Famous LA Madams
￼If you hear the phrase “Hollywood Madam,” then you probably think of someone like Heidi Fleiss; the woman who ran a successful prostitution ring in the 1990s, which counted many celebrities among its clients. But Heidi is just one in a very long line of madams who carved successful, lucrative careers out of the LA sex trade. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially, Los Angeles was still a burgeoning boom town and bordellos were big business. The women who ran them were strong, independent and not constrained by the moral and cultural conventions of the day. Prostitutes and madams were allowed to own property, make their own money, have oral sex, use contraception, wear makeup, dance, get drunk and walk anywhere they wanted without a chaperone – in other words, all the things today’s women take for granted.
In fact, LA’s madams were so rich, they often funded community projects like improving road systems, investing in public transport and establishing utilities like electricity and gas supplies in neighborhoods that needed it. They also provided a kind of health insurance for their girls, long before the concept became common practice. Madams also had a good relationship with the police – for a price, of course – and enjoyed much more security and protection than a respectable wife could expect from her husband.
Here’s my pick of the most famous, influential and enterprising madams in the history of LA.
1. Cora May Phillips (1872-1912) and
2. Pearl Morton (????-????)
Not much is known about two of LA’s earliest madams except that were both popular, successful and very wealthy. Cora May Phillips ran The Golden Lion brothel in Alameda Street, an opulent bordello complete with two stone lions ‘guarding’ the entrance from the street. It was kitted out with lush fabrics, decadent furniture, plush carpets and drapes, plus two Steinway pianos. Everyone from civic leaders to court officers and rich businessmen would frequent the Golden Lion and Phillips was a lively and friendly hostess.
Her contemporary, and friendly rival, was Pearl Morton, who rand Morton’s Municipal Brothel. So sassy was Morton that she even took over a disused building which sat opposite the County Courthouse and was just a stone’s throw from a police station and other law enforcement offices. Morton was a generous woman, often helping the community financially, donating to charity and insisting on good manners and a big smile from all her girls. Always respectable on the outside, Morton saved any ostentation for the inside of her brothel, which was lavishly decorated with chandeliers, French furniture and huge gilt-edged mirrors. A local doctor would come by once a week to give all the girls a health check, and when there was an event happening in town, Morton would get all her girls dressed up and let them ride carriages, whooping and hollering as they went – quite the spectacle. When legislation finally closed the brothel businesses in 1909, Morton simply moved to San Francisco and started again, whereas Phillips was forced into retirement and died just three later in 1912, aged 40.
2. Lee Francis (d.1998)
One of LA’s most successful madams, Francis was active during the ‘golden age’ of vice in the 1920s and 1930s. Operating out of a grand building nicknamed the ‘House of Francis,’ she ran a very classy, sophisticated joint which quickly became popular with the celebrities, movers and shakers of the day. So famous was Francis’s clientele (which included Spencer Tracy and Errol Flynn,) that men dubbed ‘Hollywood Fixers’ were charged with covering up the visits by all the movie stars who wanted to frequent the House of Francis. It’s also alleged that the MGM movie studio had a business account with Francis to make financial transactions easier.
Many of the girls who worked there were aspiring actresses, who soon realized that they could earn far more working for Francis – as much as $1,000 a week. Even the cops were treated like royalty, Francis insisting that all police officers who showed up (even if they were on a raid) were greeted with ‘The Three Cs’ – champagne, caviar…and cash. If they couldn’t find anyone to arrest or anything to investigate (Francis always got tipped off,) then the lucky cops would be invited to sit down and enjoy the girls’ hospitality on the house. A frequent visitor was the movie star Jean Harlow, who used to pay Francis $500 to take one of the girls home with her. Francis’s luck did eventually run out, however, and she was jailed for 30 days on a morals charge, leaving the throne vacant. In 1986, Lee Francis wrote her memoirs entitled “Ladies On Call: The Most Intimate Recollections of a Hollywood Madam.”
3. Ann Forrester (d.1998)
Nicknamed ‘The Black Widow’ because of her famous ‘little black book,’ Ann Forrester was quick to fill the empty madam shoes left by Lee Francis. Within a very short space of time she managed to get over nearly two hundred girls on her books, promising them earnings of up to $400 a week. Forrester was quite a ruthless madam, however, and did not suffer fools gladly. Girls who did not live up to her high expectations were dismissed quickly, and she was a hard taskmaster, often demanding that each girl ‘service’ a minimum number of clients per night. One of the girls who worked for Brenda Allen (see below,) who was fated to take over the reins from Ann after she was convicted of running a ‘white slavery ring’ in 1940 and sent to jail.
4. Brenda Allen (c.1910-1998)
Active during the height of LA’s “noir” scene of the 1940s, Brenda Allen was a prominent madam who inherited her business after the previous ‘Grand Madam,’ Ann Forrester, Allen’s former mentor, was convicted and jailed. What set Brenda apart from other madams, and definitely helped her avoid the fate of Forrester, was her relationship with Sergeant Elmer Jackson of the LAPD. Having a vice cop for a lover meant that Brenda was always one step ahead of any potential raids or investigations. She also had friends in the Mob, most notable Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen.
Allen made around $5,000 a week from her brothel business, but the game was up in 1948 when a new police chief, intent on cleaning up the streets of LA, set up wiretaps on Allen and Jackson which exposed Jackson’s corruption and led to Allen being charged with running a prostitution ring. Despite a female undercover police officer admitting to perjury during the trial, Allen was sentenced to a year in jail but served just four months. On her release, with her empire in tatters, Allen retired into obscurity and died in 1968.
5. Alex Adams (1935-1995)
Known as the Mother Superior of prostitution, Elizabeth “Alex” Adams was one of the wealthiest women in America and ran what LA police called “the classiest brothel in town.” Working under the name ‘Madam Alex,’ she procured, trained and operated a ring of high-class, sophisticated prostitutes who were able to charge anything from $300 for two hours, to $2,000 for the whole day. At the height of her success, Adams was personally earning $100,000 a month and her little black book contained not just the names and numbers of various celebrities, politicians and wealthy Arab sheikhs, but also their personal sexual secrets.
An exotic creature of Filipino, Spanish and German heritage, Adams was an expert at working the system to her advantage, keeping police on her payroll and using charm and diplomacy to not only avoid adverse press coverage, but also to tempt new clients her way. Famous for rarely leaving her house (“the world always came to her,”) Madam Alex Adams had a famous feud (“The Whore Wars”) with her former protege, Heidi Fleiss, who betrayed her mentor and struck out on her own, taking Adams’ famous black book with her. Adams died of heart failure in 1998 aged 60, while Fleiss obviously lived on to fight another day.
6. Heidi Fleiss (1965-)
Possibly the most famous in LA, certainly of modern times, Heidi Fleiss was trained under the watchful eye of Madam Alex after they were introduced by Fleiss’s much older boyfriend, Hungarian film director Ivan Nagy. It was 1987 and the vice trade was in decline because there simply weren’t enough young, attractive girls to go around. Being just 22, Heidi was tasked by Madam Alex to use her looks and charm to befriend and recruit gorgeous young women to add to the portfolio, which is exactly what Heidi did. Unfortunately, however, Fleiss got a taste for power and decided to strike out on her own and start a rival prostitution ring, even stealing Madam Alex’s famed black book in order to hijack her clients.
Fleiss claims it only took four months for her to make her first million and she became so successful by 1992 that she was actually turning girls away. Fleiss’s client list was long and illustrious, but that didn’t stop the Feds from calling and, in 1994, Fleiss was charged with pandering. Her subsequent conviction was overturned two years later and the authorities had to settle for getting her on a tax evasion ticket instead in 1998. Since her release in 1999, Fleiss has become a media personality and sex coach, and had a well-publicized relationship with Hollywood actor, Tom Sizemore.
8. Jody Gibson
Nicknamed “Hollywood Super Madam,” Jody Gibson was born into an affluent family in upstate New York. Her talent agent mother discovered Tom Cruise, her sister was a respected actress and her aunt was a singer with her own Hollywood Walk of Fame star. Jody, however, was destined for a different path. After starting out in showbusiness, Jody realized she wouldn’t make it as a singer, actress or model, and turned to something more lucrative – running a high end prostitution ring. Running the two lives – one as ‘Babydoll the model’ and the other as ‘Sasha the madam’ – wasn’t always easy, though, and after a 7-year investigation by police, Gibson was eventually arrested in 1999 at a time when she had over 300 of Hollywood’s most beautiful girls working for her. She spent nearly two years in prison (she was assaulted several times) but on her release she added another string to her bow – writing. Her memoirs, Secrets of a Hollywood Super Madam, were explosive, naming several movie stars and Hollywood big-hitters like Bruce Willis, Don Simpson and The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones among her extensive client list.
Today, Gibson dabbles in music producing, modeling and appearing on the lecture tour to entertain listeners with tales of her spicy past.