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Wink, wink

They don't come to Gennifer Flowers' New Orleans nightclub just to hear her sing. And that's OK with her. She's happy to cash in.

November 29, 2002|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — New Orleans

It all feels so '90s. So of a bygone era -- when stocks were climbing and presidential indiscretions were still a matter of national importance. Or at least prurient interest.

But here in the heart of the French Quarter, where ghosts walk the iron balconies alongside the living, and characters with tales to tell are cultivated like hothouse blooms, Gennifer Flowers still stokes the flame of her fast-fading notoriety.

She was the first of Bill Clinton's bimbo eruptions, and the last time most of us saw her was in the pages of the Star. Or on "Larry King." Or detailing the president's preferred sexual positions in Penthouse. This month she was in the news again when a federal appeals court ruled that Flowers may pursue a libel and conspiracy case against Hillary Rodham Clinton and two former presidential aides, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

For most of the country, Clinton's onetime paramour is an occasional blip in our collective consciousness. But here at 720 St. Louis St., the legend of Gennifer Flowers lives on.

Flowers has returned to her career as a lounge singer, belting out standards Thursday through Sunday at the Gennifer Flowers Kelsto Club. Far from putting the purported pain of the Clinton scandal behind her, she works it for all it is worth, weaving it into her nightclub act and seizing any media attention that comes her way.

Who knows why people come -- titillation? a firsthand brush with scandal? a way to keep their rage against Democrats alive? -- but night after night, they sit and watch Flowers lean against her gold grand piano and croon into her mike.

And they eat her up.

You don't go for the music

The club is just off Bourbon Street, right across from Antoine's, the legendary French Creole restaurant that caters to new wealth and old New Orleans. It opened a year ago, and, in a city full of crazy stories, it still makes some locals shake their heads.

"You don't go to see Gennifer Flowers for the music," says a cabdriver, who confesses he has never been to the club and doesn't plan to go. "That's like saying you read Playboy for the articles."

"How long is she going to ride this thing?" asks a local merchant, who says he has never been either.

The sign outside is adorned with a giant lipstick kiss. A head shot of Flowers hangs in the window.

The club was once a stable for a rich slave owner and most recently housed Lucky Cheng's, staffed by Asian drag queens. Before that, in the early '90s, it was a bar called Bogie and Me, run by a former Hollywood hairdresser who claims to have been Humphrey Bogart's mistress. The focal point of the room is that great gold piano, purchased in Las Vegas and said to have once belonged to Bugsy Siegel. (It's nicknamed "Virginia" after the mobster's starlet girlfriend, Virginia Hill.)

Flowers takes the floor at about a quarter to 10. She is accompanied by pianist Mimi Gustd, a feisty woman with a sultry voice who pounds away on the keys like a mad Muppet and has a face more expressive than a silent film star's. Tony Seville, bald and bereted, pulls out assorted instruments like a magician with a hatful of tricks.

Flowers wears a white tuxedo jacket and a lace camisole. Her bottle-blond hair is piled atop her head in her trademark up-do. Her eyes are turquoise. Her lips are red, luscious, always freshly painted.

When she receives a business card from a patron she smiles, then tucks it into her cleavage. "I don't have anywhere else, baby," she drawls.

She sings jazz, blues and R&B. She sings Billie Holiday and some Patsy Cline. Always, she sings about love gone wrong.

"This is our sentiment to any guy out there who happens to do us wrong," she says to the ladies in the bar. "Hey, did you happen to see, the most beautiful guy in the world who walked out on me," she croons. "Say it, ladies, 'Love gone wrong ... ' "

She's singing "Just One of Those Things" when she breaks into a playful patter. She includes herself in the great American pantheon of Women Scorned and celebrates herself as an icon of mistress culture. She talks about Tammy Faye Bakker and Ivana Trump. Then she talks about herself: "Gennifer whispered in the president's ear, 'Wanna face the facts, my dear?' "

A collective intake of breath. She said it. The crowd titters, then goes crazy.

The patrons are a mix of locals, tourists and Quarter characters. It's a place where everyone seems to be on a first-name basis with Bill and Hillary.

"Last night this girl was in here," Finis Shelnutt, Gennifer's husband of five years and her greatest admirer, whispers to Rush Biossat, a neighborhood regular. "She paid $10 to get her picture taken with Gennifer. She was a major liberal, a big-time Democrat.

"But this girl met Gennifer," he says proudly. "Now, this girl, she is one of Gennifer's major fans."

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