It had been a trying week, but even under arrest Sheila Devin exhibited poise. First police had used sledgehammers to break into her Manhattan office. Next they had seized four of her elegantly alluring employees and impounded her “little black book.” Then police had charged her with being the madam of an exclusive ring of expensive call girls. It was all too much. But throughout it all Devin, dressed for her arraignment in a smart gray suit, the sleeves of which concealed her handcuffs, still managed to smile.
Such grace under pressure, some might say, was a tribute to her breeding. For soon after her arrest, the press revealed that 32-year-old blond “Sheila Devin” was actually Sydney Biddle Barrows, a private school graduate, member of a Social Register family and descendant of two Pilgrims on the Mayflower. The New York tabloids immediately dubbed her “the Mayflower Madam” and gleefully recounted details of the tight ship she ran from a small apartment in a West Side brown-stone. Barrows was said to recruit models, actresses, housewives, nurses and students for her 30-girl, $1 million-a-year prostitution ring, one of New York’s largest. She insisted on good looks, intelligence and “eloquence” in her employees. The girls were graded from A to C (the best), had their menstrual cycles charted and risked suspension for two days for each extra pound of weight they gained. The rewards were 40 percent of fees that ranged up to $2,000 for evenings that reportedly might start at Manhattan’s tony Yale or Union League clubs and include dinner out, a show, dancing and “recreation.” Barrows’ coded records reportedly contained the names and sexual preferences of more than 3,000 clients, including top businessmen, athletes, sheikhs, entertainers and foreign officials. Barrows advertised her Elan, Finesse and Cachet escort services in the Yellow Pages and on cable TV, and monitored 15 telephones for her girls, each of whom carried an attaché case containing a credit-card machine.
The nature of the enterprise, if not its success, was a shock to those who knew Barrows was indeed born to the purple rather than bordello red. The daughter of socialite Jeannette Biddle Ballantine Barrows (now Molzer) and publishing executive Donald Barrows (they later divorced), young Sydney attended Massachusetts’ all-girl Stoneleigh-Burnham prep school and summered in ritzy Bay Head, N.J. In 1971 she entered New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where she excelled (“She certainly learned merchandising,” quips one former professor) and won the school’s $1,000 Bergdorf Goodman Award for outstanding achievement. Joining Brooklyn’s Abraham & Strauss department store a year later, she quickly rose to department manager for fine jewelry. “She has a good eye for fashion and is innovative,” read an A&S evaluation. Adds a company executive: “She got along very well with all levels of people.”
It was a talent that would serve her well. In 1980, as she began leading her double life, occasionally the barrier between the two would slip. For the past two seasons Barrows shared a large summer house with a score of other singles at Long Island’s Westhampton beach. Her housemates often wondered about the younger women who were Barrows’ guests. In one instance she was denied admission to a swank local club because its proprietors had heard about her profession from a sometime boyfriend. They did not, however, turn her in. “We thought it was the wrong business,” said one club member, “but we didn’t want a confrontation.”
Neither do some others. Just the other day, on a beautiful Indian summer’s afternoon in Pennsylvania, the good cruise ship Spirit of Philadelphia made its stately way up the Delaware River bearing some 300 guests and a dozen Philadelphia Biddies—members of the wealthy and distinguished family. They were on a fund-raising cruise to the clan’s ancestral seat, “Andalusia,” in Bucks County. The topic of the day among the family was Sydney Barrows. Was she or wasn’t she truly a Biddle? The consensus was that she was. Was it an embarrassment? “It’s more amusing than anything else,” remarked the Real Item, family patriarch James Biddle. “We’ve been around too long to be embarrassed by such things.” And he laughed heartily.