What happened to the D.C. Madam?

It was a news story that promised sensation and delivered -- but not in the way anyone thought.

Published May 2, 2008 2:00PM (EDT)

By now, surely you've heard the news that Deborah Jeane Palfrey, better known as the "D.C. Madam," hanged herself in her mother's shed in Florida Thursday, a tragic coda to a story that promised salaciousness and sensation and undoing. Who thought it would be of Palfrey herself? Conspiracy theories will continue to kick around. (Palfrey once wrote that, if taken into custody, "rape, beating, maiming, disfigurement and more than likely murder disguised in the form of just another jailhouse accident or suicide would await me.") But Palfrey had a history of suicidal thoughts. After serving time for a felony pimping case in the early '90s -- a brutal experience that nearly left her blind -- author Dan Moldea told Time magazine, "she wasn't going to jail, she told me that very clearly. She told me she would commit suicide."

And so she did. Meanwhile, one of the only boldface names to emerge in this story, David Vitter, is still a senator in Louisiana.

Palfrey certainly had the courage of her convictions. She was a tough lady, who once told a Washington prosecutor, "I am [a] ferocious fighter when need be." But she had also been embroiled in a long, vicious fight. As Palfrey told CNN, the government "went after me. They found out that I'm not who they thought I was, and instead of dropping the whole matter they decided to press forward and, what the heck, she's a woman, she's weak, we'll intimidate her, we'll humiliate her, we'll pounce on this poor lady and she'll give in."

In a fascinating interview with Susie Bright, Palfrey talked about the misogyny of the vice cops hounding her. "They love to go after defenseless women," she said. "It is something that I want to explore when this is all over -- when my actual civil/criminal case is all over. I am even talking to some folks right now about putting together a documentary on what the police have done, do, and will continue to do to defenseless women in this country involved in the sex industry."

I don't know the ins and outs of this case any better than you do, frankly, but I can only imagine that Deborah Jeane Palfrey felt very much alone. That's the part that gets to me. The government against her. The media shoving cameras in her face. All those men who once courted her services desperately scuttling away. She did, of course, have her mother. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle last year, "'All I can say is I love her dearly and everything is going to work out OK,' said Palfrey's mother, Blanche Palfrey, who, reached at her home in Florida, complained about the stress the whole thing has placed on her already bad heart. 'I'll put my trust in God.'"

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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