Gennifer Flowers letting good times roll
Clinton's former flame opens piano bar in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS (Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002) - Former television reporter, lounge singer and Bill Clinton flame Gennifer Flowers says she loved Dallas, but feels even more welcome and at home as the latest celebrity and bona fide character to put down roots in New Orleans' French Quarter.
Inspired in part by the spirit of a couple of legendary madams and scandal queens, she's opened a piano bar called the Gennifer Flowers Kelsto Club in a historic address at 720 St. Louis St., a bead toss from Bourbon Street, across from Antoine's Restaurant.
"The people of Dallas understand Le Bon Temp Rouler, let the good times
roll. It's the next best city to New Orleans," she said. "But the people of New Orleans are used to accepting interesting celebrities and characters. I really feel at home here in the Quarter."
Ms. Flowers said she hasn't heard a discouraging word about her status as a "national bimbo," her celebrity largely the product of an affair with President Clinton before he became president.
She claims her reputation as Mr. Clinton's lover, and the fact that she talked about it publicly, hurt her career as a singer. She performed in the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas for a few years, and in Las Vegas hotels. But when the story about her affair with Mr. Clinton broke, the good singing jobs dissipated. Several deals in the works with places like the Hilton Ballroom in Las Vegas evaporated, she said, after phone calls from what she refers to as "the F.O.B., Friends of Bill."
Many venues, she said, "were not going to touch me with a 10-foot pole, and I don't blame them." The pattern became so apparent she decided to open her own place.
"Let 'em tell me I can't sing in my own club," she said. "I've been a singer for 30 years."
She recorded under the name Geannie Flowers on a small Arkansas label when she was 11, and under the nickname Little Scooter Bill at 13. Around that time she made a recording of When the Saints Go Marching In and performed it in Pete Fountain's Bourbon Street club on a trip with her parents, a fond memory that stuck with her through the years.
This will be her first Carnival season - the celebration that ends with Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day, on Feb 12 - in New Orleans and she's looking forward to it.
"I can't wait," she said.
She and her husband Finis D. Shelnutt, an entrepreneur, real estate agent and stockbroker who she married five years ago in Dallas, have no special plans yet for Mardi Gras. They will be hanging out, greeting guests in the front parlor bar - the new home of a gold piano once owned by the romantic gangster and father of Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegal.
This past Saturday night, curious patrons of all ages and political
persuasions packed the bar by 10 p.m., waiting for a glimpse of Ms. Flowers, maybe a song.
"She fits in well in the Quarter. I think she will do great here,"said
Dorothy Mayo of Metairie.
"She intrigues me," Ms. Mayo said, sitting at the piano bar with friends. "I admire her. She held her head up through tough times."
She got her wish. Ms. Flowers showed up at about 11:30 p.m. and, about
midnight, gave in to the crowd and sang the torch song Teach Me Tonight.
An upscale restaurant is in the works upstairs and the couple lives on the third floor, said Mr. Shelnutt as he led a tour of the building with
connections to a number of interesting historical characters.
The French structure was once occupied by Verita Thompson, allegedly
Humphrey Bogart's long-time mistress. She ran a bar called Bogie and Me in the same space.
Mary Lee Kelley ran the original Kelsto Club between the world wars, and it is said she is the inspiration for Cole Porter's 1940 musical "Panama
"The rumor is she had 18 brass beds upstairs, and she brought in nothing but blonds," Ms. Flowers said. Apparently it was not simply a brothel, but a place for men to socialize, to dine and dance.
Something about the story and the portrait of Madam X inspired Ms. Flowers to make the move from Las Vegas, she said. A copy of John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, the former Virginie Avegno of New Orleans who came to be known through international scandal in the 1880s as Madam X simply for a plunging neckline, hangs in an antique shop at 927 Toulouse St., reportedly Madam X's
place of birth. While attending a wedding there, Ms. Flowers said, she felt a special connection to the place and the legend.
"It wasn't just that I was in the Madame X mansion and saw the portrait. It was really a combination of that and a lot of other things that day," she said. "I had been to New Orleans several times and always enjoyed it, but never really considered living here. It was the mansion, the portrait, the beautiful courtyard, the smells of the Quarter.
"The Quarter character just really took me over," she said. "It's hard to explain, but I was hooked."
Glynn Wilson is a free-lance writer based in New Orleans.