The death of Deborah Jeane Palfrey marks the completion of one of those unseemly chapters in American political and social history that many, I suspect, could not see end soon enough. In some quarters Ms. Palfrey's apparent suicide was undoubtedly met with sighs -- of sorrow, and most certainly, relief, by former clients concerned that somehow, someway, their names still might surface from the 'D.C. Madam's notorious phone records or infamous black book.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, file)
I met Ms. Palfrey shortly after the ABC News story aired that revealed a small sliver of her clientele. We met at a dodgy Greek diner not far from my office. She arrived in a hurry accompanied by her attorney and a particular point of view: disappointed the ABC expose she'd invested so much time and effort had failed to live up to her expectations; dropping unverifiable hints about her theory of a dark Disney conspiracy, while making clear she was far from finished. As we spoke, investigative reporters in Washington were digging into phone records from the Clinton years; a "Vanity Fair" profile was in the works. For me, there would be a fresh set of phone records, from another era, if I could pass the Deborah Palfrey test.
She was dressed much like you'd expect a high-class Madam might look – conservatively, her only real accent a set of tired, knowing eyes. Deborah Palfrey was clearly nobody's fool. She knew how important the "name game" was to some members of the media but she was not in the business of giving them up. If you got the records and you wanted to do what ABC had done, spend endless hours tracking down numbers and verifying names there could well be some certified gold, some high-ranking government officials at the end of that rainbow. But not once, despite my efforts, would she offer a hint on who that might be.
And, frankly, I wasn't all that interested in playing Gotcha. As our time ticked away Palfrey spun the story she really wanted told: how her prosecution was based on an insidious government conspiracy involving a certain police official's attempt to save his own skin in a corruption case by offering her up and Palfrey's refusal go quietly, to the point of calling a high-ranking Justice Department official – a client -- and threatening to take his name public. A dangerous game, to be sure.
In the end, the phone records were never offered. Mainly, I think, because she sensed, correctly, at the time my reluctance to devote enormous manpower and energy to what was a fishing expedition. Now about a year after our meeting Ms. Palfrey has done what she evidently promised she would do – commit suicide rather than go to prison for up to six years after being convicted in April of running a prostitution ring and money laundering.
I never saw Deborah Jeane Palfrey again after one meeting. But I won't soon forget the story behind those sad, knowing eyes.