When Sex Workers Were Hookers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sans sex none of us would be here to read this.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Transgression has, and will probably always have, an enduring appeal. It’s the better part of sex appeal and so when Republican porn star Samantha 38G says that “Republicans are always better for business,” pegging the role played by repression and forbidden fruits, it frames what happened in 1971 in New York City.
In 1971, as part of an investigation of a wider police corruption scandal, courtesy of the Knapp Commission — a corruption investigation later depicted in the film Serpico — Xaviera Hollander was arrested for prostitution.
It wasn’t the first time she had been arrested for prostitution. Nor was it the first time a woman had been arrested in New York for prostitution, but it was probably the first time a Dutch East Indies-born consulate employee who spoke half a dozen languages and owned a brothel called “Xaviera’s Happy House” had been arrested for turning tricks to the tune of $1,000 a night. It was a gig Hollander had only done for six months, both to learn the business and to move out of her small apartment and into a five-bedroom penthouse.
“They arrested me and then they deported me,” says the 75-year-old Hollander from outside of Amsterdam, where she now makes her home. “For ‘moral turpitude.’ Being arrested and marched past people I knew was most humiliating. And this arrest affected not just me but my girls, my clients and my business.” Even after a decade of peace and love and the Age of Aquarius semi-normalizing expressive sexuality, the value changes hadn’t reached down deep — below the belt, so to speak.
Sex that had little to do with either peace or love and a lot to do with pleasure and commerce was still stigmatized. So in a bit of “right place, right time” kismet and self-described feminist rebellion, Hollander’s desire for desire and cash created a perfect storm that had her deported but also brought her to the attention of publishers who decided her racy memoir was publication-worthy.
The Happy Hooker became the de rigueur read for the jet set as well as common folk.
Hollander’s book, The Happy Hooker: My Own Story, penned with the assistance of Robin Moore and Yvonne Dunleavy, was just supposed to be a way to pass the time, a kind of adjunct to her wild times in New York. “I thought it would be small book,” she says, “maybe selling 3,000 copies in New York.”
The book hit like a bomb — literally and figuratively. “My fame at that point had become international and my poor, kind husband at the time, even though I was no longer working as a madam, was bombarded with cruel comments and I know his business must have suffered,” Hollander says. “We stayed married for a while and cared for each other, but the strain of all the publicity ended what could have been a normal family life.”
More than 20 million copies eventually sold, and by 1975 her story had been turned into a movie, with Hollander played by A-list actress Lynn Redgrave. Eventually, Hollander would be portrayed on the Silver Screen three times, including by Joey Heatherton, and her book would inspire other sex worker memoirs, like Tracy Quan’s best-selling Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl.
Like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Tropic of Cancer, though not touted as great literature, The Happy Hooker became the de rigueur read for the jet set as well as common folk. And the book presaged a Me Decade wave that swept through the disco ethos of places like Studio 54 and sex clubs like New York’s Plato’s Retreat, as well as the early stages of an out-and-proud porn industry.
“I used to have a girlfriend,” says Allan MacDonell, a former executive editor of Hustler magazine, “whose mom gave her a copy when she was 12 or something as a form of sex education.”
“I don’t remember it being all that,” says former porn reviewer Judge Roy Bean. “But it very much made sex something that, if you can believe this, also involved women as equal agents.”
That was part of the glamorous draw of the sex-positive existence Hollander depicted, even if it ran aggressively counter to the greater reality at the time. By the mid-’70s in New York, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, about 200,000 people were abusing heroin, with a portion of them being the 40,000 prostitutes with a clientele not nearly as upscale as Hollander’s. A class distinction that bared its teeth when she went to jail.
“Jail was disgusting, the first attack was on my sense of smell — the stench of vomit, urine and body odor was suffocating,” Hollander says. “The second was the sounds from other prisoners coughing, retching and addicts howling for relief. The third assault was from streetwalkers who mocked [me] and made verbal threats.”
Hollander, meanwhile, not only wrote more books but also a sex advice column, “Call Me Madam,” for Penthouse magazine for 35 years. Her life was the basis of a porn movie (in which she did not appear). Now she and her current husband run a bed-and-breakfast right outside of Amsterdam called Xaviera’s Happy House — a “bordello, but people have to bring their own partner or partners,” she says — where he cooks and she regales guests with stories of her long life.
“It was like having our own, personal one-woman show,” says one of her guests. “Hollander is a wonderful and amazing woman, and … it’s all due to her intelligence and quick wit.” That, and a willingness to embrace (and sometimes monetize) something that should be a given for most: The premise that sex is good.
Hollander has also gone political, pushing for Amsterdam’s red-light district to start to levy fees on tourists since voyeur tourism is scaring away customers, and shrinking the district since the sex workers have less work. So while the business itself is possibly less happy than when she wrote The Happy Hooker, Hollander continues to live some version of what she considers her best life, shopping other books and traveling when she’s not Happy Housing.
Is a kiss-and-tell book about some of her more famous clients in the works?
“If this was still 1970 and I wasn’t so ethical and protective of the identity of my clients I might be willing to divulge names,” she says, laughing. “But being the entrepreneur I am it wouldn’t be to the press. The only exception might be disclosing Trump’s sexual oddities, but unfortunately, we seem to have had everyone in New York except each other … but, you know, my memory isn’t perfect.”