Vet-Turned-Vip Tom Bird Is Stuck on New York's 'mayflower Madam'
06/17/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
Ten years after Vietnam, New York is honoring its vets. At dusk in Manhattan, thousands of former soldiers stream toward a small plaza where the city will dedicate its Vietnam memorial, a translucent-glass block wall inscribed with the writings of the war's dead and wounded. Many ex-Gls arrive in old combat fatigues; a few—the vets who've become VIPs—are in black tie. One of them comes to the desk where he has been instructed to pick up his ticket. But there is no ticket for Tom Bird. He asks again. Finally Bird, 38, leaves in a huff, missing an event he has been awaiting for years. "It's not just this," he mutters of the ticket mix-up. "It's this plus the fact that they wouldn't let me bring my girlfriend."
Bird's girlfriend is Sydney Biddle Barrows, 33—an American blue blood, one of the Philadelphia Biddies—who until eight months ago would have been welcome on any dais. But last October police sledgehammered their way into her office, and Sydney was exposed as "Sheila Devin," alleged owner of a chic brothel on Manhattan's West Side. In an irresistible salute to her forebears, the New York tabloids quickly dubbed her the "Mayflower Madam" and made her a front-page regular. Says Bird: "The Veterans Memorial Commission was afraid that if I brought Sydney, we'd create a photo opportunity that would steal their thunder."
Ironically Bird is sharing Barrows' limelight at a time when he could easily command his own. Six years after he founded VETCo—an acting company composed of Vietnam vets and dedicated to presenting "the human side of war"—Bird has a hit show, Tracers, which has played to SRO crowds at New York's Public Theater since January. The critics have applauded the play, which examines the lives of eight soldiers during and after Vietnam, but its true champions are vets, some of whom arrive at the theater in uniform and cry during the performance. Says Bird: "The appeal of the play is that it says, 'We are who we are because of Vietnam. You can accept us or not.' "
That challenge could just as easily apply to Bird, whose adult life has swirled around his Vietnam experience. Soon after coming home from the war in 1966, he assaulted an antiwar demonstrator. That led to psychiatric care and two years of numbing Thorazine treatments. His marriage ended, he says, when his wife discovered he still had nightmares about the war. Then, as one of the first vets to return to Vietnam after the war, he was accused of being a traitor. And he was publicly embarrassed last year when Esquire magazine disclosed that he had falsely claimed for more than a decade that he had been a POW. Says Bird: "I've been through some real trying times, but that helps me in my relationship with Sydney. I can relate to what she's going through. Anyway nothing she's going through could scare me away. I tell her, 'If it's not going to kill you, or lock you up forever, it's not that bad.' "
Barrows, whose lawyer forbids her to give interviews, could be tried as early as this summer for promoting prostitution and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. Bird is outraged: "As a Vietnam vet I go, 'What's the big deal?' " In Vietnam Gls patronized a 25-acre, barbed-wire-enclosed house of prostitution under the watchful eye of the Army. Says Bird: "You couldn't wait to get your weekend pass and go party. You figured if you're old enough to die for your country, you're old enough to get laid. Now the government is spending money to prosecute an alleged madam. Is that what the taxpayers want?"
Bird is sure Barrows will be acquitted, so sure that he talks about a political career with Sydney at his side. "I think she'll be a major asset," he says. Meanwhile the two spend their time discussing screenplays, agents and points. Bird is writing a movie about his 1981 trip to Vietnam. Barrows is planning a book and movie based on her life. Says Bird: "It's a whole new business for us to learn. And Sydney's a very good businesswoman. She gives me all kinds of advice."
There's no question that Barrows' story would be compelling. Politically right wing ("I know women on the Republican National Committee who pale compared to Sydney," says Tom), she was a regular guest at New York's Mayflower Ball, a gathering of Pilgrim-descended families. Meanwhile she was allegedly earning more than $1 million a year as a madam who ordered her employees to dress as if they were lunching with their grandfathers at a snooty club. This spring, to raise money for her defense, she staged a full-dress ball at New York's Limelight disco. Barrows showed up in a pink taffeta gown and the same white kid gloves she had worn as a debutante in 1970.
Still Bird's movie could rival his girlfriend's. He grew up in Freeport, Long Island in a conservative Irish Catholic family. "My relatives," he says, "made stoicism an ideal." A standout high school quarterback, he went to the University of Connecticut on a football scholarship but dropped out in his first semester. "It was a classic case of not being able to adjust to college," he recalls. "My parents literally said, 'You should join the Army and become a man.' " Tom proceeded to enlist. "When I told my family what I'd done," he reports, "in a complete turnaround, they said, 'No, you're not going to do that; you're going back to college.' That's when I knew I had to do it."
When Bird arrived in Vietnam in August 1965, he says, "I really believed in what I was doing. I had been raised to think the Communists were the enemy not only of the U.S. but also of the Catholic church." He began to change his mind when he killed for the first time—and realized the horror of "depriving somebody of everything you want for yourself." He went through the wallet of one of his victims and discovered photographs of his wife and children. "That," he says, "almost did me in." Bird claims he spent two hours on the verge of shooting himself in the leg in order to be sent home.
He received an honorable discharge after 13 months in Vietnam and several more as a drill sergeant at Fort Dix, N.J. In 1967 he returned to New York to enroll at Long Island's C.W. Post College. Ten months later he was watching an antiwar rally when "from out of the crowd, one of the guys called me a war criminal. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Hitler was a war criminal. I bashed the guy's head, breaking his jaw in a dozen places." Instead of going to jail, Bird was sentenced to two years in a psychiatrist's care. "I wanted to talk about Vietnam," says Tom, "what it had done to me. The shrink said, 'Forget Vietnam.' He wanted to talk about my mother." On the tranquilizer Thorazine for two years, Bird says he was in a perpetual stupor, which forced him to give up his dreams of playing professional football. "No one in my family understood. They all thought I'd gone bad."
When he returned to college, Bird got involved in the theater, a pursuit that "ironically attracted the same kids who were demonstrating against Vietnam. I told them to protest the war but not the warrior, a distinction America couldn't yet make." One of his first roles was the part of an asylum attendant in Marat/Sade. "I was typecast as the guy who beats everyone up," he says. But, dreaming of "doing a love scene with a 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor," he moved to Manhattan to study acting. For a while, he says, he was a protégé of drama coach Lee Strasberg. Bird claims that they parted company "because Lee wouldn't let me draw on my Vietnam experience. Like everyone else he didn't want to know about Vietnam. A national amnesia had set in."
In 1975 Bird married Constance Dorn, whom he describes as a "Miss America runner-up." She filed for an annulment after seven months. Bird says his wife claimed that "I had an anger about Vietnam I hadn't told her about before the marriage, and that I woke up with nightmares about the war. It was true—I still have nightmares about the people I killed—but I didn't think that a woman would run away because of that if she really loved me."
Bird became the superintendent of a small apartment building on Central Park West while trying to find work as an actor. He received offers to work on TV commercials and modeling assignments, but serious roles were hard to come by. He says he was turned down for a part in Apocalypse Now because "I wasn't antiwar enough. Meanwhile all the TV shows were portraying vets as crazed homicidal maniacs. I began to understand how blacks and Hispanics felt. That's when I decided I had to do something creative with my Vietnam experience."
That something was VETCo (Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Company), which he founded with a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Though still an actor (he had a small role in last year's The Killing Fields), Bird turned to producing. He mounted more than a dozen off-off-Broadway plays, but never had a hit.
Meanwhile he had "a controversial past I had to clear up." In 1981, as an officer of Vietnam Veterans of America, he had gone back to Vietnam to negotiate for news about MIAs and exchange information on the Agent Orange problem. Bird paid a visit to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. "It's not that I'm any big fan of Ho Chi Minh's," he says now. "We just wanted to impress the Vietnamese that we had come to reconcile." But at an angry press conference when he returned, he was denounced by members of other veterans' groups for playing into the enemy's hands. "We got hit with a political buzz saw," he says. "It left me rocking and reeling for a year."
Then Esquire discovered that Bird had lied when he'd said he had been a POW. The magazine told Bird it could only include him in its "register" of future American leaders if he would admit to the deception. Bird agreed, though "I feared it would ruin me." He says he first claimed he was a POW because he was being totally ignored, and "it brought me sympathy." Robert Muller, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, says, "Admitting he had lied was the hardest thing Tom had ever had to do, but going through it has made him much stronger."
The stage was set for Bird's breakthrough. With Public Theater czar Joseph Papp behind him, Bird arranged to have Tracers produced in New York. The play had run in California in 1980-81, but creator-director John DiFusco credits Bird with bringing it national recognition. Says DiFusco: "He kept pressing. Tracers' success in New York is a result of Tom's staying with it."
Even with the show flourishing, Bird earns just $250 a week as head of VETCo, and he lives in a small apartment in an unchic part of town. But there are fringe benefits: It was backstage at Tracers last January that a cast member introduced him to Barrows, a supporter of veterans groups. They soon began dating, and now he says, "We're deeply in like." Bird spends most nights at Sydney's West Side apartment, where she cooks him health food dinners. They have no plans to marry, and Tom says, "We've agreed I should keep my apartment, no matter how well things go between us, as a safety valve."
Bird wants someday to run for office ("If I make a lot of money in the movie business, for the Senate, otherwise, for Congress"). And he'd like Sydney to be with him. Says Tom: "Whenever my Irish temper comes up and I get angry, she always sees the bright side." He adds, without a trace of irony, "She's been a good influence on me already."