A longtime French Quarter barber tells Gambit
that U.S. Sen. David Vitter visited “the hooker’s house” on Dumaine Street in the late 1990s — and that Vitter occasionally got his hair cut while “waiting for the girl across the street” to return home.
That location is where former New Orleans prostitute Wendy Ellis (aka Wendy Cortez) claims she lived while carrying on a sexual liaison with Vitter, which Vitter has denied for nearly a decade. At a 2007 press conference in Metairie, after Vitter admitted “a serious sin” in connection with his phone number turning up in the records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam," the senator was adamant that “those New Orleans stories in recent reports — those stories were not true.”
The barber, Ricky Ketchum, disputes that. “He claims … that he never went over there, at the hooker’s house. I know that’s not true. Because I do know — I can’t tell you what they did behind closed doors — but I do know he went over. He was over there,” Ketchum tells Gambit
The Vitter camp disputes the entire notion.
“This wild story is completely untrue and has been disproved in numerous ways," Vitter aide Luke Bolar wrote in an email to Gambit
. "With two days before the election, it just shows that desperate political opponents do truly desperate things.”
Ellis' latest claims have roiled the final days of the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial primary election since she gave a video interview to Jason Brad Berry, author of The American Zombie
blog, claiming she’d had a romantic relationship with Vitter, the family values champion who’s the GOP frontrunner in the governor’s race.
Ellis has long claimed Vitter was a client when she worked as a prostitute in the French Quarter. She told that story to Hustler
magazine in 2007 and posed for a nude photo spread in the January 2008 issue. What was
different in Ellis’ new interview with Berry was a bombshell detail: Ellis claimed Vitter had impregnated her and then asked her to have an abortion. She said she refused and instead gave the child up for adoption. She produced no proof.
Berry presented her video, saying he believed her.
“It is very important to her, and very important to me, that the identity of the child remain anonymous,” Berry wrote, “and I realize that it would be the one foolproof way to corroborate her story but I believe it can be corroborated by other means than putting the child's well being at risk.
“I do know more about the adoption and I personally believe the information she provided in this interview to be true.”
Vitter has never amended or changed his statement that “those stories were not true.” (Bolar dismissed The American Zombie as a “shady blog.”) But in researching Ellis’ tale of a pregnancy and adoption, Gambit
found a longtime French Quarter business owner who lent credence to Ellis’ claims of an affair, though not the pregnancy she's now claiming.
Businesses and neighbors have come and gone at the corner of Dauphine and Dumaine streets since the 1990s, but Headquarters is a longtime French Quarter salon. Until it moved to Bourbon Street this summer, it was a fixture on the corner for more than 30 years, well-known for its colorful, vast collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. It was directly across from 905 Dumaine Street, the site of what was then New Orleans Escorts & Erotic Massage, where Ellis worked. She also had an apartment across the street.
Ketchum, owner of Headquarters, says Vitter came in his shop for a haircut three times while Vitter was a state legislator representing the 81st District, which then encompassed Bucktown and part of Metairie. “He was a very nice guy,” Ketchum says. On Vitter’s visits, Ketchum says, the politician would get his hair cut by a barber named Mike. Mike died in 2006.
Why would a strait-laced Metairie state representative get his hair cut at a barber shop in the bohemian French Quarter, in an area the locals called “The Fruit Loop”?
"He was already in politics," Ketchum told Gambit
. "Like I said, I’m not real political so I don’t know what he was doing. But I do know that he would come in and get his hair cut while he was waiting for the girl across the street to get home."
Ketchum said it was common knowledge that the building across the street was a house of prostitution, and that customers and employees enjoyed watching a daily ritual that took place when a sex worker would return with the payment from her latest assignation. “They [the proprietors] would lower a bucket down from the second floor,” he says, laughing. “You’d see the hookers come and put their money in it. We used to watch it all the time.”
"He was going to the house directly across from the shop," Ketchum said. "Directly across."
Shown a 1990s photo of Ellis, Ketchum said, “She looks familiar,” but he said he didn’t know her.
Ketchum says Vitter was affable with his staff and specifically remembers when Vitter stopped coming to the shop.
"I remember the last time that he got his hair cut — Michael used to cut his hair," Ketchum says, "and after he left, I remember Michael making the comment that he was fixing to run" for national office.
Asked if he’d ever heard of a pregnancy involving Vitter, Ketchum furrowed his brow. “How old is the baby?” he asked. Told that Ellis claimed the child was born in 2000, he shook his head. “[Hurricane] Katrina was 10 years ago,” he said. “So that would have been five years before that. He [Vitter] stopped coming around way before that.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But before 2000.” (Vitter ran for Congress in early 1999.)
Ellis’ latest story, meanwhile, is rife with contradictions.
Her tale of her pregnancy is not congruent with interviews she gave to Hustler
and The Times-Picayune
in 2007, both of which were similar in their details. Nor are they backed up by a press conference she held at the time with Hustler
publisher Larry Flynt.
quoted her as saying their relationship was strictly business, conducted between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., and that Vitter was so cautious that he would take his used condoms with him. In that 2007 telling, their assignations lasted only three or four months — and ended abruptly when Ellis, who was known to Vitter by the name “Leah,” asked him if he wanted to see her privately, outside of the escort service. “I wrote my name down and said, ‘My real name’s Wendy,’” Ellis told Hustler
. “And he said, ‘Oh, my God.’ That was the last time.”
Ellis told Berry that Hustler
got it wrong: “Hustler
printed what they wanted to print,” she said. Ellis also claims today she told Hustler
that Vitter impregnated her, but the reporter, Mark Johnson, chose not to include that detail.
That is not the only discrepancy in Ellis’ current accounting of her relationship to Vitter.
reported Ellis charged Vitter $300 per hour for her services. (“He was never there more than 15 or 20 minutes,” she told Hustler
, which also repeated the $300 figure.) Today, Ellis says Vitter paid her $5,000 per month for living expenses, that she became monogamous with him and he gave her an antique ring that matches one he gave his wife.
When Berry asked about previous reports that her relationship with Vitter had been strictly business, Ellis became emotional.
“That is not true,” Ellis told Berry, biting her lip. “I never said that. … It’s always been he and I did have a very personal, romantic relationship.” Ellis then described how Vitter would come to her apartment across the street from the escort service in the middle of the night (contradicting her earlier story) when no one would see him. As for how she could become pregnant by a man so careful that he collected his used condoms, she said that habit ended quickly as they developed a relationship.
This more romantic version of the story is contradicted not by a reporter — but by Ellis herself. In 2007, she appeared with Hustler
publisher Larry Flynt at a press conference. Vanity Fair
’s Bruce Handy quoted her describing Vitter to the press: “It was just a pure sexual relationship, you know. He would come in, do his business — he was a very clean man, I do have to give him that much — two to three times a week, for four months.”
At that press conference, she made no mention of a pregnancy, an abortion or an adoption.
Berry has had political scoops before. In 2006, he began reporting on suspected skullduggery between then-Mayor Ray Nagin, his technology chief Greg Meffert and city vendors. His work blazed a trail for other local reporters and he often beat them to new developments. Berry’s investigative work was instrumental in Nagin’s eventual conviction. He’s also reported on the BP disaster — both the claims process and oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.
Berry wrote on his American Zombie
blog that he’s worked on the Vitter story for five years, and was almost ready to drop it until Ellis came forward. Since then, he says, he tried to contact Mark Johnson, who wrote the original story for Hustler
, but was unsuccessful.
The 2007 Times-Picayune
story — which also didn't mention a pregnancy — was written by then-staff writers Kate Moran and Brendan McCarthy. Of Moran, Ellis now says, “Everything she wrote, she wrote what she wanted to write. She didn’t write my words.” Moran left journalism to study law at Yale University and is now known professionally as Katherine Moran Meeks, an associate at the Washington D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly.
McCarthy is managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom. He says Berry never contacted him to check Ellis’ claims.
“I'm unsure what she is claiming we got wrong,” McCarthy wrote in an email. “I believe most, if not all of the Vitter/Ellis stories were co-bylined pieces with Kate Moran. I recall digging through records and court docs and finding [Ellis’] ex, Tait Cortez. Kate interviewed Ellis, Palfrey and other folks. Our reporting was solid. I don't recall there being any protests, requests for clarification or misgivings by Ellis following publication.”
So what proof is there of the pregnancy or adoption?
Berry told Gambit
that Ellis — who reportedly now is in a clinic in Texas, where she cannot be reached — is adamant about protecting her child, and that’s why she’s not turning over any documents that may support her pregnancy or adoption claim. No medical records or even photos of a pregnant Ellis during that time period have been produced. Moreover, Louisiana is a “closed record” state, meaning the Department of Health & Hospitals only can issue a copy of a birth certificate to the person on the document or a close relative.
Since his original Ellis videos, Berry has posted more interviews related to the case, including one with “Vanna,” an exotic dancer whose face and voice are electronically altered to protect her identity.
“Vanna” says Vitter and Ellis were “exclusive” for three years, backs up Ellis’ claims of pregnancy and states that Ellis had told her at the time that Vitter was the father. Asked how a prostitute could be “exclusive” with one client for three years, “Vanna” said, “You could be exclusive with one person and also do your job, but if you do your job working as an escort, you use protection.” She says she saw symptoms of Ellis’ pregnancy (morning sickness), but as far as adoption, “I didn’t find about about that until now.”
Berry posted another interview with Jeanette Maier, the “Canal Street Madam,” who operated a thriving Mid-City brothel at the time. Maier said she knew of Wendy Ellis and was aware that Vitter had used the French Quarter service, but Maier made no mention of the pregnancy.
Ellis’ new story, of course, propelled Vitter’s unspecified “sin” into a major campaign issue in a complicated gubernatorial race, and New Orleans newspapers and TV stations have struggled with how to cover it — or if to cover it at all, given the gravity of the charges and the absence of absolute proof.
The three other major candidates in the race have not been so hesitant, making repeated references to their own moral rectitude.
“I've lived by the West Point honor code,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a graduate of the military academy. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne tweeted, “It's pretty simple: Don't cheat on wife. Don't cheat on Louisiana. A candidate that does either doesn't deserve your vote.”
At a televised Oct. 21 debate in Baton Rouge (which Vitter skipped), Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle made direct reference to the new Ellis interviews and the American Zombie website, saying, “I understand a serious sin. It is now perhaps a lifestyle we need to examine — a lifestyle that Louisiana cannot afford.” In response, Bolar told The Advocate
, “Desperate campaigns in last place do desperate things.”
Angelle's reference seemed to bring the story somewhat into play for some papers. An Oct. 22 report by The New York Times
' Campbell Robertson made brief mention of Angelle's statement deep in a story about Vitter, but didn't name Ellis. "The woman’s credibility has been challenged on several fronts," Robertson wrote, "as Mr. Angelle himself acknowledged."
So whom to believe: Ellis, Vitter or neither of them? A few obvious questions:
• Why would a prostitute, who says she received $5,000 per month from a john-turned-paramour-turned high-profile Congressman, not demand financial support if she was carrying his child?
• If Ellis indeed told Hustler
Vitter impregnated her, why would publisher Larry Flynt — who delights in pointing out hypocrisies of the powerful — NOT print that claim, opting instead for an blander, sanitized story?
• As for Vitter: Why would a Metairie state representative make repeated trips to a hair salon in the French Quarter — a salon located across the street from a brothel, during the exact same time a prostitute there claimed he was her client?
It’s hard to say; Berry says Ellis has broken off contact with him since the interview. But Berry says he has more information, calling the original interview “the tip of the iceberg.
“I have much more information I will share in the near future, from this interview and hopefully others, as I obtain it,” he wrote on American Zombie, adding, “Stay Tuned.”