Playing chess with Heidi Fleiss on a Friday afternoon in a mansion high above the city: Sunshine filters through the greenery outside, flooding the glass-walled living room and flattering the small woman in black.
Fleiss ponders her next move. It's defensive -- her king is cornered. She smiles. "I see a checkmate."
She grew up playing chess, and has had a lot of time to practice -- almost three years in federal prison for money laundering and tax evasion, as well as a concurrent sentence for attempted pandering. She won, she says, every game she played behind bars.
Three years since her release, her game is aggressive, if slightly reckless. On this afternoon, between opening move and checkmate, she tells stories about her past and strategizes her future. Because Fleiss has plans.
She also has friends. Currently, she has a room in a friend's house, a multimillion-dollar gated mansion in Brentwood. As a house guest, Fleiss trades in valuable currency, especially for Brentwood couch surfing: the secrets of her former life as "The Hollywood Madam," some of which she keeps and some of which she tells.
While she was incarcerated, publishing companies offered her millions for those stories, she says. But she found their proposals profoundly unappealing. " 'Heidi, to do a book now, you're basically a has-been, and you have to dig deep down, and do some soul searching, and tell it all,' " she mimics. Despite the money on offer, Fleiss didn't want to write a pimp-and-tell.
Take it from her: "Whoever you think is doing it, is doing it. And they're probably doing it in weirder ways than you can imagine." But the woman who made much money and then front-page news because of the names she knew has a strong work ethic. "Just because I got caught, and I sunk the ship, doesn't mean I have to take everyone down with me," she says.
Instead, Fleiss decided to do it her way. She started her own publishing company, 1 Hour Entertainment, and published her own memoir, "Pandering," last month.
Hunched over the chess board, Fleiss, 37, looks frail and slightly vulnerable. Her hair, once a soft brown, is jet-black, and at times she uses it as a curtain to hide her green eyes. In her fast and furious running commentary, she excuses her "prison language," the occasional mild profanity.
Although Fleiss jokes about her time in prison, as she does about most other subjects, it clearly took its toll. Other than letters to her family, she had little contact with the world. Few friends stood by her, she says, and reentering society was difficult too. There was a drug relapse and a six-month home detention sentence.
The trial made her media-savvy (she checks a reporter's background and makes a wardrobe change in honor of the photographer), but she still seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, only relaxing after cameras and tape recorders are put away. She has climbed back into the fishbowl for a reason: "Pandering" is a labor of love, she says.
With her brother and a friend, Fleiss raised a few thousand dollars and traveled to Book Expo America in New York last year to make publishing contacts. She returned with a purse stuffed with business cards and a four-book distribution deal with Publishers Group West to get her books on shelves at Borders, Barnes & Noble and other stores. Embracing her new career, she is learning the business: backlists, shrink-wrapping, bar codes. Sales, marketing and strategy skills are apparently innate.
At times, she has drawn on her past for more than stories. When a shipment of books was stolen, she called her probation officer for advice.
"Pandering" resembles a journal -- scraps of writing and photographs and court transcripts, anonymous quotes and notes from purported former employees. From a questionnaire she sent out: Q: "What were some of the complications that you encountered while working for Heidi?" A: "Not knowing where to put all my money." Tips, according to the girls, included diamonds, a Porsche, a $25,000 sports bet and "two income producing apartment buildings with no mortgage."
The book is designed for readers with short attention spans.
"People don't read anymore," she says. "Magazine subscriptions are way down except for Maxim, Stuff and FHM, because their articles are half an inch. To do a book now, you have to make it very visually appealing and concise."
It retails for $50. "In today's economy that's tough," she says, "but I'm Heidi Fleiss. I can't put out a cheap product."
Being Heidi Fleiss, pediatrician's daughter and parochial school student, and becoming "Heidi Fleiss," the madam with a fabled black book, is the subject of "Pandering."
It's the story of Heidi as a working girl, and there's a logic to her career trajectory: head of a baby-sitting ring, entrepreneurial flower girl, head of a call girl ring, publisher. The book is more explanation than titillation. And it's infused with Fleiss' philosophy, such as: "Do what it takes to learn a career so you always have something to fall back on."
"I was trying to gauge my target audience," she says. "Some people on the far right don't have a problem with me. Some people on the left do have a problem with me. So it's hard to say."
As long as it sells, she's happy. "It's a conversation piece," she says.
Evaluating her next move on the board, the 115-pound publisher chews pistachio nuts nonstop. Food, she says, was her first concern when she got out of prison. Her first meal: salmon with mango salsa. For dessert, Fleiss bought every flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. "Every woman at the market was looking at me as if I was mentally ill."
After she finished eating, she began looking for a job. Fleiss worked for an Internet site for a while, giving humorous sex advice, but says that she wanted her own business again and liked the idea of being a publisher.
The world had changed while she was in prison. There was a sexual revolution of sorts: Kenneth Starr. "He made the conversation different," she says of the former independent counsel. "He brought the subject of oral copulation to the dinner table."
She changed too. Seemingly chastened, she says she takes responsibility for her actions, although the bill was steep.
"At the time, what was going on at my house, hanging around, girls just goofing around, playing in the pool -- it really seemed like a time of innocence, like a sick sorority club," she says.
As for her new business, she wants to publish work by others, including a gritty photo documentary about Florida strippers and prostitutes by Evan Klanfer, a fashion photographer. She also plans to publish Emanuel Zola's book on Tupac Shakur and Libby Keatinge's stories about working as a Beverly Hills tutor.
Fleiss says she is -- and was -- a good employer. "People think I sat back and made money off someone else," she says. "It's not true at all. As far as exploiting women, women are exploited in the world. People are exploited. I was not exploiting them. The girls who met me did very, very well.... These people sewing downtown, that's exploitation. The street pimp, that's exploitation."
Treat your employees with respect, and make them feel part of the company's success, she says, announcing her credo: "Everyone wants high ceilings." Desire is all. "How bad do you want it?" Fleiss asks. "It's up to you. How you feel, how hard you'll work for it."
As she writes in her memoir: "Not only do you have to formulate a plan to win, you must try to see your obstacles. At the same time, you must see your opponent's plan of attack. You have to be prepared to stop him -- and attack in the process." Of course, she's talking about chess. After a few more moves, she has liberated her king, and turned the game around.