Requiem for the New York Streetwalker

Just … Larissa

Larissa is a striking lady, a clothing designer who has been in New York since the late 60′s. She was sitting on a couch at the Campbell Apartment lounge in Grand Central Terminal, having a glass of white wine. It was 5 P.M. She was wearing a black and white chinoiserie jacket and black crocodile boots. And black Chanel Vamp nail polish.

“Nobody knows my last name,” Larissa said. “If you want to find me, you can call information, ask for Larissa, and you can get the number. I was the first Larissa in town.”

She appears in the Andy Warhol Diaries four times (e.g., “Larissa was there”). “I had a little problem with the memoirs of Andy Warhol, because they called me and they said, ‘What is your last name? To do the index.’ And I said, ‘But I go by Larissa!’ And they said, ‘We cannot do that.’ I said, ‘Well, you don’t put Cher’s last name or Régine’s last name.’ They said, ‘Well, you are not them. I said, ‘I know, I’m Larissa.’ So I’m not in the index.”

Larissa’s parents were Jewish political refugees from Russia, who settled in Brussels after World War II. Her mother liked to dress her up as a Russian princess, but her father, a fur dealer and “Stalinist,” didn’t like her to wear makeup or have fun. At 18, she sailed to New York and did a stint as an au pair; then she moved to London for a year and started designing fringe jackets.

In 1969, Larissa moved back to New York and into the Chelsea Hotel. She was a regular in the back room at Max’s Kansas City, palled around with Warhol, Nico, Lou Reed, David Bowie. She said she was there that night at Le Scene when Jim Morrison, having just had sex with a girl at his table, went up to the stage on all fours to kiss the boots of Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Larissa was turning out these shearling coats, and everyone started buying them (including Hendrix).

“One day in the street on the Lower East Side,” she said, on her second or third wine, “in the middle of the winter, I was wearing my shearling coat, and Miles Davis saw me and he said, ‘Hey, girl! Who did that coat for you?’ And I said ‘I did.’ ‘I want one!’ And he was through his life my best customer. One day he called me at like 4inthemorning.’Hey, bitch! I want a coat for my girlfriend! Do you have a coat?’ I knew that particular girlfriend and I said, ‘Miles, I only have one coat available, and it’s going to be too small for her.’ ‘I don’t care. I’m coming today at 6 o’clock!’ I said, ‘Miles, it’s not going to fit her.’ He came with a smaller girlfriend!”

Soon, she became known as the Coco Chanel of rock ‘n’ roll.

“I did LSD before, just once or twice because everybody was doing it, but I was doing half of what everyone was doing because I’m very sensitive. I did it once at the concert in London, the famous concert of the Rolling Stones, in ’68, where he’s in the white dress and doves go up.”

“The one after Brian Jones died?”

“It was a Sunday, it was sunny, and it was an incredible day. I was leaving the next day to come back to New York, so it was my farewell to London. It was gorgeous. And I went to New Orleans a few years ago, they were doing a concert there, and it was the same thing, you know. They’re still fantastic. I hate when people say they’re too old to do that. I mean, it’s absurd.”

You can still buy Larissa’s jackets at Barneys. “I was a pioneer of many styles, much too early to be recognized now. When we talk about Belgian deconstructionist, I did it before any of them and didn’t go to fashion school. I did the first dresses with the seams inside out. And my fur coat, my shearling, I’ve done all my life, and now everybody is doing it, but I don’t want to brag.”

“Gay guys must love you, right?”

“I am the queen of the gay world. Because I have style, because basically I’m more into companionship than sex. Because I suffer, ha-ha-ha! When love is not reciprocated, when I don’t get the money, ha-ha-ha! It’s just that I never understood the concept of happiness. Happy, it’s just an absurd concept to me.”

It was 7 P.M. We went outside and got into a cab.

“What’s the longest relationship you’ve ever had with a man?”

“Three minutes!”

“Longer than a year?”

“Never. I am not interested in sex, so my relationships are more about companionship, about soul, how do you call it, so a lot of them are gay, so basically sex is not the most important thing. One can have sex with anybody, just step out in the street and there’s 10 people ready and willing.”

We stopped at Hogs & Heifers on Washington Street. I paid the cab and we entered a trendy place around the corner, Fresson. We had some “dirty” mashed potatoes and wine. I told her how good she looked.

Ronny the owner came over. “You’re here so early!” he said.

“He’s getting me drunk!”

“Larissa is an icon in New York,” he said. “She’s a fixture in New York night life, in New York society–everywhere!” Exit Ronny.

After a while, she was looking around the place with a distant look in her eyes. “All my friends now are the children of the people I knew before,” she said. “But they adore me, and I am on their level. When I grew up, I was always the youngest one, and then, little by little, I became the oldest one.”

–George Gurley

Support the Streetwalker

The big chain stores came in, and it was goodbye, mom-and-pop shops; goodbye, corner hardware store; so long, sweet little book store; goodbye to anything with a little charm. Now, prepare to bid adieu to another staple of old New York: the streetwalker.

As faceless Internet companies compel independent “working girls” to join corporate escort services, women who spend the overnight hours on the sidewalk, entreating men to have sex with them in exchange for money, are fast receding into the landscape of the past.

Working alone or in small bunches, independent streetwalkers have provided a very intimate service to literally trillions of men in New York over the last 300 years. In recent decades, they have banded together to fend off the encroachment of large, impersonal corporate entities. In such small, informal companies, the bosses are known as “pimps.” In their heyday, the pimps were like princes of the city, wearing colorful suits and broad-brimmed hats and driving Rolls-Royce automobiles.

To increase the number of girls in their employ, these urban businessmen would give heroin to pretty local girls at no charge. The girls who enjoyed the heroin would be told that they could have more, but only if they “paid” for it by having sex with the pimp’s “associates” (usually some horny guys who lived nearby). This recruitment method kept bland corporate America out of a thriving neighborhood business while allowing for the rise of another feisty independent entrepreneur, “the dealer.”

In the late 90′s, as the Internet and increased police surveillance drive the streetwalkers out of more localized workplaces, the pimps have been sent packing as well. The dealers, too, have become scarce, partly because of the sharp rise of prescription drugs made by large corporations sold to the public.

Traditional streetwalkers were more likely to suffer from such maladies as AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis and the various venereal diseases than their new “escort-service” counterparts, but the diseases were part of their appeal. “One knew that one might fall ill from contact with a street girl,” said cultural historian Allen Suzerain. “The old independent bookstores had dusty shelves, too.”

John Lawrence, a 52-year-old plumber in Manhattan, was walking along upper Broadway late one recent night, the frustration becoming more and more evident on his face. “Used to be I could get me some on all these corners around here,” he said.

Finally, there was a streetwalker, on the corner of 109th Street. She was asked how it felt, being the last of an independent breed of self-actualized women. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “This is a miserable life.”

–Jim Windolf