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The biggest power players in today’s Hollywood are pretty obvious: the money mavens and creative minds behind the studios and streaming platforms that have been keeping us afloat with pandemic binges. The list is predictable…and incredibly boring considering the juicy history of 20th-century Hollywood.
If you time travelled just a few decades into the past, you would encounter influential characters of a different ilk, women like Elizabeth Adams who worked in the shadows and from the comfort of her plush satin bed and who tallied her power in the secrets she held.
After more than a decade of running her very lucrative trade, Elizabeth Adams decided to do a marketing refresh in 1985 with new business cards that advertised: “Alex’s Aviary, beautiful and exotic birds.” Three years later, the 56-year-old Madam Alex, as she was known, would be charged with pandering, pimping, and receiving stolen property for her role as one of the biggest pimps to the Hollywood stars.
Over the course of her decades-long career, Madam Alex was a boss and to hundreds of women including the infamous Heidi Fleiss. She procured girls for billionaire businessmen, members of the Hollywood elite, and Middle Eastern royalty.
And then, the cover was whipped off of her birdcage. When Madam Alex went on trial in 1991, the men who had become her devoted customers found themselves in a real pickle. As they learned lines for their next blockbusters and spent their families’ oil fortunes, they also had to wonder: would their names soon be showing up in the headlines?
“She had a hundred cats, an Olympic-size pool filled with naked models and starlets, and soup tureens filled with cocaine”
Those who were in the know were living large in the 1970s and ’80s thanks to Madam Alex, who wined, dined, and supplied her chosen clients at her home. But to those who weren’t a part of this luxuriously seedy scene, an aura of scandalous mystery surrounded L.A.’s premier escort when she was pulled out of bed and into the criminal spotlight in the late 1980s.
As journalists like Jesse Kornbluth—writing for Vanity Fair—dug into her past, Madam Alex’s story emerged as that of the classic American Dream, but with a modern twist: rags to sex, drugs, and celebrity riches. Born in Manila, Alex immigrated to San Francisco with her family when she was 17, and soon set out to make it on her own. She worked for a group of priests in Oakland; married, had two kids, and got divorced; married again to a man she always suspected of being a mob hitman.
Throughout it all, she was guided by the fearless and strong-willed spirit ingrained in her during her tumultuous early life. Alex told Kornbluth in 1989 that when her first husband took her sons in the divorce, her response was, “Keep them.” She explained, “It’s not that I don’t have a maternal instinct—though I don’t. I just hate to be manipulated.”
Her big break in Hollywood was a product of chance, or maybe kismet. She was working in a flower shop when she struck up a conversation with a customer who happened to be a madam who was ready to retire. Alex saw an opportunity and bought her business—in this case, her little black book—for $5,000.
Over time, Alex built herself into Los Angeles’ leading high-end madam, one willing customer, one California dream girl makeover at a time. Her style of operating wasn’t as demure (read: cautious) as others in her position, like France’s famous Madame Claude. Instead, she adapted the madam playbook to the glittering style of 1960s and ’70s Hollywood.
“She had a hundred cats, an Olympic-size pool filled with naked models and starlets, and rare China soup tureens filled with cocaine,” William Stadiem writes in Madame Claude, of the distinctive style of Madam Alex, who entertained clients at her private home. “She had lavish lunches and dinners for her clients, most of whom knew one another either from the movie business or the oil business or the arms business and had nothing to hide from the other members of their clubby elite. Alex was careful not to mix movie people with music people or with businesspeople at her swinging soirees and wild afternoons.”
At the height of her business, she was making $100,000 a month and, according to later statements by the authorities, provided the “best” of all the L.A. escort services. When she wasn’t hosting parties, she was holding court from the comfort of her plush bed with her favorite Persian furball, Georgie, at her side eating shrimp specially sourced for him. Her business was conducted almost entirely on the phone from her bed, where she would spend hours listening to the deepest secrets of her clients before she set them up with the perfect companion for the evening.
By most accounts, Alex was a good boss whose women looked up to her. There were no shortage of potential candidates with the number of women pouring into L.A. at the time with little more than a dream in their pockets. Once they realized that Madam Alex was running a tasteful operation that could garner them up to two grand a day, many decided to give up their crappy modeling jobs and background acting roles to embrace a more lucrative career.
Madam Alex had high standards for her “birds.” She would coach new women on where to get facials, waxes, and the clothing she considered appropriate (while she was willing to distribute tureens of cocaine to her clients, her tastes when it came to the fashion of her ‘creatures,’ as she often called the women who worked for her, was almost unstylishly conservative). While Alex’s business was built out of the percentages she took from their work, many of her girls also said she was generous with them, and she was always trying to play the role of mentor and quasi-mother.
“She’s constantly trying to fix you up and marry you off—she introduced me to my boyfriend,” one of her “favorite girls” told Kornbluth. “‘Marry your boyfriend,’ she tells the girls. ‘It’s better than going to prison.’ When you go out with her, she’ll buy you a present; she’s incredibly generous that way. And she’ll always tell you to save money and get out. It’s frustrating to her when girls call at the end of the month and say they need rent money. She wants to see you do well.”
Alex explained her business to Kornbluth: “That was my big idea, not to expand the book by aggressive marketing, but to make sure that nobody mistook my girls for run-of-the-mill hookers. And I kept my roster fresh. This was not a business where you peddle your ass, get exploited, and then are cast off. I screen clients. I never sent girls to weirdos. I let the men know: no violence, no costumes, no fudge-packing.”
Madam Alex wasn’t just pragmatic when it came to her employees and the way she ran her business; she also secretly hedged her bets by cozying up to the LAPD, both as an informant and allegedly as a procuress of tips of a different sort, according to Stadiem.
Collaborating with the LAPD was a big risk to take in a business built on secrecy, one that didn’t entirely pay off. After launching a sting operation in which an officer posed as a new client, the police eventually took Madam Alex down, slapping her with a slew of charges ranging from pimping to receiving stolen property.
But Alex was a survivor. She eventually got off with just probation, a light sentence that many suspect was due to her vocal threats to call in every officer who had had “dealings” with her to serve as a witness. Turns out, the LAPD didn’t want to see their names in the headlines any more than the Hollywood directors and actors.
While Alex avoided prison as well as revealing the names of her best clients, she found herself in a jail of a different sort when she got home. Not to be deterred by her recent brush with the law, she was eager to pull her escort service back together only to discover a shocking betrayal. In what she would call the “Whore Wars,” Alex alleged that her beloved protégée, 26-year-old Heidi Fleiss, who got her start in prostitution working as one of Madam Alex’s “creatures,” had stolen her business.
“She used to work for me and then eventually became a madam herself,” Alex told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. “She stole my business, my books, my girls, my guys and now, finally, she has stolen my jewels! She tells people she wants to be the Madam Alex of her generation. Hah! She’ll never be me. When I gave it up, it took seven ladies to do what I did all by myself.”
Fleiss may have gotten the more lofty nickname—she became known as the Hollywood Madam—but Alex got the final dig. While she died only a few years later, she lived long enough to see Fleiss sentenced to three years in jail for pandering.
In 1995, Alex died with no regrets. As she told The Los Angeles Times in 1988 while she was still facing down possible jail time, “I had a very good run. If it was legal, I wouldn’t give it up, ever. The wonderful people you meet, people you’d only read about.”