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

'I am the Martha Stewart of client experience.'

Sydney Biddle Barrows.  (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

Sydney Biddle Barrows. (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

The Mayflower Madam opened the door to her New York apartment. Inside, it was clearly more Mayflower than madam. Old family heirlooms include an inlaid mahogany secretary, two 18th-century family portraits of children and a Dresden clock.

The former debutante Sydney Biddle Barrows, a scion of Philadelphia’s aristocratic Biddle family, has called this rent-controlled, $1,800-a-month, three-room Upper West Side apartment home since before her 1984 arrest for running a pricey prostitution service. Her guest had come early, so she was still wearing shorts and her glasses. “You always expect that extra 20 minutes to get yourself together,” she said pleasantly. 

The settee on which the guest perched has sentimental meaning, too. “My girls used to sit on that sofa,” Ms. Barrows said nostalgically, as if having been in her former line of work were the most natural thing in the world. One cannot but marvel that Barrows still looks remarkably like she did when she burst on the scene at 32 as New York’s best-bred madam, appearing on the front pages of newspapers in handcuffs. When her Pilgrim lineage came to light, the tabloids had a field day. “It was very difficult when it first happened,” Ms. Barrows recalled. “I was used to people liking me, and all of a sudden there were people out there who didn’t even know me who disliked me.” The Social Register dropped her. Candice Bergen played her in a made-for-television movie.

An antique silver chest sits in the living room in front of a marble mantelpiece for a faux fireplace. “There is no other pattern like that,” she said of the custom-made silver flatware. It was created for her great-great-grandmother by Samuel Kirk, the famous 19th-century Philadelphia silversmith. “My mother didn’t want it,” she said. “How lucky is that?” Of a nearby grandfather clock she said, “Oh that,” waving dismissively, “I bought it myself.” Like any WASP worth her weight in single malt, Barrows sees buying one’s own furniture as tacky.

Since her headline-grabbing days, Ms. Barrows has reinvented herself as a marketing guru, a job quite in line with the talents she displayed in the early ’80s. Today, she is coaching businesses on how to attract clients and keep them coming back. Ms. Barrows’s clients span the U.S., Canada, Ireland and even Dubai.

“Dentists love me, for some reason. I don’t know why,” she said breezily. A Barrows dictum for dentists and gynecologists: paint clouds on your ceiling. “It gives people something to look at, creates an experience, and is different,” she said. On the side, she offers what she calls Roadblock Removal, a process for getting rid of the hidden emotions that hold us back. “I know it sounds like the 21st-century version of snake oil, but it really works,” exuded Ms. Barrows.

Sydney Barrows didn’t go into the escort business on a lark; she needed the money. Though her paternal grandparents had a huge house in the Philadelphia Main Line, her parents were divorced, and she grew up living with her financially strapped mother and maternal grandparents in Rumson, N.J.

“We ourselves had very little money,” she wrote in her 1986  autobiography Mayflower Madam, “but we did enjoy some of the trappings of old wealth.” Among them: magnificent parties at her grandparents’ estate, where she would help pass trays of hors d’oeuvres in a little apron made for her by the maid. During her senior year at Stoneleigh-Burnham, a Massachusetts boarding school, Ms. Barrows was expelled for sneaking off campus to attend a winter college weekend with a boyfriend. It was the last straw in a series of minor infractions.

When it was time for college, Ms. Barrows’s father informed her that her trust fund had been spent on boarding school. So Ms. Barrows put herself through the Fashion Institute of Technology, graduating first among the fashion buying and merchandising majors, then landed a job at the old Abraham & Straus department store, going from lingerie trainee to buyer.