Friday, May 2, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Montgomery Blair Sibley and Deborah Jeane Palfrey interviewed at the Q&A Cafe, May 16, 2007.
Remembering the “DC Madam”
By Carol Joynt


It was just after noon and my cell phone rang showing an unfamiliar number. It was the assignment editor at the NBC station here in Washington. Did I know there were early reports up that the so-called “DC Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, had committed suicide in Florida?

“What do you think about that?” he asked quickly, followed just as fast by, “Where are you? Can we send a crew and interview you right now. We will meet you wherever.”
I took a breath and tried to collect my thoughts.

He called me with those questions because I did one of the few recorded interviews with Palfrey, just about a year ago, after the sensational indictments, and after she threatened to make public the names of her clients.

Brian Ross of ABC News also had conducted an interview – just before mine – and ABC had the lists of the phone numbers of her presumed clients. A State Department official, Randall L. Tobias, resigned after being linked to her. A Washington think tank honcho, Harlan Ullman, was linked to her, which he denied, and a Louisiana senator, David Vitter, would soon admit he had been a client. The Madam was hot and in much demand.

On a chance, I had sent an email to her lawyer, Montgomery Blair Sibley, to ask if she would appear on my show, “The Q&A Café,” for a long-form interview. To my surprise, he said “yes” right away, with the condition that he also be included.
A few days later Ms Palfrey was on the set, which is the back dining room of my Georgetown saloon, Nathans. We had a packed audience. As always, I sat on a barstool and the guests sat on barstools across from me and in front of the cameras.
She was unexpectedly demure and shy, wearing a fitted gray pin striped pants suit, black heels, and red lipstick. Only her long dark hair, both pinned up in a small bun and also left to drift down over her shoulders, belied the impression that she was just another Washington lawyer. In fact, before her path lead to the “escort” business, she studied law.

While Sibley tried to take the reins on many of my questions, it wasn’t long before Palfrey asserted herself and jumped in -- especially when I asked why she chose Washington to set up shop, was there something about Washington men, “are they more sexually needy?” I wanted to know why she chose to set up her business in Washington over New York or Los Angeles.

She laughed before saying she thought men here more sophisticated. That’s debatable, but it was her interview.

She said Monday nights were bad for business, due to football, and Redskins games didn’t help at all, and Super Bowl night was the biggest loser. She didn’t take the show on the road to political conventions. The business right here in town was good enough. I asked if she had any clients who were White House staff – “current or former” – she gave a coy smile but would not comment.

Much of the interview was about the legal case, the federal charges against her for, among other things, racketeering. Her mood was upbeat. She was going to take this as far as she could – “name names” – and felt optimistic about prevailing in court.
She said she was already out of the “escort” business and that when she was free of the legal hassles she planned to return to Germany, where she’d found some “new” and “different” business opportunities, and planned to make a home. She said she’d been keeping notes and hoped to write a book.
Montgomery Blair Sibley, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, and Carol Joynt
When I asked her who she had in the world, she said she had her mother, in Florida. So much of what she said underscored that the sex trade business is a lonely business – lonely clients, lonely “workers,” and lonely operators. Perhaps the most stunning part of the interview – especially now, given how the story played out – was when she talked about Brandy Britton, a Baltimore escort worker linked to Palfrey who hanged herself in her apartment a few months before.

I asked Palfrey, “Why do you say you don’t want to be Brandy Britton?” She said, “It’s not that I don’t want to be like her. I don’t want to end up like her.”

The only time I spent with her was that one hour taping the show. She came, she went. In the year since, I received emails from her, with updates on the court case. They were tough-minded, optimistic, always about charging forward, never giving up – much like Hillary Clinton, the candidate whom she said was her choice to be President.

Sometimes I would shoot back a brief reply, but most of the time I did not. After a jury here convicted her April 15 on charges of racketeering and money laundering, the emails stopped.

Throughout today people asked me what I thought about the suicide. My answer was always the same. I was surprised, but not shocked. Nothing had gone her way. Names didn’t get named in any stop-the-presses fashion. The case went to court. Her former employees testified against her and practically in lock step. She got convicted.
The sentence could have been more than 50 years, but under sentencing guidelines more likely would have been 5-6 years. Still, she said, having done time before on a prostitution conviction, she couldn’t cope with returning to jail. For her, it was a fate worse than hanging herself at her mother’s home in Tarpon Springs.

For a moment I wondered: could somebody have killed her? Who knows? But why would they, and why now? When the suicide note is released – and I expect its contents will be made public – we will know her state of mind. My guess is they will be the words of a woman who tried everything to save herself and then gave up.

The full interview can be viewed online by clicking here.
Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C. Photographs by Barbara Gary.