Up, up the winding Benedict Canyon road whizzed the two young women in the black Corvette, buzzing near some of the most exclusive addresses in Los Angeles: Jack Lemmon's, Jay Leno's, Bruce Springsteen's. By the lop of the bluff, they stopped, opened a set of gates and continued up a fir-and azalea-lined drive to a dramatic white contemporary with a million-dollar view of the city. The house had belonged to Michael Douglas, the driver confided; its new owner was none other than herself: Heidi Fleiss, high school dropout. "I was just staring at her, I was in shock," the longtime friend recalls. An amused smile lit up Heidi's green eyes. Then she said, "They're going to be writing books about me one day. I'm going to be a legend."
That day has come much sooner than even Heidi anticipated. A year after showing off her new spread, the coltish, straw-thin brunette has become the holiest name in Hollywood—as the alleged "Madam to the Stars." Since the 27-year-old party girl—daughter of a prominent local pediatrician and a former schoolteacher—was busted in an undercover sting operation in June on felony pandering and narcotics charges, car phones from Melrose to Malibu have been crackling. The rumor? That she would reveal some of the household names reportedly bedecking the pages of her not-so-little black book. Among them were said to be two dozen high-profile and highly married stars, as well as film executives who had allegedly squandered studio development money on sex and drugs.
After Heidi threatened to tell all for a $1 million book deal—she wasn't serious, she later said—reporters began calling just about every celeb she'd ever been seen near at a party or nightspot. Denials were soon winging in. even from one man whose name hadn't been mentioned publicly. Among those reported party goers distancing themselves, via statements through lawyers and publicists: Jack Nicholson ("No comment"), producer Robert Evans ("He's a family friend. She refers to him as Mr. Evans") and director Oliver Stone ("To the best of his knowledge, he has never met Heidi').
The scandal has "frozen the town. This kind of thing happens in Hollywood once a decade," says Academy Award-winning producer Julia Phillips (The Sting
), who named plenty of names in her own best-selling memoir about her drugged-out Hollywood days, You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again
. "There have been guys who have decorated their tables with hookers and felt totally unimpeachable about it for years. If it's true that they financed it with development money...they deserve to sweat for a while!"
The dangerous liaison between stars and the sex trade is as old as the (Hollywood) Hills. Beautiful flesh is, after all, the coin of the realm, and hustling is an approved means of conducting business. And yet there's something distinctly different about the Heidi Chronicles—something that brought a ravening media horde to the L.A. Municipal Court Building for her Aug. 9 arraignment. Perhaps it's that the financial improprieties alleged may well end up overshadowing the sexual scandal. Perhaps it's that the revelations Heidigate seems to promise may jeopardize a number of Hollywood's most supposedly happy homes. Or maybe it has something to do with Heidi herself and the newer, brasher breed she appears to represent.
Although insiders say Hollywood has always had a high-class call-girl scene, "it was really a low-key, secret profession," maintains William Stadiem, a writer who has been collaborating on a book with the fabled "Madam Alex," the doyenne of pricey Hollywood vice for nearly two decades until her 1988 pandering arrest. Meanwhile, Heidi—who police say learned the tricks of the trade from the genteel Madam Alex—is about as subtle as a slasher movie. Her sheer chutzpah rivals that of any star or studio head. Awaiting her court appearance last week, she laughingly told the Los Angeles Times, "I could have 50 girls there in hats that say 'Heidi Ho'! But I dunno, do you think that'd be appropriate?" Heidi, says a source, "liked to be out there, admired. She wants to be the rock star."
And that was her undoing, according to Capt. Glenn Ackerman, who assumed command of the LAPD's administrative vice division in December. Fleiss and the reported million-dollar-plus annual operation she had allegedly been running for the past three years became a prime tar-gel for him, Ackerman has explained, because of "her own big mouth."
From early on, Heidi sought the spotlight. Perhaps the hunger was fed by-being the third of six children, always part of a pack. "It was like being in the Von Trapp house...all these brown-haired girls with long, flowing tresses, running all over the place," says a childhood friend who frequently visited the Spanish-style hacienda in affluent Los Feliz, where Heidi was indulgently raised by Paul, a pediatrician affiliated with UCLA, and his now ex-wife, Elissa. Her brothers and sisters excelled at school; Heidi majored in running wild.
It started small—in junior high, shoplifting at the mall. By high school, Heidi was stealing car radios, cutting classes to go to the racetrack, then using her occasional winnings to pay other students to let her cheat from them. She was also selling pot from the plants she surreptitiously grew in her family's terraced, shrubbed yard. "It's not like she needed the money," says a friend who wants to remain anonymous. "She did it for the thrill." Partial to cutoff T-shirts with no bra underneath, Heidi "used to like to flash people in front of clubs while we were wailing in line," her friend says. Yet she didn't date much, perhaps because guys her own age held little interest for her. Later, Heidi confided that she preferred older men—she liked the sex better.
Not long after dropping out of high school, Heidi got a wake-up call, a warning that her life was skidding out of control. She dozed right through it. Drunk and on downers, according to a close friend, Heidi flipped her Jeep with six passengers in the parking lot of a Hollywood nightclub in July 1984. The accident nearly severed the arm of younger sister Shana, then 17. But once again, Heidi, who fled the scene, didn't have to face the music. She wasn't seriously hurt, there were no charges filed, and her folks bought her a brand-new Jeep.
A few months later, Heidi was wailing tables when a friend invited her to an exclusive party at a Beverly Hills mansion. Fresh-faced Fleiss caught the roving eye of host Bernie Cornfeld, a playboy international financier 38 years her senior whose previous flames had included the young Victoria Principal. Fleiss and Cornfeld embarked on a four-year affair whose sumptuous trappings—his 12th-century French château, yachting in the Caribbean—fit her like an Azzedine Alaia catsuit. By the lime the romance ended amicably in 1988, Fleiss was left with a vintage Mustang convertible and a heightened appetite for the good life.
From Cornfeld, Heidi segued to another older man, 50-year-old Ivan Nagy, a Hungarian-born director of TV movies and action shows (Starsky and Hutch
) whose career was on a downswing. Though their affair was brief, the bitter fallout—including mutual restraining orders—continues. After his Aug. 4 arrest on suspicion of running a separate Hollywood prostitution ring, Nagy, now 55, was still slinging mud at his ex-lover—whose trick book he claims to have copied. (Heidi maintains that all Nagy has is a calendar to which he has added names.)
"Nagy is bad news. I am sure he set her up," says Cornfeld, who has remained close to Heidi, a guest at his château just three months ago. "He was very jealous. He would even spray a garden hose through her window in some of his fits."
It was Nagy who appears to have given Fleiss her entrée into the world of high-class hooking. "Ivan brought Heidi here," Madam Alex told the Los Angeles Times
, the paper that broke the story. "He made her work for me to pay off a gambling debt." Subsequently, police say, Heidi became the madam's "No. 1 girl," a title Alex's writing partner, Stadiem, disputes. "Alex's type was the tall, beautiful, voluptuous California blonde," he says. "Heidi is a cute sort of little princess that appeals to a lot of studio executives. I think she may remind them of their wives."
Top girl or not, Heidi was clearly one of Alex's most ambitious employees. Either because she stole Alex's phone numbers—as Madam has charged—or simply because she had the right looks, energy and drive, by 1991 the young upstart had a booming business of her own. "The other madams don't hang out with the stars," says "Rachel," a 27-year-old aspiring actress who worked for Heidi two years ago. "Heidi's young and cool, and she can hang out."
Her original base of operations was a two-bedroom West Hollywood bungalow convenient to the trendy nightspots favored by the young and the hip. By July of 1992, though, Fleiss was flush enough to move up to the $1.65 million Benedict Canyon aerie purchased in her father's name. (It is unclear what, if anything, Fleiss' parents knew about her activities. "None of it is true about my daughter," Dr. Fleiss has said.) At the time of her arrest, according to Ackerman, Heidi had access to a stable of at least a hundred mostly college-age girls, a dozen of whom were working on a typical evening. Their average asking rate: $1,500 a night, with Heidi raking in 40 percent of the take.
To ensure a constant stream of nubile, fresh flesh—"The Johns are not interested in seeing the same girl more than once or twice," according to Ackerman—police say Heidi usually recruited at the rock clubs and bistros she frequented. Her approach was direct, simple, audacious. At a dinner party she once offered a very attractive young woman she had never met before $3,000 to spend an evening with a client after one of her girls called in sick. That woman turned her down—but many didn't. "I'm into bonking," explains one of Heidi's ex-girls. "And as long as I'm going to bonk, I might as well gel paid for it."
But for the cream of Heidi's clientele, the A-list actors and movie moguls, some of the girls would have worked on the house. "——gels it for free," says Rachel of one Oscar winner. "Girls want to get in with him and go to the clubs." Rachel claims to have slept with a well-known young star for $2,500. Why would stars like this pay for hookers? "They're in high-profile marriages. They cannot go out to bars and meet women," Rachel says. "They don't want to anyway—no hassles, no strings and no having to go out in public. Like [a former celeb client] says, 'I don't pay them to come over, I pay them to leave.' "
But eventually, Heidi's high profile and boasting—according to police she'd told one of them who came to her house on an unrelated matter that "I've done more things in one year as a madam than most people accomplish in their lifetime"—made her a top vice target. The hook was baited back in April when Det. Sammy Lee, posing as a Honolulu businessman, wangled an introduction to Heidi at the elegant Beverly Hills watering spot then known as the Rangoon Racquet Club. After a series of phone calls, they met Two months later at the Beverly Hilton to work out the details of the "entertainment" Lee said he needed for Japanese clients. (See box.)
The next night, after Heidi's girls arrived at the hotel, police nabbed the alleged madam at home in Benedict Canyon. "She told us that we should have better things to do than arresting a poor little party girl," says Ackerman, who was there. "She said we ought to be out arresting real criminals, not her." Among the evidence confiscated were bank statements, audiotapes, 13 grams of cocaine—and the notorious black book. But police say that, legally speaking, it's not quite the smoking gun the public seems to think. "Unless she puts those names in context and assigns activities, times and places," Ackerman says, "what does it mean?"
Still, le tout Hollywood seems to be anxiously waiting for the other spiked heel to drop. Public denials from those anxious to distance themselves from the alleged madam appeared in the days before the Aug. 9 arraignment at which Heidi—sporting movie-star shades and a Norma Kamali mini—pleaded not guilty to five counts of pandering and one of "cocaine possession for transportation or sale" and was continued on $100,000 bail until her next court date, Sept. 10. (If convicted of all charges, she could be sentenced to as much as 11 years in jail.) "I have never used her professional services, and God knows I don't need to," said rocker Billy Idol in a statement issued by his publicist. "Fortunately, I've never had to pay for sex."
The most surprising demurral came from Columbia Pictures executive vice president Michael Nathanson, 37—who had never been publicly linked to Fleiss. His statement saying that he "never did business with Heidi on any level" and "had not done anything that should cause any concern on behalf of Columbia" only fanned persistent industry rumors that bogus development deals at the troubled studio were being used to pay for prostitutes and drugs. Some have theorized that Nathanson was attempting to deflect public speculation concerning others at Columbia.
For all those who wish the only Heidi they'd ever heard of was the G-rated Swiss miss, there are still plenty of people eager to, well, get into bed with her. Among the many offers suitors hope she won't be able to refuse are ones for quickie films, books and screenplays. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione says he's negotiating for Heidi to bare all—either pictorially or in an article—because "she is offering us a glimpse of the intimate, secret side of the images we see on the big screen."
The woman at the center of the media maelstrom is far from surprised. Relaxing at home after a courthouse crush that rivaled mobs at the Rodney King proceedings, Hollywood's flavor of the moment had a grin and just two words: "Sex sells."
TOM CUNNEFF, LYNDON STAMBLER, KRISTINA JOHNSON, LORENZO BENET, KAREN G. JACKOVICH in Los Angeles, JANE SUGDEN in New York City and ROBERT KROON at the Château de Pelly
- Tom Cunneff,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Kristina Johnson,
- Lorenzo Benet,
- Karen G. Jackovich,
- Jane Sugden,
- Robert Kroon.