Could this demure, disarming creature, whose ancestors stepped ashore from the Mayflower 366 years ago, be the woman who commanded a bevy of high-priced Manhattan call girls? No wicked-lady props, no Belle Watling wardrobe—just a stack of Cosmos beside the satin-swathed bed and a week's worth of Nancy Reagan frocks hanging in a doorway. (Sydney's publisher is sending her to L.A. tomorrow to hustle Mayflower Madam, the Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows, Arbor House, $17.95, and she has yet to pack.) Sitting in a velvet chair and pouring tea from a pink-and-white pot, the onetime debutante, 34, looks like nothing so much as a well-bred woman buoyed by a thriving career. Never mind that a vice squad shut down her business in 1984, and that she was fined $5,000 after pleading guilty to promoting prostitution. That profession, she protests, is a "service business"; running a call-girl operation, "a marketing opportunity." In Sydney's opinion, living off the fruit of a hooker's labors is scarcely different from, say, making one's living as a literary agent. "I can't find it in my heart to feel sorry about running a good business that preserved the dignity of everybody involved," she says.
While the book-buying public may not be buying Barrows' line, it seems taken with the notion that a blueblood would resort to flesh-peddling. Her memoir, written by lacocca ghost William Novak, is moving up on the best-seller lists. A teleplay is in the works, and she informs everyone from Phil Donahue to the Washington Post that she's just another tenderhearted soul who brings doggie bags to the sweet old lady next door.
"When I started the escort service, I didn't think about propriety," she says airily. "I probably knew that if I thought about it I wouldn't do it. How many times have you gone out with some guy you knew was wrong for you, but he was so cute and so sexy you didn't care?" Her career had begun conventionally enough: After studying merchandising and business management at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, Barrows was an executive trainee at Abraham & Strauss and, later, an accessory buyer for clothing stores. In need of money after being fired from a firm that allegedly tried to embroil her in a kickback scheme, she found a job answering the phone for an escort service. For Sydney, it was a short leap from there to setting up her own business. "It really looked like fun. It looked lucrative, and it looked like a real challenge," she says.
Like any proper businesswoman, she did market research—making factfinding trips to upscale brothels and taking notes on the dubious establishment where she fielded phone calls. With a pseudonym (Sheila Devin) and a partner she set herself up in a West Side brownstone early in 1980. Recruited through carefully worded newspaper ads, her girls—models, students, actresses and housewives—couldn't have had less in common with their streetwalking rivals, as Barrows tells it. Bright, attractive, well-groomed, they were dispatched only to Manhattan's best addresses and carried credit-card machines in their attaché cases.
Ironically, Barrows' sense of ethics kicks in when it comes to protecting her Who's Who list of clients. "One of the things these men were paying for was discretion," she says. "They were great guys—they'd give the girls career advice, set up job interviews for them. Why would I want to hurt them? Can you imagine the kind of karma I'd attract?" A delicate shudder.
While Sydney hastens to point out that she never went on calls ("Did Lee lacocca have to work on the assembly line to run Chrysler?"), she came away from the escort business with a store of theories about What Men Want (in brief, guilt-free sex). But the saucy shoptalk ended when "Sheila" left the office. Most of those in her private life simply accepted her cover story about being an accessories buyer, and the few who knew her real calling (including two successive corporate-mover boyfriends) weren't eager to hear the specifics. Nor were her parents—New Jersey socialite Jeannette Biddle Ballantine Barrows (now Moltzer) and publishing executive Donald Barrows (who left Sydney's mother in 1956). "My family has taken the tack of acting as if the whole thing never happened. Although I think my father admired my success—he always said, 'I don't care if you're a ditch digger, as long as you're the best.' "
If Sydney's 1984 bust was a shock, she has since come to see it as a blessing: How else might a business-. woman diversify with such dispatch? Clothing manufacturers and a lingerie house are calling; a lecture bureau wants to put her on the circuit; a novel is in the works, and "there have been many, many offers from the entertainment industry," she reports.
True, some fastidious souls are protesting, but Barrows (who was booted from boarding school for insubordination) has always enjoyed the role of maverick. "Some people can't stand it. They say, 'She was this naughty girl and now she's making out.' They probably figure I won't end up Up There but, quite frankly, I wouldn't know anyone there anyway. All my friends are going to be Down There. You know—'Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.' "
Somehow, one senses that she has uttered that sentiment before.
It is the end of a long, long day of book-hawking for Sydney Biddle Barrows, and her New York apartment is being commandeered by a photographer who wants wardrobe changes, tea-pouring scenes and, now, action shots. While Sydney has obligingly dragged a small trampoline from behind a chintz-covered sofa, she's balking at the suggestion that she peel off the jacket of her pink sweatsuit. "I'm not wearing a bra—my breasts are going to flop around," she worries.