmaking charges, the result, Nagy says, of an informal betting circle that got out of hand.
But that, Fleiss contends, was the least of it.
Nagy, she said, introduced her to Adams, the Beverly Hills madam. But Nagy remembers it differently. The day he told Madam Alex about his new love, he said, he got a surprise.
“She said, ‘Yes, she is working for me,’ ” Nagy said.
At any moment, police say, there are perhaps no more than 150 women working the topmost echelons of L.A.'s call girl trade.
They are the Chanel-clad bombshells on the arms of foreign dignitaries and tycoons, the tawny “good friends” of producers at studio parties and movie openings. Some are centerfolds, some model sportswear. Some turn only one or two tricks in a year; others make a brief career of it.
The strong and the lucky move on to security--rich husbands, film careers. The weak ones are less fortunate, police say. The demand is for variety, and few johns want to see the same woman more than a time or two. So the longtimers bounce from madam to madam, descending through the escort services to the bachelor party circuit and into the realm of $100 tricks.
It is a rough, dehumanizing road, even at its upper end. And, according to police and prostitutes, it does not take long to encounter the city’s more notorious tricks: The big-name producer who defecates on women. The high-tech entrepreneur from the East Coast who horsewhips them. The independently wealthy crack addict who orders women to his house two at a time and overpays, just to have company while he gets high.
“It’s a dirty, degrading, coercive business,” LAPD Administrative Vice Capt. Glenn Ackerman said, “and there are all kinds of ways to hook the girls--money, dope, promises of fame. You can mouth platitudes about it being the oldest profession and a victimless crime, but the fact is that prostitution is always at the center of a whole cluster of criminal behavior.”
But for those first few times the downside seems remote.
“I was making $10,000, $20,000 a month,” said “Karin,” a 22-year-old bit actress who met Fleiss through a man who followed her into a check-cashing office on Hollywood Boulevard one day. “He said he was a photographer. It turned out he would go out and find girls to introduce to Heidi, for a fee.”
It took more than a year, she said, but one day, desperate to move out of her mother’s apartment in Westlake Village, she allowed herself to be persuaded to visit Fleiss.
“I was like, ‘OK, but no fat guys and if they’re gross, I won’t do it. Only if I want to, OK?’ ” said Karin, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She just started laughing. A week later, she called me and said, ‘I have a trip to London for you.’ And that was it. Within a month, I had $25,000, a new car, a lotta, lotta money and an apartment of my own in the city.”
For the next year, she said, her life was a parade of Middle Eastern dignitaries and middle-aged American men who specified her type--petite, curvaceous and blonde. Some dates were unforgettable. An elderly Saudi paid her $1,000 for nothing more than dinner at Morton’s and a kiss on the cheek. A local high-roller took her to Las Vegas for a prizefight, 10 girls and five guys on a private jet. At a birthday party for a young actor, she was the $1,000 present.
But eventually she got out, she said. “I had no life of my own.”
Adams reclines, phone at hand, in her Beverly Hills-adjacent boudoir. Sixty years old and diabetic, she rarely leaves her antique blue and white bed. She has even dictated her memoirs, the forthcoming “Madam 90210,” from its pillowy depths.
Still, she manages to keep in touch. For two decades, she was the bawdy empress of L.A. vice, serving millionaires and movie stars and sheiks. Now, after a 1991 pandering conviction, she gets a hearty kick out of the battle for her throne, and spends hour upon hour dishing the exploits of her would-be heiresses.
“Ivan brought Heidi here in 1989,” she confided in a world-weary rasp. “He turned her out. He made her work for me to pay off a $450 gambling debt. I can’t remember who I sent her to--Jesus, it was years ago--but I think it was a very wealthy Texan.”
Fleiss said she was Adams’ assistant, not a “working girl.” But in a June 9 search warrant affidavit, LAPD Administrative Vice Officer Patricia A. Corso alleges that Fleiss “was Elizabeth Adams’ No. 1 ‘girl’ until she broke off . . . to start her own prostitution business.”
At first, police say, Fleiss operated out of a quiet cottage off Melrose Avenue. Neighbors there recall the parties and the fancy cars--the Rolls-Royce convertibles and Porsches and Corvettes.
According to a law enforcement affidavit on file in Municipal Court, the prostitutes charged customers $1,500, and Fleiss received 40% of the money. Women who said they worked for Fleiss said they were paid not only in cash, but also with checks, some of them drawn on real estate corporations and movie production companies.
Soon she moved to a sprawling ranch house off Benedict Canyon Road in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Records show it was bought last summer from actor Michael Douglas and the deed shows Fleiss’ father as owner.
Fleiss’ father refused to comment on the purchase or allegations against Fleiss. Other relatives said that the family until recently believed that Fleiss made her living from real estate.
The Benedict Canyon home became a sort of bachelor women’s club. Actress Victoria Sellers, daughter of the late British actor, moved in with Fleiss. Together, they became a fixture of L.A. night life--Sellers hosting three nights a week at On the Roxx, a trendy Sunset Strip bar, and co-hosting parties at Fleiss’ house.
“There was one party for Mick Jagger, and the house just got thrashed--there were women climbing up the side of the hill to get in,” Sellers laughed.
“She knows major, major people,” she said. “But I never asked what was going on in that, um, other part of her life. I figured that was her private thing.”
The police operation was complicated, like so much in Fleiss’ life. But what triggered it was simple, the LAPD’s Ackerman said: “Her own big mouth.”
When it comes to vice enforcement, the Police Department prioritizes according to “the three Cs"--commercial, conspicuous and complained about. Fleiss was all three and then some, police said.
She lived lavishly. Gossip columns made references to her; tabloids sent paparazzi to take her photograph. And, police said, there were complaints aplenty about her from rival madams, jealous boyfriends and spurned employees.
“When I came in, Heidi became one of my priorities,” said Ackerman, who took over the department’s Administrative Vice Division in December. Within months, a multi-agency law enforcement task force had been assembled to investigate Fleiss, drawing officers from the LAPD, Beverly Hills Police Department, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Agency and the state attorney general’s office.
According to search warrant affidavits, authorities got their big break April 6, when Beverly Hills Detective Sammy Lee heard that Fleiss would be at a party at the Rangoon Racquet Club. Posing as a Honolulu businessman, he pulled up in a Ferrari Testarossa, accompanied by a state undercover agent. They sat down next to a table full of women who had come with Jennifer Young, an old friend of Fleiss and the daughter of the late actor Gig Young and Elaine Young, the Beverly Hills real estate broker.
According to a law enforcement affidavit, the following ensued:
“I can’t believe that I lived with her for that long and didn’t know what she was doing,” one woman laughed as Fleiss walked by.
Later, when Fleiss passed, Lee had Young introduce him. Haltingly, he told Fleiss that he was a businessman who needed to “arrange entertainment” for Japanese clients.
When Fleiss said she could help, Young rattled off Fleiss’ phone number. Lee jotted it down. Two months later, Fleiss and Lee met at the Beverly Hilton to arrange the deal: One night of partying at the hotel, $1,500 a girl, no group sex, U.S. dollars only, condoms all around.
And nothing kinky. “I don’t want to see a llama coming through the house,” the officer said. To cap the negotiations, Fleiss had Lee describe his “dream girl.”
The next night four women showed up at the Beverly Hilton, police said. One was the dream girl--Samantha Burdette, a Colorado model who resembled the late Natalie Wood. Another was 22-year-old Brandi McClain, a tall, athletic blonde in a black and white blazer and slacks.
“The guys didn’t say anything,” McClain recalled. “They were supposedly Japanese and didn’t speak English and I thought, ‘Well, this’ll be easy.’ Then all of a sudden, I hear, ‘OK, party’s over.’ And there were about 12 more people in the room than there were before.”
Burdette was arrested on misdemeanor prostitution charges. McClain--a San Diego County community college student who said she worked weekends for Fleiss--was questioned and released. Police told her they “wanted the big cheese.”
It wasn’t until that moment, she said, that she realized her predicament. “I realized it was illegal, but I never thought anything could happen to me.”
Within minutes, records show, authorities swept into Fleiss’ house, seizing 13 grams of cocaine and other evidence, including travelers checks signed, according to Fleiss, by a well-known actor. She was arrested on felony pimping, pandering and narcotics charges.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Carter said he still has not completed his review of the case to determine whether to prosecute Fleiss. He declined to discuss the case.
An affidavit in support of the search warrants alleged that Fleiss had admitted to an undercover agent and in police interviews that she was a madam. “In the history of this business, in one year, no one has ever been able to do what I do,” Fleiss allegedly said.
Other madams, she added, couldn’t hope to compete. “You get what you pay for,” she said.
Rumors started within days of her arrest: Studio executives had been paying Fleiss with movie development funds and corporate credit cards. Veteran vice officers said such rumors have circulated for years, but no hard evidence has emerged. Contrary to reports in gossip columns, sources say the FBI is not investigating the matter.
In a more tangible twist, however, a tape surfaced, containing some of Fleiss’ phone conversations after the arrest.
Dan Hanks, a private investigator who has previously served as a police undercover operative, said he made the tape by monitoring transmissions from an apparent wiretap of Fleiss’ phone. “I thought maybe I can . . . sell a story to the tabloids or ‘A Current Affair'--if I could catch a celebrity with her (and) get some pictures,” he said. “It could be happenin.’ ”
Fleiss, who is out on bail, said she bought a copy of the tape from Hanks and intends to use it in her defense, provided that charges are filed. Her attorney, Anthony Brooklier, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, who actually tapped into Fleiss’ conversations remains a mystery. Authorities said they are aware of the tape but it was not culled from a law enforcement wiretap.
But the tape, played for a Times reporter, alludes to a number of rich or famous people who know Fleiss. And as their names have begun to leak out, some have rushed to distance themselves from her. Others acknowledged knowing Fleiss but said they were only social acquaintances or friends.
“I haven’t spoken to her for some time. Call my press agent,” said “Sliver” producer Robert Evans. His publicist described Fleiss as a family friend.
Bob Crow, heir to the Texas-based Trammell Crow real estate empire, said: “We knew each other pretty well--frankly, I had a little romantic interest in Heidi at one time, but she is sort of a businesswoman.
“I haven’t seen her in months,” he added. “I gotta skedaddle now.”
Billy Idol’s personal publicist, Ellen Golden, said: “He’s been to (On the Roxx) and met her, but doesn’t know her well.”
Elliot Mintz, a well-known media handler for rock stars, acknowledged chatting with Fleiss shortly after her arrest. “She’s a casual friend,” he added. “I’m not in her social loop.”
As for Fleiss, she has only one thing to say when asked for details about her alleged business: “Talk to my lawyer.”