The Mayflower Marketer: Sydney Biddle Barrows is Up to New Tricks

'I am the Martha Stewart of client experience.'

According to Ms. Barrows’s autobiography, she was fired from her next job at a New York-based buyer for smaller stores throughout the country for refusing to participate in a kickback scheme. When her friend “Lucy” confided that she was answering the phones at an escort service in Midtown Manhattan, Ms. Barrows says she reluctantly signed on. It wasn’t long before her inner merchandiser told her she could do a better job than her boss. She was appalled by his exploitative treatment of the women who worked for him as well as his “terrible taste in clothes.”

“I started to channel my annoyance into a kind of competitive game: what would I do in this situation?” she wrote in her autobiography. The “fantasy” of owning her own escort service became “increasingly powerful” as Ms. Barrows realized just how much money her boss, for all his numerous faults, was making.

She and her friend Lucy decided to open up shop, and Ms. Barrows set about hiring the right women. She asked prospective employees to come for an interview “dressed as if your grandfather was taking you to lunch at ‘21.’” She regularly improved the taste of her “young ladies” through trips to Saks and Macy’s. She named her service Cachet, cleverly chosen to weed out men who couldn’t pronounce it.

As detailed in Mayflower Madam, Ms. Barrows’s employees were told to read Time and Newsweek and watch 60 Minutes. They were forbidden to drink hard liquor—only wine, champagne or a kir royale. The dress code: elegant outer garments and risqué underwear. Ms. Barrows graphically instructed her young ladies on the ins and outs of oral sex, but in the primmest of tones. Cachet prospered, and Ms. Barrows—or Sheila Devin, as she called herself—eventually added a slightly more expensive option that she called Finesse.

“I was competing with everybody in town,” Ms. Barrows recalled, “and everybody else was less expensive. And you have to remember something—this was the ’80s. It was before AIDS. So not only did all of my competition have lower prices, I was also competing with free. And yet I got people to pay top dollar. How did that happen? Because they were paying for the entire experience—from the second they dialed our number until we called them after she left and asked them how everything was. They were paying for the entire experience, and no one else thought of it that way.”

“Sydney ran a kick-ass agency,” said Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. “She hired the finest women, after very tough audition sessions, and she demanded the very best of them.”

To attract clients, Ms. Barrows relied on subtle advertisements such as one in the International Herald Tribune that whispered, “We’re not for everyone.” Cachet was entering its fifth year when the police broke down the door with a sledgehammer and Ms. Barrows was arrested. She pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of promoting prostitution, avoiding a trial. Ms. Barrows still gleefully attributes the leniency to the brilliance of her lawyers, who maintained that it would be absolutely necessary to read out the names of all the johns during the jury selection, supposedly to ensure impartiality. She celebrated the end of her legal difficulties with a champagne press conference at an elegant restaurant called Wood’s.