Dining on Memories at a Surreal Dinner In Honor of Heidi Fleiss
The million-dollar madam finally catches a break.
For the past few decades, I have come to find myself unwittingly engaged in an existential rendezvous with famed Hollywood madam, Heidi Fleiss. Every few years so, she touches my life in a brief yet meaningful way, and it recently came full circle when I was invited to a meal in her honor hosted by Los Angeles Eats Itself, a food-and-art dinner series that celebrates the sordid side of the city.
Fleiss Feast was designed to recall the apex of the tragically disgraced madam's enormously successful but no less brief and illicit career. It was a noble tribute to a complex lady, and it evoked the era in a way that was both familiar and new. But as someone who witnessed Fleiss's story unfold in real time, I felt I had a unique perspective of how well the dinner captured the zeitgeist of Heidi Fleiss's heyday heading up one of the biggest high-class prostitution rings in L.A. history.
As a college intern at a movie magazine in 1993, part of my duties involved driving up and down Wilshire Boulevard, running errands for the indie-film rag's editor-in-chief. I'd traverse the narrow, bucolic streets of Beverly Hills in an attempt to beat the ubiquitous bumper-to-bumper mid-city traffic.
One day, it was obvious the volume of traffic was way beyond usual, particularly near the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I noticed throngs of broadcast news vans with giant antennas grazing the palm trees. I wondered what could possibly be so newsworthy going down at the exact same hotel I drove past countless times without incident every week. When I got back to the office, I found out.
"Heidi Fleiss was in a sting operation," someone told me.
"Who's that?" I asked.
Within the years to follow, it became exceedingly obvious who Heidi Fleiss was. Her father, Dr. Paul M. Fleiss, was a pediatrician who had treated a few of my friends. The Los Angeles Times called him "everybody's favorite baby doctor," but as Heidi Fleiss's infamous prostitution ring garnered more and more coverage, the public discovered that the revered pediatrician had actually been helping his daughter launder her madam money. He paid a decent price for his role in his daughter's enterprise, and was put on a one-year probation by the Medical Board of California. But at least he was immortalized by Family Ties dad Michael Gross in the 1996 made-for-TV movie The Good Doctor: The Paul Fleiss Story.
Before her sting, Fleiss's history as a madam to the stars had been something of an open but well-guarded secret. The media was obsessed with the destiny of her so-called little black book, which listed the names of Fleiss's clients, who were probably afraid of being in as much trouble as Fleiss herself.
"My dad's name is in that book," a friend told at the time, bringing me that much closer to Fleiss's strange and salacious saga, though not quite close enough.
Some time in 1994, before Fleiss served her 20 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California for charges of tax evasion, I wandered into an unfamiliar store in Old Town Pasadena called Heidi Wear. I suddenly came face to face with the eponymous grand madam herself.
It felt like I knew her. The best part was, it felt as though she knew me, too. I promptly bought a bunch of Fleiss's flannel boxers with tiny pockets for condoms, all of which Fleiss graciously signed with a black sharpie and a genuinely appreciative smile.
The only time I've seen Heidi Fleiss since then has been on TV, particularly on the third season of Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew in 2009. She was trying to beat a nasty meth addiction. I found myself feeling sorry for her, believing that her fall from grace was unfair, and that she was robbed of a profession in which she excelled and provided a service. If it broke up families or somehow reflected badly on Hollywood (as though anything actually could), those were not her problems. Still, she paid the price.
These days, I hear Fleiss lives in Pahrump, Nevada, where prostitution is legal. Though she ostensibly moved there in order to establish a brothel, she settled for opening a laundromat called Dirty Laundry. Meanwhile, she tends to a flock of parrots, and according to Fleiss herself, the birds are keeping her sober. Of all the ways for a former madam to live out her middle age, it's not the worst.
I was reminded of my whole tangential story regarding the erstwhile prostitution boss when I was invited to Fleiss Feast a few weeks ago. Fleiss Feast was billed as a rare and surreal chance to time travel to the past and pretend to infiltrate Fleiss's inner circle, all through an artful recreation of her early career. I would be given the chance to judge just how '90s the whole setup actually was, while simultaneously paying tribute to a woman whose survival instincts and resilience remain an inspiration to me.
I arrived with another writer friend and Heidi fan and stepped into the dark and cavernous LA River Studios in Elysian Valley, a far cry from the bright and sunny Beverly Hills Hotel where Fleiss allegedly ran her business, poolside. As we entered the dimly lit ersatz "hotel lobby," we were greeted with a stunning blonde hostess who looked up our reservations and gave us each golden forks with attached bespoke "room keys" with our seat numbers. Young women dressed out of the film Clueless passed out Zima cocktails and an appetizer called "The Gilded Girl," i.e. golden potato skin, lobster mash, and chives.
We were all ushered toward the dining room, and into a scene that was as glamorous and dark as the Fleiss prostitution era itself.
The first thing we noticed was the digital replica of the Beverly Hills Hotel pool, complete with lounge chairs along the perimeter. Even though the whole thing was a projection, we were afraid to step on it in fear of breaking some sort of invisible LED screen.
After chatting on the lounge chairs and sipping our Zima cocktails, we found our way to our seats, located at a table designed for the outdoors, complete with an umbrella for (highly unnecessary) shade. The table and its setting were easily the most evocative and compelling part of the whole immersive dining installation, all of which was designed by artist Chris Reynolds.
Mirrors served as our placemats, topped with envelopes sealed with sparking wax and the letter "H," that, when opened, revealed a lining reminiscent of the famous palm-fronds wallpaper of the Beverly Hills Hotel. (The same design was hanging nearby as the backdrop for photo opps.) The envelope contained the menu for the evening, kicking off with small plates of "paparazzi popcorn," a spicy, peppery concoction that was a refreshing and amusing alternative to stale breadsticks. It was paired with a combination aperitif/aphrodisiac called "The Hollywood Madam," featuring sparkling wine, passionfruit mignonette, and oysters — though by the time we got our drinks, there were no oysters.
I noticed salmon-pink Hypercolor napkins that changed color with heat tucked neatly inside our water glasses. We were told they were all washed in Fleiss's laundromat, and that we were allowed to take them home in case we wanted to frame them or something.
As for the water, we were served nothing but the finest, bottled stylishly in a glass container labeled "LA River Water." It tasted like water.
The six-course menu was designed by Teresa Montańo, head chef of Pasadena-based restaurant Racion, as well as Chef Mia Wasilevich of Transitional Gastronomy. It featured "Midnight Caesar," with squid-ink croutons, black garlic dressing, and white anchovies, followed by "Parrot Caviar," with beluga lentils, fois mousseline, quail egg, and fennel.
The decadent meal also included "Surf & Turf War," i.e. beef cheek and prawns, as well as vagina-shaped chocolates for dessert and a special push-up pop. But for me, the pièce de résistance was "The Sting,"—smoky ham bone and powdered buttermilk "cocaine" that magically became a broth with the addition of hot water. The utensil? A long, thin, metallic straw that we all used to suck up the soup, only not through our noses.
As the evening wound to a close, we checked out a cross-section of a trailer meant to evoke Fleiss's current life in the desert. Complete with '90s bedding and decor, it stood as a silent reminder of the end result of Fleiss's career. Far from being a cautionary tableau, the trailer interior was warm and welcoming. It juxtaposed Fleiss's different lifestyles, also reflecting the woman's inherent duality: equal parts shrewd businesswoman as well as a gentle caretaker to brilliantly colored birds who have come to depend on her for their welfare.
In that sense, her life today isn't that much different than it was in the early '90s.
When asked whether Heidi Fleiss herself was in attendance, Los Angeles Eats Itself series co-creators Jason Keller and Marco Rios would not confirm or deny. But if my Spidey-Heidi senses are anything to go by, I knew she was up in the VIP area of the balcony, finally enjoying the long-overdue tribute to her role in a defining epoch in pop-culture history.
(All photos courtesy of Los Angeles Eats Itself)