Libbe Leah Siskind owns an eclectic and bustling boutique in Worcester called A Piece of Heaven, selling antique collectibles, jewelry, vintage Judaica, handbags, pillows – even some of the
children’s books she’s written.
Few of her customers know her backstory, though, which she’s now detailed in a compelling 800-plus page book, “The Room Beyond: The Thorns in Rose’s Garden.” She calls it “a memoir of love, cruelty, and crime.”
The first sentence is a zinger: “I was an abused and mistreated child, a prostitute, and a madam.”
What follows – in 89 chapters with titles like “Sleazy Bar in Framingham,” “Choosing a Pimp,” and “A Cold Winter’s Rape” – is the tale of her harrowing trajectory from adoption, abused childhood and foster care, to being trafficked as a teenager and becoming a prominent player in the high ranks of Boston sex workers, invisible to the “square” world.
“Nobody knew for a long, long, long time,” said Siskind, 72, who is now a full-time businesswoman and writer.
During the time she was a madam, beginning in the 1980s, she lived a parallel “legitimate” life owning and operating shoe stores. (When her clients phoned, she’d discretely step outside, speaking in code in case one of her salespeople overheard.)
She had boyfriends, and a son whom she raised as a Reform Jew. She enrolled him in Hebrew school and took him to Jerusalem, where he had his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall.
In 1981, she bought a stately Victorian house in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner that she restored and painted hot pink. It was while living there that she got busted as part of a well-publicized 2002 multistate federal sting operation to take down madams. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year’s probation.
“Neighbors shocked at charge of catting under hot pink roof,” screamed a headline in the Boston Herald, implying her Brookline home was a brothel. It wasn’t, and the headline still irks Siskind. “I never once brought a client to the house,” she said. “The papers sensationalized it.”
She’s largely worked in retail since, maintaining her lifelong passion for writing.
“I was a Jewish white girl on the streets, who didn’t have a family. It was a hustle. It took me years to refine this story and understand it,” she said. She is telling it now because “at 70 years old, what do I have to lose if people know what I am? And before, the timing was never right. This is a mild story, compared to what crime is now.
“I want people to understand what really goes on behind the scenes,” she said. “That [prostitution] is not all one person’s fault; it’s the whole system we’ve developed. People say, ‘You could have done something else.’ Sure I could have, if I’d known I was worth something. If I’d known my choices. But you learn as you go.”
Born in 1950 in Boston to parents who were married but not to each other, she was adopted by Rose and Fred Siskind, a Jewish couple in Stoneham. She was much adored by Rose, who died when Libbe was 7, but Fred, a tractor-trailer driver, had little interest in her. He paid strangers to take care of her while he was on the road, and then married a woman named Anita Fuhrman, a Nazi concentration camp survivor from Romania who brutalized Libbe physically and emotionally.
There were daily beatings. She threw away Libbe’s toys and told her that dead concentration camp victims lived in the closet where her toys used to be. She locked Libbe in the boiler room at night. She kept her outside in the cold, refused to feed her, forced her to eat vomit and feces, poured bleach over her, tied her to a chair, spit in her face.
“‘You have it easy,’ she would say in her Romanian accent,” Siskind writes in the book. “‘You should have been in the camps. That’s what you deserve, torture until you become a good girl or die.’”
The tormented Libbe tried to run away, eventually drawing the attention of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, and was moved to a series of foster homes. She lived in some 15 different homes, Siskind said, in Melrose, Malden, Sharon, Mattapan, Stoneham and Chelsea, among other towns.
In foster care, her trauma continued. She was ostracized, bullied, and sexually assaulted. One time a teenaged neighbor talked Libbe into driving her father’s car when he wasn’t home – “I would do anything anyone asked me to do” – and she ended up arrested and locked up at a girls’ detention center.
Then, at 16, she became pregnant. Her foster parents sent her to a Salvation Army home, where she was persuaded to give the baby up for adoption. She ran away, lived on the streets, and enrolled in hairdressing school.
Some conniving friends introduced her to a man who turned out to be a pimp. “He mesmerized me, made me feel like I was really wanted,” Siskind recalled. She quit school and in 1968 was unwittingly initiated into the sex trade, leaving behind her life as “a little shlepper who didn’t know how to dress” and dramatically altering her appearance with false eyelashes, lipstick, and cat-eye mascara.
She turned out to be good at it.
“Men were attracted to me like magnets,” she writes. “I never knew this existed out there in the world, or that I had it in me to do this kind of work.” But she was hungry for success, love – and money. “I could make twenty dollars in five minutes in and out of the cars and fully clothed, fifty in a half-hour, and seventy-five to one hundred dollars an hour. That was good money in 1968.”
This was the heyday of downtown Boston’s Combat Zone, the adult entertainment district centered on Washington Street, where prostitution flourished. She spent 14 years on those streets servicing clients from all walks of life. She moved on to “the next level,” too – streets in Connecticut, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Florida, and New York, where many of her clients were Jewish garment district business owners, or worked in the Diamond District. On Fridays, there was a constant flow of customers until 6 p.m., she said, “because the Jewish clients went home for the Sabbath, at sundown.”
“They loved that I was Jewish. They told me I was a landsman [a fellow Jew who comes from the same district or town, especially in Eastern Europe],” she said. “And I got tons of clothes from them because I was a sample size.”
She said she had a strong work ethic, earning the reputation of being one of the best street girls in Boston. “As odd as it may sound, I was proud of myself,” she writes in her book. “The street became my home. The street people – liars, thieves, pimps, hoes, bartenders, businessmen, and gangsters – became my family … I had never felt like anything special before.”
It was a world of glamor and flash, but also of jealousy, deceit, and danger. She had colleagues who were murdered. She herself was gang-raped, and dangled out of a high window by pimps at the Hotel Essex in Boston. She was kidnapped in New York by an abusive pimp who tortured her for hours. One client fired a gun at her.
Yet, when she looks back, she said, she has no regrets, “except for losing people I cared about. But as far as my lifestyle and journey through life, I wouldn’t change anything because I wouldn’t be me now.”
It’s a very different world now. “The Internet took over the old way,” she said, and she’s evolved into a busy entrepreneur selling antiques and collectibles. She travels on buying trips. And she writes prodigiously. She is finishing up a fantasy trilogy and has started a book about “the Circuit,” the nationwide prostitution network.
“I write between [store] customers,” she said. And she’s got lots of them; on a recent weekday morning, there was a steady stream of shoppers in the store, chatting with her and with one other.
“If you don’t need it, if you don’t love it, don’t get it!” counseled the animated Siskind, who has a mane of metallic silver curls, long nails, and a boisterous laugh. “If you’re going to stick it in the closet, let someone else enjoy it!”
“You’re a good saleswoman,” a customer told her.
Sometimes she has dreadful flashbacks, but pushes them aside. She is close to her son, who lives on the West Coast. And about 15 years ago she managed to track down the daughter she gave up for adoption.
“We have a close bond,” she said. “She knows everything about me,” as do her daughter’s children. “And they’ve accepted me, with all the garbage.”
She has even met some of the relatives who lost track of her years ago after she was banished to foster care. One of them is Les Gore, an executive recruiter in Newton whose grandfather’s brother was Fred Siskind, Libbe’s father.
“Nobody ever really talked about her,” he said in an interview. “Her wonderful mother Rose died, Freddy was not a great dad, and she was sent off to all these different foster homes. She kind of disappeared from the family.”
Until the federal sting operation in Brookline, that is, when his mother read about it in the newspaper. “She said, ‘Oh my God that’s Libbe Siskind!’” About a year ago, Gore found Siskind – “my lost cousin”– on Google, and initiated a family reunion.
“Libbe has had a hard road to travel and was able to come out of this very smart, clever, and entrepreneurial, without a formal education,” he said. “We’re good buddies.”
“I’m still the same person I was, except for the eyelashes and stockings,” Siskind said. “I do have scruples. I’m still a person that bleeds and is human.”
“The Room Beyond: The Thorns in Rose’s Garden,” the updated version of Siskind’s memoir, will be available in early 2024. For information, go to www.apieceofheavenltd.com