Xaviera Hollander: Is the Happy Hooker still happy after all these years?

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Deborah Ross went in search of author Xaviera Hollander, whose erotic memoir, The Happy Hooker, shocked and informed decades before Fifty Shades fever. What she heard – in an Amsterdam B&B – was more racy than anything in either book...

I hadn't thought of Xaviera Hollander for years – who has? – until a friend mentioned she was alarmed to have discovered her 14-year-old daughter (yes, you, Hannah!) had read all the Shades of Grey books. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," I says in my breezy way, as I am as delightfully breezy with friendships as I am with life, "when I was her age we were all reading The Happy Hooker and it didn't do us any harm." Thinking about it now, it may even have been my entire sex education.

First published in 1971, Xaviera Hollander's The Happy Hooker was a sensation, and was, definitely, my entire sex education, unless you count my older brother performing his 'willie dance', which I don't. (He charged me and my two sisters a shilling each to witness this particular event, yet we never learned much.) At school, our friend Josephine had the one copy, which she generously lent out for us to read under our covers, according to a strictly governed list and, as I remember it, she was firm but fair. The book was an account of Xaviera's journey from her first sexual experiences – "By 15, I had sucked my boyfriend's cock"; WOW! – to becoming one of New York's highest-paid prostitutes and then madam of New York's best-connected brothel until she was deported on the grounds of 'moral turpitude.' It was filled with stories of lesbianism (WOW!), bondage (WOW!), swinging (WOW!), fetishism (WOW!), orgies (WOW!, WOW!, WOW!), and sold 15 million copies although not at my secondary comprehensive where, I think, it was just the one copy thumbed and pored over 15 million times. (VILE! VILE! VILE!) I decide to track Xaviera down and after an exhausting few seconds on Google – this is the kind of research you learn at journalism school; don't try it for yourselves at home – I discover she is now running a B&B in Amsterdam, so off I toddle.

Xaviera's B&B, which calls itself 'The Happy House' and promises a 'bohemian atmosphere' turns out to be a rather staid-looking property in a rather staid Amsterdam suburb. Inside, it is all 60s and 70s furniture, many, many photographs of Xaviera, always pouting, various erotic paintings and other bits and bobs, like a Barbie dressed in fetish gear, as never seen in Toys 'R' Us. Still, it all seems disappointingly quiet on the action front, without a whipping or a gang-bang or a hand-cuffing in sight. Heck, there isn't even anyone chained to a wall. However, Xaviera does try to make it up to me by saying "we are expecting two nice, big lesbians from South America later" as if this might compensate. Generally, I'd prefer a whipping, a gang-bang, a handcuffing or someone chained to a wall rather than two nice big lesbians from South America who may be turning up later, but do accept this could just be me. (Each to their own, my dears, each to their own).

Anyway, Xaviera is now 69, with silver hair, a taste for bright scarves, and is formidably upholstered. She says she piled on the weight after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent a hysterectomy "and that did me in, massive! It took me three or four weeks before I could get any enjoyment out of sex again. I thought: 'I'm frigid, for the first time in my life!'" Would you say you were a nymphomaniac from the word go, Xaviera? "Of course!" She runs the B&B, which also provides dinner theatre, with her third husband, Philip, a Dutchman who, satisfyingly, looks exactly like Van der Valk, plus seems to do all the work around here. "The first thing I say to Philip when we first meet is: can you cook? I do not do the cooking or the cleaning and must have someone look after me." She also has a young Romanian man who lives in the basement and helps out but he may keep out of my way because "he has had three teeth taken out and is embarrassed".

She eases herself into a chair and says she has not read Fifty Shades of Grey, no, but it's rubbish. She knows all about S&M, and whatever is in the book, it won't be right. Did they explain, for example, "how to whip someone without taking their liver out or blinding them?" They did not, I say. Have you read them? she asks. I read the first one, out of curiosity, I say. "And what is its message?" she asks. I think it's that women may, at heart, want to be worshipped, I reply. They want a man who listens to them and runs them a bath and rubs their back and doesn't talk them through their latest iPad app – why do they always do that, nowadays? – and the sex may, in fact, even be rather incidental. "But what about the woman who is the dominatrix?" she says. Are you a dominatrix? "I am always dominatrix." But doesn't that amount to same thing? Look at Philip, cooking away for you! Look at him now, hanging up duvet covers on the washing line! She dismisses all this airily with: "I will not read this Shades of Grey. It is no good."

She can be deliciously bitchy. She says she never had any time for Sylvia Kristel, who starred in the Emmanuelle films, and died recently. "Not a very good actress, and thick, I think, not like me, as I am brainy." She says Linda Lovelace once came to her for a job as one of her hookers but she turned her down. "I said to her: 'You look too shabby. I'm sorry, you do. You have no class.' She had buck teeth from all the blow-jobs she'd given." Quite a few of her clients, she says, were Hollywood A-listers, including Hitchcock, who would dress up as a dead person and lie in a coffin "with his hands clutching his penis" and when the girls came into the room he'd sit bolt upright, "the girls would scream and he would reach his orgasm." For 30 years, she wrote a column, 'Call Me Madam', in Penthouse providing monthly advice on every sexual permutation and when I ask what the most common problems were, delivers a little poem: "My cock is too big, my cock is too small, I come too quick, I don't come at all." Are you ever shocked, Xaviera? "Not really. Although I do not like paedophile activities."

It's not as if she became a prostitute through lack of options. She speaks five languages. She was once voted Holland's best secretary. She reads Philip Roth and Dostoyevsky. She attends the Edinburgh festival every year to bring over plays, and calls herself "a theatrical entrepreneur." Yet she has never regretted her main career choice. "To get paid for what you enjoy? Is good, no?" Her background is fascinating. She is the daughter of a Dutch Jewish doctor, and a German mother, and spent the first two years of her life in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia, as her father was working in Indonesia at the time. She still, she says, has a horror of barbed wire, "and if I hear the sound of Japanese screaming in war movies, I cringe." Have you ever slept with a Japanese man? She has, she says, and wiggles her little finger. Not well-endowed, then? "Tiny!" But isn't it what you do with it? "Yes, and it matters to me not so much any more." But, back in the day? "I was a real size queen!"

After the war, the family moved back to Holland where her father, who had been a psychiatrist, became a GP. She adored her father to the exclusion of her mother who, in turn, became quite jealous. "My father and me, we had this very brainy, emotional thing, and she'd never let me finish listening to his stories. She'd send me away to walk the dogs or help her because she got so jealous. I loved the smell of nicotine on his hands and I like to sniff them and my mother would say: 'Stop touching your father!'" She says her first experience of sexual feeling was when she was quite little and her father spanked her for doing something naughty. "I had great excitement, and didn't know what it was, but my mother knew and shouted: 'Stop it, stop it.' It was my first orgasm." Usually, as an interviewer, your job is to prise information out of people but, with Xaviera, I find I sometimes want to put it back.

Anyway, in her early twenties, she left Holland for South Africa, then Manhattan, where she worked as a secretary at the Dutch consulate and earned the nickname "The Flying Dutchman... flying from bed to bed" because of all the men she slept with. It was a girlfriend who first suggested she charge for the pleasure. "She said: 'You are sitting on a gold-mine but you are giving it away?'" She seems to have been a very happy hooker indeed: hers is a story of Park Avenue hotels and wonderful sex and being showered with expensive gifts and Hollywood A-listers – including a couple who, for legal reasons, I cannot name but, my heavens, if only I could you would fall off your chair, right yourself, then fall off it again – rather than the clap, debasement, being shoved about by a violent pimp, and having your spirit broken. "I have a fast mind," she says, "and I saw the damage it did some girls, so I stay away from drugs and I stay away from alcohol and I never have a pimp." Would you call yourself a feminist? "Yes, but I am feminine feminist and not... how you say?... a ballbreaker." She became New York's leading madam – her brothel was called Xaviera's Happy House – and remained as such until 1970, when she became involved in a massive police-corruption scandal (Knapp Commission) and was arrested and expelled. Shortly afterwards, the book came out, and its success surprised her as much as anyone. "I thought it would be small book, maybe selling 3,000 copies in New York." When did you first realise it was a smash? "I go on holiday to Puerto Rico and two out of three people are reading it on the beach!"

We have lunch, a delicious vegetable soup as cooked by Philip. I ask him if taking on Xaviera's has been hard. Very, he says. "And there are always too many people around. I like peace." "I've always been a people person," says Xaviera, "and a lot of the people have been my lovers, but in the last eight years, they've been dying off, haven't they, Philip?" "Yes," says Philip. Xaviera loves Jewish men – I don't think you have to be a shrink to know it goes back to her father – and Philip is Jewish. I say, by way of making conversation, that while I'm Jewish, my husband is not, and when our son was little he once asked: "Mum, as you're Jewish, am I?" According to the religion, yes, I replied. He then said: "So has my penis been criticised?" We all laugh, especially Philip, who adds: "Do you know why Jewish men are circumcised? It's because the women all want 20 per cent off!" We all laugh again. Xaviera's biggest regent is, I think, not having children, although she has had a series of abortions. The first was when she was 18 and the last when she was married to her second husband, a Canadian. "My husband was away and I had an orgy with about five different men of different colours so if my husband comes back and I've got a Chinese child he will know." She did try to have a baby with the Canadian, but the pregnancy was ectopic. However, she has settled this in her mind by affecting to now hate kids. "I call my friends' children 'little monsters' and say I will not come round until they are in bed." She also finds comforts in what a woman friend said to her after her hysterectomy. "She said: 'You've done more for women with your books, liberating their thoughts, than you ever could have done by being a reproductive cow.'"

We chew the fat for a bit longer. I ask her all the stuff I've ever wanted to know. Can you, I find myself asking, really tell the size of a man's whatsit by the size of this nose, say? "Noses are, nine out of ten times, the best way, and then it is hands." What nationality make the worst lovers? Philip aside, the Dutch, she says. "They flop on top of you, do their dull Dutch thing, then stick around forever drinking your booze." Eventually, the big nice South American lesbians arrive (they are big and nice but, disappointingly, go directly to visit a museum) and it's time for Xaviera to have an afternoon nap, as she is later going out to dinner with the set designer for the plays that are staged here, "and I fancy him, but don't tell Philip, as he gets very jealous." Before I go, I thank her for being my entire sex education – WOW! – and she says I'm very welcome, although she didn't educate just me. "A lot of people write to me and say when their grandmother died they went through her belongings and found the book. It has been through many generations." Shades of Grey? Been there, done that and got the T-shirt more than 40 years ago. So let's not worry about Hannah, OK?

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