Did Father Know Best? : Paul Fleiss Was Everyone’s Favorite Baby Doctor and the Perfect Dad of Six of His Own. So How Did He End Up Facing a Federal Rap With His Daughter Heidi?
He is probably the last man anyone would picture as the Hollywood Madam’s dad. Pediatrician, scholar and lecturer, Paul Fleiss told other people how to raise their kids. Even now, in homes across Los Angeles, mothers quote his signature advice: “Just love ‘em,” the doctor would say with a smile. “You can’t love your kids too much.”
It’s an adage that carries a bittersweet irony. After 30 years as one of Southern California’s most sought-after physicians, the baby doctor who nurtured thousands of other people’s kids has become an accused co-conspirator in his daughter’s fall from grace. More than four months have passed since Heidi Fleiss was convicted on felony pandering charges. Now, as she contests that verdict in state court, federal authorities are preparing to try her and her father in a case of fraud and tax evasion.
Authorities have charged that the 61-year-old doctor hid the profits from Heidi’s call-girl ring, acting as a straw man in the purchase of her $1.6-million Benedict Canyon home and funneling her lucre through his bank accounts. Their witnesses include his youngest daughter, Shana Fleiss, who has been compelled to testify against her father and sister in exchange for limited immunity when the case goes to trial, tentatively scheduled for April 24.
The doctor, meanwhile, has called the prosecution an unfounded “travesty.” “My life, my reputation, my medical practice, my family are all under attack,” he wrote in one court document.
By all rights, the latest set of accusations should come as an anticlimax to the blitz that was the Heidi affair--one minute, the Fleisses were just another urban family; the next, they were the stuff of tabloid TV. But the father’s indictment has shaken his family and community even more deeply. The arrest of a wild kid they can understand. But the good doctor too?
His youngest son can scarcely speak of the case without bursting into tears; his ex-wife calls it “a catastrophe.” Close friends say his indictment has extinguished the pediatrician’s characteristically sprightly air, turning him stoop-shouldered and frail almost overnight. Heidi says she can scarcely sleep for worrying about her dad: “This was just a bull- - - - state prostitution case,” she says, “and for them to make him responsible for my problems is so unfair.”
To the doctor’s patients and peers, meanwhile, his predicament is a tragic mystery. Their Paul Fleiss, they insist, is a compassionate and guileless man. They talk about the times he stayed late to bandage a child’s cut, and the times uninsured families paid him with fresh vegetables and live hens. How, they ask, could such a seemingly upstanding citizen land in such an unseemly mess?
It’s a question that prompts pat, Oprah-style responses: This is the fallout, defenders say with a sigh, when wild kids con good dads. But the backdrop is considerably more complex, and, in an odd way, more universal. The Fleiss family’s story is a tale of nurture and nature, of the parents we aspire to be and the parents we are, of the battle between a father’s influence and a child’s character.
The doctor is a staunch advocate of indulgence and love, of downplaying the negative and keeping an open mind. But those who know him wonder: Was it optimism or denial that kept him from realizing that his daughter might get into serious trouble someday? Was it open-mindedness or an inability to say no that kept him from getting tough with his errant kid?
“I don’t think that there was anything I did that led to Heidi being arrested for what she allegedly has done,” he says.
To many of his defenders, his predicament is simply the result of loyalty. “I think he’s only guilty of loving and trusting his daughter,” says Dr. John Goldenring, a colleague for 10 years who now practices pediatrics in San Bernardino County. “You can’t put a person in jail for that.”
Authorities naturally disagree. Federal attorneys have amassed tax records, loan papers and canceled checks, some allegedly signed by Heidi’s clients. Prosecutors have submitted a sealed statement from Shana Fleiss that they say will prove the doctor knew Heidi’s money was illegally earned.
But in a series of recent interviews--his first since Heidi’s June, 1993, arrest--the physician, who has pleaded not guilty, denies any wrongdoing and says the evidence will prove nothing but his innocence.
“If anyone should be embarrassed by all this, it should be the government,” he says, “(for) charging Heidi with a victimless crime and bringing these very peculiar charges against me. I don’t know why they are bringing this case. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
From the beginning--both as a practitioner and a father--Paul Fleiss was unconventional. While most doctors train initially at traditional medical schools, he started out as a pharmacist and osteopath. In 1962, California passed legislation that for a brief time allowed an osteopath to convert the degree to an M.D. So Fleiss moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Detroit to take advantage of the new law. With his revised credentials, he could specialize--something an osteopath could not do--and he used them to become a pediatrician, performing his residency at what is now Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
He hadn’t intended to stay, but soon after his arrival, a friend introduced him to Elissa Ash, a teacher. Within six months, they were wed. Three months later, Elissa’s teen-age sister gave birth to a girl, and the newlyweds took in and eventually adopted the baby, named Kim.
The following year, Paul’s sister became terminally ill, and they adopted her infant daughter, Amy, as well. Then, nine months later, Elissa Fleiss gave birth to Heidi. It was 1965. They had been married two years and already had three baby girls.
The Fleisses loved all their children, but from the outset, “Heidi and I had a special bond,” recalls Elissa Fleiss, a striking woman who strongly resembles her now-famous child. Heidi, she said, was the quick one, the leader of the pack, the one who could make you laugh.
Daughter Shana arrived in 1967, son Jason in 1968. In 1970, running out of room, they scraped up $77,000--a small fortune at the time--and bought the house where the now-divorced Elissa still lives, a hillside hacienda below Griffith Park.
It was a bustling household, overrun with pets and kids. Elissa Fleiss remembers how, for years, the kids were afraid to sleep in the spooky ground-floor bedrooms, so they congregated on the third floor at bedtime--she and Paul in the master bedroom, the daughters next door in what they called the “girls’ dorm,” and Jason on a converted patio. (Their youngest, Jesse, wasn’t born until 1977.)
“Before they would sleep at night, I’d lie down with each one of them, and I’d always save Heidi for last because she was the most fun,” her mother recalls. Before her on the white sofa of her elegant living room are heaps of dogeared snapshots. Here they were when they were little, all holding their pet pups and bunnies. This was a ski trip to Big Bear. See? There’s Heidi, skinny and brash even at age, what? 7? 8? See what a tomboy she was, in her little football jersey and jeans?
If Elissa Fleiss was, by her own description, “a flower-child mother,” Paul Fleiss was the prototypical nurturing male. “My dad never spanked us,” says Shana Fleiss, now 28. “He would say, ‘I’m not going to ask any questions. This has happened, and now it’s too late, and we’re just going to figure it out.’ ”
Gentleness, his patients and colleagues agree, was the touchstone of Fleiss’ philosophy. That, and his single-mindedness about holistic health care and breast-feeding. While most mainstream pediatricians were still pushing the bottle for newborns, he became involved with the pro-nursing La Leche League International, on whose professional advisory board he would eventually sit. Later he became the protege of a UCLA professor, Dr. Derrick B. Jelliffe, an authority on public health who spent his career campaigning to restrict the marketing of infant formula.
Their views emphasized closeness between parent and child, breast-feeding in the early years and treating children with the respect accorded adults. Today, such ideas are commonplace. But in the late 1960s, they were fringe medicine. “There was a time when people thought (Fleiss) was a crackpot to be so much behind the idea that mothers should develop a bond with their children,” recalls Anson Levine, a psychotherapist and friend of the physician for more than 20 years.
By the mid-1970s, however, those views had made him a hero among advocates of natural childbirth. Poor and middle-class patients in Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park knew him as the neighborhood doc in Birkenstocks who practiced out of that funky bungalow on Hillhurst Avenue. But he had thousands of other clients from throughout Southern California--celebrities among them.
“He taught me my three main rules for child-rearing,” says actress Susan Anspach, whose children are now in their 20s. “First, that all feelings are acceptable--that only behavior must be limited. And second, to accent the positive and ignore the negative--but in a real way. So that when the orange juice gets spilled, you clean it up quickly, act as if your employer had spilled it, and then later, when things are nice, talk about how nice it is that you are having a harmonious dinner.
“And third, no rewards or punishments, no threats or bribes. His main philosophy was love and kindness.”
Despite his popularity, the doctor was occasionally the object of complaints. Court records show that of five malpractice complaints filed against him, two ended in out-of-court settlements. (The rest were either dropped or won by Fleiss.) In one case that was settled, the parents contended that Fleiss was so insistent that they breast-feed their infant, despite the mother’s difficulty in producing milk, that the child eventually became dehydrated and went into hypertensive cardiac arrest. The baby ended up losing a kidney, said the lawyer who represented the family.
In the other case, a Burbank couple charged that Fleiss had been too lax when their 3-year-old developed a fever. The doctor, they said, told them it was nothing to worry about. Then the child suffered a seizure resulting in irreversible brain damage.
Lawyers for Fleiss--who admitted no guilt in either settlement--say that in the first case, factors other than the breast-feeding problems had led to the kidney loss. In the second case, according to Fleiss and his lawyer, the toddler’s seizure was caused by a virulent infection that would have caused brain damage even if it had been diagnosed earlier.
Medical malpractice experts characterized his record as fairly typical for a veteran pediatrician. Less typical is the devotion of his patients, who use words like angelic and saint when they talk about him. “Finding Dr. Fleiss was like finding a treasure,” says Kelli Way, a 30-year-old mother of six. “He’s one of the sweetest men I have ever met.”
As a father, he was also committed, even though there were “a lof kids, and difficult family dynamics,” according to one old friend. Kim may have been the eldest, but charming Heidi dominated the pack. It was Heidi, they say, who organized the games, plotted the escapades, tied the shoelaces of the younger kids. To be with Heidi was to be where the fun was, and to watch her talk her way out of trouble was to see a master at work.
“Heidi was my mom’s favorite,” sighs Shana Fleiss, now a shy and fragile adult whose struggle with drugs has landed her in a rehabilitation program, according to court transcripts. “I mean, I knew (my mother) loved me, but she and Heidi, like, had their own language.” Shana says she resented the situation.
Kim Fleiss, now 32 and a veterinarian in Florida, wonders whether it was Heidi’s curse. Kim bounced between the Fleisses and her natural parents, for several years before she was adopted by the Fleisses at age 8. “For me, coming into this family that was so generous and open-minded--it really turned me around. But for Heidi, having a lot of leeway--well (when she misbehaved), her actions were considered not wrong, but witty or cute instead.”
If the household itself was easygoing, the metropolis surrounding it--Hollywood--was no-holds-barred.
“Our house was the house on the block where everybody went because they knew our parents (were flexible about) what time we came home,” Shana says. “So our friends would say, ‘I want to stay at Shana’s,’ and their parents would think, ‘Well, the mother’s a schoolteacher, the father’s a doctor, there shouldn’t be any problems,’ and then we’d just go stay out at night going to clubs. My parents didn’t have a clue.
“By the time our parents started talking about curfews, it was too late. We were, like, 15 or 16. I had been going out doing things since I was 12 years old.”
But the Fleisses say they were not completely in the dark about their kids’ activities. “Shana makes it sound like they were just allowed to run loose, and that certainly was not the case,” Paul Fleiss says.
Still, at about age 14, Heidi began getting into trouble--petty shoplifting, truancy, plummeting grades. She’d cut class and go to the racetrack. When her report cards reflected the absences, she has said, she would change the grades and forge her parents’ signatures. Semesters passed before they caught on.
Neither parent wanted to make too big a deal about Heidi’s tendency at that time to be “easily diverted” in class. The doctor notes: “Picasso was always looking out the window, too.” But as her problems became more apparent, her mother says, they “were really at odds on how to deal with her.”
“He figured it was a passing stage,” she says. “He said, ‘Basically, she’s a good girl. Don’t have this kind of adversarial position in this delicate position in her life.’ (But) when kids are teen-agers, you have to be able to confront them.”
At 17, in a family that revered education, Heidi received permission to drop out of school. The plan, her father explains, was for her to get her equivalency degree and enroll in junior college and then a university.
But the year after Heidi quit high school, her parents separated, and Heidi moved in with her father. Three months later, he loaned her his Jeep to take a group of friends to a nightclub, even though, according to a sworn deposition given in the insurance litigation that ensued, he knew she tended to speed. There were seven girls in a vehicle built for four when Heidi made a sudden turn in the parking lot of a now-defunct Hollywood dance club. The Jeep flipped, landing on Shana’s arm. Only a series of difficult surgeries prevented her from becoming an amputee. Theoretically, the crisis should have been a sobering warning that Heidi was out of control. But in Fleiss family lore, it was a turning point in which their daughter moved irretrievably into the fast lane.
Always infatuated with the wealthy Westside, Heidi began courting a gang of rich party girls. One minute she was vowing never to leave her sister’s bedside; the next, her best friend had filched her mother’s credit cards and they were traveling to New York. She enrolled at Santa Monica College; she waited tables at a trendy Westside cafe. Within the year, she had run off to Europe with Bernie Cornfeld, a jet-setting playboy older than her father.
There would be no more college or even a steady job, even after her relationship with Cornfeld fizzled and she returned to Los Angeles to drown her confusion in the ‘80s club scene.
“I wanted to grab her and shake her, and say, ‘You’re still my baby,’ ” her mother recalls. “But I couldn’t. Heidi was a young woman, and she’d always had an ability to get her own way.”
And her father? “I didn’t approve of that jet-set lifestyle. I was horrified, and I let her know,” he says. Periodically, he would advise her to go to college and forget her “megabucks” friends, “but she would say ‘No,’ or ‘Later’ or ‘I’m busy now,’ ” he says. Eventually, she stopped offering any explanations at all, and her silence told him she was beyond his control.
Relatives say the Fleisses would try vainly to reach out to their daughter, but she found excuses not to spend time with them. She developed a fondness for high-stakes gambling and began keeping company with a B-movie director and bookmaker named Ivan Nagy. Her father chalked up, at least at first, her seemingly endless cash flow to her still-cordial relationship with Cornfeld, her bettor’s luck and a real estate license she’d acquired along the way. He says he didn’t ask for the details.
“She’s always been a wheeler-dealer,” the physician says with a laugh.
One night in 1989, the doctor’s daughter stepped into a cozy house in West Los Angeles and shook the hand of a calculating woman who would alter the course of her life.
Elizabeth Adams--alias Madam Alex--was at the time the most powerful madam in Los Angeles. As Heidi tells it, her then-boyfriend Nagy regularly introduced attractive young women to Adams, who would pay a finder’s fee if they were suitable for her line of work. Heidi says she owed Nagy $450 in gambling debts, and he had told her that meeting Madam Alex would even the score. Nagy has vehemently denied this, saying Heidi was a call girl when they met; Adams has echoed Heidi’s account.
In any event, when the two women met, it quickly transformed Heidi’s youthful escapades into a flirtation with crime. Although Heidi didn’t make much of a call girl--indeed, she has denied ever turning a trick--she eventually became a sort of Gal Friday to the madam, running errands and fielding calls. It didn’t take long for the madam’s clients to strike up their own friendships with the brash young aide. Within a couple of years, authorities say, the thrill-seeking party girl and the balding, diabetic madam had gone from giggling confidantes to bitter rivals, skirmishing over the small market of men willing to pay $1,500 for sex.
No one who knew Heidi in those cash-soaked days could have missed the fact that she had no visible means of support. But if her parents suspected she was involved in prostitution, her sisters say, they seemed to block it out. “They knew but they didn’t want to know,” Shana says. “It was like, ‘We won’t ask, and you don’t have to tell.’ ” Heidi’s parents contend, however, that they had no idea, even after her standard of living began to soar and she drew them into her financial affairs with the purchase of her Benedict Canyon home.
In the early 1990s, the centerpiece of Heidi’s lifestyle was the two-bedroom villa on posh Tower Grove Drive once owned by actor Michael Douglas. The house--with its panoramic view of the city, its blond hardwood floors, its hilltop pool--seemed clearly beyond the means of an unemployed woman in her 20s. But the bank that held the mortgage didn’t have to grapple with that mystery. The property was listed in her father’s name.
Federal prosecutors allege that the arrangement was a vehicle through which Heidi hid her income from the government. In 1992, the year the house was bought, Heidi claimed on a federal tax return prepared by the family accountant that she made only $33,000 a year by helping out in her father’s office. But prosecutors claim she made at least seven times that amount and hid the money by having her father and Shana deposit it in a bank account they held jointly, and from which the mortgage payments were automatically deducted.
Moreover, they claim, both the father and sister knew they were handling dirty money. In a motion filed in December, Assistant U.S. Attys. Mark C. Holscher and Charles L. Kreindler stated that Shana was compelled to testify that her father knew Heidi was running a call-girl ring and even knew the identities of some of her clients.
Lawyer Philip Heller, who represented the doctor until he changed attorneys in March, has said that the government could not be further off-base. The elder Fleiss, Heller says, thought Heidi was being supported by her rich friends and through her real estate license when she approached him and several other relatives in the spring of 1992 with an offer to invest in a real estate deal.
“The original plan was that she would buy this house, which was listed below its appraised value, and sell it for $3 million,” Fleiss says. The house seemed a bargain, he says, and no one questioned Heidi’s access to the deal--after all, one of her roommates was Victoria Sellers, daughter of the late actor Peter Sellers, and she had run with high-rollers for years. A cousin kicked in part of the down payment; Shana, who had obtained a $400,000-plus insurance settlement after her Jeep accident, chipped in $223,000, they and others say. Fleiss says he was skeptical about Heidi’s ability to land the loan, but nonetheless signed a blank loan form that was later filled in by Heidi and her real estate broker. To his amazement, a $1-million mortgage was approved.
Heidi, Heller says, immediately moved into the house, promising that until she could sell it, she would cover the mortgage with the help of Sellers and other roommates. The money came in, the payments were made. The doctor put it out of his mind.
“I don’t think Dad knew what he was getting into,” says Shana Fleiss. “Dad probably said, ‘Why would anyone loan you this money, when I’m a doctor and I couldn’t get a loan like that?’ And it was probably like, ‘Just sign the papers and watch me, Dad. I’ll get the loan.’ ”
Government officials concede--in the words of one federal source--that Fleiss’ alleged actions “don’t exactly make him Charles Keating.” But when the state prostitution case became international news, the federal dimensions were hard to ignore. By all appearances, Heidi had been making a fortune without giving Uncle Sam his share.
By April of 1994, a federal grand jury had convened. The maximum penalties for the charges against Heidi and her father run to hundreds of years behind bars, with the likelihood that Heidi could end up serving four to six years if convicted, and her father three years or more.
According to interviews and court documents, the prosecution offered a deal: Two to three years for Heidi and the possibility of a brief probation for dad if both pleaded guilty. The Fleisses felt it was an insidious effort to strong-arm confessions. “As a matter of principle, I’m not guilty,” the doctor said.
Another offer was made in early fall. That also was refused. And so, according to court documents and interviews, the government turned to Shana, reminding her that, like her father, she had had access to that joint bank account. She, too, had deposited checks for Heidi. She, too, might be drawn into the case.
The implications were mind-numbing. For most of her life, Shana had seen herself as Heidi’s stout ally and best friend. When Heidi got them into that accident, it was Shana who forgave. When Heidi was arrested on pandering charges, it was Shana she called for help.
But where had it gotten her? Her arm was disabled. Her nest egg was tied up in Heidi’s house. The notoriety that followed Heidi’s arrest had so swept her away that, at its height, she had sampled a snort of heroin, and then a smoke, and finally a fix that sent her into an emotional free fall. And now, here she was, pushed and pulled from all sides.
“I’m not as strong as Heidi--I’m the first to admit it,” she sobbed one autumn afternoon.
As authorities threatened to indict her and her family begged her to stand firm, she finally broke down. On Dec. 2, as her sister was being pronounced guilty by a state court jury that later would confess profound ambivalence, Shana’s sealed statement was delivered to prosecutors in the federal courthouse Downtown.
Paul Fleiss is walking a visitor through his Los Feliz office, a restored bungalow built in 1915. Sepia photos of his family hang over the mantle; snapshots of kids and nursing women line the walls. There are mementos from Third World countries where he has done public health work, and a framed thank-you note from Cesar Chavez for Fleiss’ care of farm workers. Patients drop by, although the doctor is supposed to be out. They are sympathetic. They don’t know the half of it.
The Benedict Canyon house has been sold, the bulk of the proceeds frozen; the doctor’s condominium in Santa Monica is for sale. Even if he is acquitted, the legal bills are expected to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He has moved into a tiny bungalow next to his office, and Heidi, free on $75,000 bail that he raised, is living in his condo until it sells. Her roommates, until recently, included Samantha Burdette, an ex-model arrested in the vice sting that resulted in Heidi’s arrest. Two years ago, Burdette was captured on police videotape stripping to her red lace underwear and offering cocaine to an undercover cop. Now as she awaits her May 12 sentencing in her state pandering trial, Heidi lives quietly by the beach, her social life mostly limited to Tvelve Step meetings.
Shana, after twice trying to end her drug use cold turkey, has graduated from a drug rehabilitation program. Some friends of her father have given her a job at their nursery school. Occasionally, Shana says, she meets her father for dinner; the atmosphere between them is strained with regret.
When the charges were first filed, the doctor was so astonished, he says, that he could scarcely take them seriously. Surely, he felt, the authorities would come to their senses. It wasn’t as if Heidi had murdered someone. Since then, however, his optimism has given way, first to despondency and now to a sense of urgency: “My charges are worse than Bruce McNall’s or Darryl Strawberry’s or even that guy from the S&Ls;,” he now murmurs, sounding as if he had just heard about his indictment for the first time.
For all this, Fleiss still talks with warmth and pride about the daughter who has so complicated his life, decrying the “incredible amount of public funds” being spent to prosecute her and the way she was “singled out, and not the men involved.”
No, he stresses, he does not approve of prostitution; he abhors the idea of breaking the law. But there is also the up-side to be considered, and to this end, he accents the positive, bragging about Heidi’s bustling lingerie boutique in Pasadena’s Old Town, which she opened shortly after her arrest and that she plans to move to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica: “She’d like to open a second store,” he confides, “if they’d only let her alone.”
When Heidi’s state trial ended and the pandering verdict was announced, he drove her home from the courthouse. In the courtroom, he had wept, but there in the car, his attitude was, as always: No rewards or promises, no threats or bribes.
As they sped through Los Angeles, they both recall, he had only one mild question: “What did you do to people to make them so mad at you?”
She was speechless. After years of unanswered questions, how could she explain herself now? What was her crime but the end point of a natural trajectory set in motion long ago? She was, after all, the product of their best intentions and their innocent mistakes. She had only been her parents’ daughter. She had only been herself.
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