Just a few hours ago, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the former owner of the Pamela Martin escort agency, was found dead in a shed near her mother’s house in Tampa, Florida.
The authorities said she had hanged herself. And while the news was shocking, I cannot say I was surprised. The 52-year-old, known in the press as “the D.C. Madam,” had been convicted last month of racketeering, money laundering, and two counts of using the mail for illegal purposes. She faced a potential sentence of 50 years.
I got to know Palfrey well over the past year as I followed her case for Vanity Fair. (My story will be published on VF.com in the coming days.) I know she saw herself as a lady, strange as it may seem, and a businesswoman. She had spent just over a year in prison in 1991, for prostitution, and had felt utterly out of place among her fellow inmates. She called it her “‘Nam moment”
She told me she’d returned to prostitution because she saw no alternative, but this time she was determined to do it right. She hired only educated women with day jobs who chose the work for the extra money. None of them were forced into it. This policy prevented snitching—and enabled her to justify what she was doing. The employees I met were impressively beautiful women, and they greatly respected her. They said the men they met through her were often preferable to those they encountered elsewhere.
In her presence, I used to have to remind myself that this was a former prostitute turned madam, not an executive at a law firm or an advertising agency. She was funny, feisty, and clever; she was always well-dressed, ate elegantly, and held herself bolt-upright. And she expected the same of her “gals.” I once asked who her ideal employee would be. “You, Vicky,” she replied, without batting an eyelid. A month or two later, she started probing about my personal life. When she heard I had children, she put down her napkin. “Oh, so you have a family … ” That’s when I realized she’d actually been serious!
As her case progressed, however, her competency began to desert her. She fired the lawyers given to her by the state and relied on the charming but ineffective Blair Sibley to defend her. She began to seem somewhat delusional. Livid that she’d been singled out by the government, she demanded that all the other prositution rings be outed and became convinced that someone in high office was responsible for her persecution. She became obsessed with this idea, to the point that she even thought one of her own lawyers, Preston Burton, was “too close to the government to represent her.”
Yet until the end, she remained resolved to win, to set a precedent. “I am in the fight of my life” she wrote me in February. It was hard to judge her tone. This was, after all, the woman who had told me she was no “Brandy Britton,” the college professor who had killed herself after it emerged she’d been a prostitute. Yet in the end, underneath the posture, the panache, and the bravado, she was the same in at least one tragic respect.