As Xaviera Hollander spoke to an admiring crowd of fans, friends and former lovers at New York’s Museum of Sex recently, it was clear she hadn’t lost her ardor for spinning titillating tales of sexual dalliance and decadence.
These days, however, the former Penthouse columnist and author of the best-selling tell-all book about her life as a madam — “The Happy Hooker” — is just as likely to be found playing the role of Happy Booker, having redirected her talent for entertaining into a burgeoning production company specializing in Jewish theater.
“I’m the main Jewish producer in Holland,” said Hollander, rattling off some of the productions she’s brought to Amsterdam, including “Sholom Aleichem — Now You’re Talking!” by Saul Reichlin, author Lisa Lipkin’s concentration camp stories, “What Mother Never Told Me,” and George Kreisler’s “Tonight: Lola Blau.”
“We had a group of people from Indonesia and the Jewish community in Amsterdam together when Lisa Lipkin first began presenting her shows in my house, and that’s when I knew I could do this,” Hollander said.
Now 60, Hollander is no stranger to transformation — having followed a career path that’s led her from secretary to madam to writer-lecturer — but just how did she find herself behind the scenes of her own Jewish theater? Now that’s a story.
Visiting from her home of 22 years- in Amsterdam’s Gold Coast neighborhood, Hollander took a break from cruising the Big Apple for financing and promising productions long enough to sit down with the Forward. Over drinks at a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side, she spoke of her theater company, her childhood, her new love interest (a retired schoolteacher in White Plains, N.Y.), growing older, changing sexual norms and the recent revelation of Janet Jackson’s breast (“Americans need to grow up”).
With 18 books under her belt —“Fiesta of the Flesh,” “Xaviera Goes Wild!” and “Xaviera’s Supersex” among them — Hollander doesn’t lack confidence or shy away from self-promotion. A frequent guest on television talk shows in Europe and here in America — Larry King, Sally Jessy Raphael and Selina Scott have all welcomed her — she has given lectures for the World Congress of Sexology in locales as far-flung as Jerusalem and Mexico City.
The night before her chat with the Forward, she said, she cornered one of the producers of “I Am My Own Wife,” the Broadway play about an East German transvestite, backstage at the Lyceum Theatre. “It’s a haunting play, and I want it,” Hollander said, spinning with excitement and insisting that nothing would stop her from bringing the production to Amsterdam.
As unfettered as she is today — jokes aside — Hollander was born in captivity, spending her first three years in a Japanese prison camp in Indonesia, where her father, a Jewish psychiatrist, had run a hospital before the war.
Hollander’s mother was not Jewish, which left the young girl caught between two worlds. “We suffered for being considered Jews, but if we wanted compensation after the war they said, ‘Oh no, you’re not Jewish,’” Hollander told the Forward.
Yet she holds no grudges. Hollander, who is nonobservant yet identifies with Judaism through her father and a network of Jewish friends and lovers, said she feels connected and at home in the Jewish community.
After the war, the family moved to Amsterdam, where Hollander was raised in what she described in “Child No More,” her autobiographical ode to her parents, as a “loving” middle-class home. At 21, she fled to South Africa in order to escape what she described as an overbearing mother with whom she competed for her father’s affections.
She followed her fiance to New York at 25. When he dumped her shortly thereafter, Hollander decided to stay and make a life for herself. By day she worked as a respectable assistant to the Dutch consul and, by night, as a prostitute and, later, as a madam on Manhattan’s East Side. “After all, I enjoyed sex, so why not get paid for it?” Hollander reasoned.
But persecuted by police and mafia alike, Hollander was pressured to leave the country, which she did in 1971, first taking refuge in Toronto, where she married a Jewish antique dealer.
Yet Hollander’s restlessness led her into affairs with a variety of men and women, and, after being deported from Canada for using indecent language in “The Happy Hooker,” she returned — sans husband — to Amsterdam, a city known for its open attitude toward prostitution.
Hollander was quick to attribute much of her libidinous longing to the guilt she feels for deserting her father during his illness before his death in the late 1960s. She said her father was her ideal man, and that many of her friendships and love affairs have been part of her search for “surrogate father figures.”
Still, it was her father’s Jewish roots — his penchant for Jewish literature, poetry and song — that encouraged her to open up her home in Amsterdam to artists and musicians, out of which grew the productions she is now beginning to present at some of Amsterdam’s larger venues, Hollander said.
As for turnout, well, the deck seems stacked in Hollander’s favor.
“I went to the Jewish Historical Museum [in Amsterdam], and I printed my cards and distributed them everywhere…. There was this little schmuck who looked uncultured and about 45, who saw me and said, ‘I never go to plays.’ He was telling me off, and I said, ‘I want you and your wife and your mother and anybody you know to come, and I’ll even give you free tickets if you want. You ought to see this play because this could have been your bubele; because the play is about concentration camp survivors.
“He showed up with six people,” said Hollander, “and he cried and he laughed.”
Eric Marx is a writer living in New York City.