The childhood home of Stormy Daniels in north Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Source: Google Maps, 2011.
The most well-known living person from Baton Rouge, Louisiana isn’t Steven Soderbergh, the Academy Award-winning director, or CNN’s Don Lemon or Randy Jackson, a judge for thirteen years on “American Idol.” It’s not Bobby Jindal, the former two-term governor and unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States. And it’s not even Odell Beckham, the NFL superstar and LSU phenom.
No, at least right now, there isn’t anyone from Baton Rouge more famous, all across the world, than Stephanie Gregory Clifford, better known by her stage name, Stormy Daniels.
To be sure, Daniels, the adult film director and actress, had already been a celebrity, at least within her industry, for more than a decade; it was her status as a porn star that earned her a dinner invitation in 2006 from the guest of the presidential suite at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Casino and Resort, the New York real estate tycoon Donald J. Trump.
The story of that night isn’t exactly riveting. During the past year, however, the nation learned the extent to which Trump and his personal lawyer went in order to pay for Daniels’ silence on the eve of his election as president, and that is a riveting story.
Already, because of Stormy Daniel’s tenacity and her unwillingness to accept what she believed to be a fraudulent deal, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including campaign finance violations. His sentencing hearing is scheduled on Dec. 12, but in the meantime, Cohen is said to be cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Not surprisingly, Daniels wrote a tell-all book, Full Disclosure, which was released today. As she reminds readers multiple times, she is a capitalist; she doesn’t apologize for selling her story. And she shouldn’t.
If you’re only interested in the lurid details of her encounters with Trump, you can skip to Chapter Three. Daniels anticipates many readers will do just that. But if you start on Chapter Three, you will likely appreciate what those who started from the beginning of her book quickly realized: Stormy Daniels may not be a great writer, but she is definitely a good writer.
“Her book is not exactly a gripping read or a remarkable piece of literature, but it’s blunt, funny and authentic,” Jill Filiponic of The New York Times opines. “She is all the things women are not supposed to be. And yet you like her — not in spite of her rule-breaking but for it. Perhaps more important, when you read her story, you believe her.”
Phil Scher of Politico read every single memoir written by a “presidential mistress,” all the way back to the book written by President Warren Harding’s former lover. Stormy’s book, he said, ranks as one of the best. “The emotional heart of Full Disclosure stands on its own, and the book is sure to find an admirable place in the canon of presidential mistress memoirs,” he writes.
I haven’t read the entire canon of “mistress memoirs,” but after reading Stormy’s book, I am not sure it’s even fair to assign Full Disclosure to that genre. Stormy Daniels didn’t just write a trashy tell-all, though she understands her obligation to reveal some of the details that most readers expect, and because of her profession- porn director and actress, there are parts of her story that are undeniably X-rated.
I may be one of the very people who didn’t read the book to learn more about her (rather boring) sexual encounter with the current President of the United States. Instead, I wanted to know what she wrote about our home state of Louisiana, and as it turns out, that is the most important part of the story.
In the chapters about her childhood and adolescence in Baton Rouge, her early career as a stripper at the Gold Club (today known as the Penthouse Club), and her brief but high-profile campaign for U.S. Senate against David Vitter, Stormy Daniels proves why she deserves to be taken seriously. The story she tells is compelling and heartbreaking and painfully honest.
She wants you to know that she is not a victim of her own circumstances, thank you very much; she is a self-made success story who rose to the top of her industry through her own hard-work, discipline, and smarts- not just her looks or her surgically-enhanced breasts, which she calls “Thunder” and “Lightning.”
Stephanie was the first and only child of Bill and Sheila Gregory, who split up when their daughter was only three years old. She recalls a remarkable number of details from her earliest years. She claims to have a photographic memory. Although Baton Rouge was always home, her parents weren’t exactly settled down, and they spent much of their time driving across the country, their baby daughter in tow. She vividly remembers those places and even the name of the first horse she ever rode, at the age of two.
When Bill decided, once and for all, to leave Sheila for a different life in Alaska with his new girlfriend, three-year-old Stephanie hid in the back of his truck. He drove two miles before she surprised him, and in retelling the story for her book, she realizes- for the first time- that the only reason her father hadn’t noticed her is because he hadn’t even thought to tell her goodbye before he pulled out of the driveway and headed to Alaska.
With her father gone, for good, her mother Sheila fell apart. She stopped taking care of herself and her daughter, and for those first few years, her grandparents picked up the slack. But when her grandmother died, her grandfather moved away.
Sheila was, by her daughter’s account, a terribly negligent mother. Their small, ranch-style home in a majority African American neighborhood in north Baton Rouge became infested with cockroaches and rats. She’d sometimes leave her child for days at a time, without warning or explanation.
Stormy does not believe her mother was an addict or an alcoholic; she claims to have only seen her mother drunk five times. But clearly, her mother wasn’t fit to provide or even care for a young child.
When Stormy was only nine years old, she and a childhood friend, Vanessa (one of the only people mentioned in the book whose name is changed), were repeatedly raped by a man living next door to her friend’s home. He first lured the girls into his home by screening movies for them. Neither Stormy nor her friend, who was a year and a half younger, ever told an adult about the abuse until Vanessa broke her silence to a middle school guidance counselor.
Daniels doesn’t provide the counselor’s name, though she does disclose their school: Istrouma Middle School (which closed in 2004). The counselor called Daniels into his office; Vanessa had mentioned her name as someone who was also abused. The counselor didn’t believe either of the girls, and he directly and repeatedly accused Stormy of lying. She didn’t tell anyone else that she had been molested as a young girl until June of this year.
The middle school guidance counselor wasn’t the only adult authority figure who dismissed her. She overheard Vanessa’s Christian conservative parents lament that their daughter had made friends with “white trash” and worry their daughter’s room would reek of cigarettes, which hung on Stormy’s clothes because her mother was a chain-smoker. They were judging her, and at the time, they had no idea that their own daughter and Stormy were being repeatedly molested by the man living next door.
Stormy Daniels survived a troubling and traumatic childhood through the sheer force of her own intellect. She was always a straight-A student, and she had always been confident of her own intelligence. Because of her stellar grades in middle school, she was accepted into Scotlandville Magnet High School; she had wanted to attend Baton Rouge Magnet, which emphasized arts and humanities, but Scotlandville was closer.
She also made straight-As in high school, and by her senior year, she became the editor of the school’s newspaper.
But school wasn’t her only focus that year. As a kid, she became passionate about horses; it was the one and only luxury in her life, a way to escape from her erratic and toxic mother. In middle school, her alcoholic stepfather arrived to pick her up from horseback riding lessons in order to take her Christmas shopping. He was more than an hour late, and when he showed up, he was obviously drunk. The instructor refused to let Stormy go home with him, and he plopped down $500 in cash, in a rage, and told her that was her Christmas money. Once he left, the instructor offered to sell her a horse, and for the next several years, Stormy kept her horse, Jade, at LSU’s Farr Park Equestrian Center.
She worked odd jobs at Farr Park to pay for the horse’s boarding, but when she was seventeen, she met a young woman who seemed to be making a fortune as a dancer at a tiny strip club in Prairieville called Cinnamon’s.
Stephanie Gregory first became Stormy at that club. At first, she had been known as Stormy Stephanie, but a couple of years later, she adopted the surname Daniels as a tribute to Jack Daniels. After Cinnamon’s, Stormy was hired as a dancer at the notorious Gold Club, and from there, her career kicked off.
The Baton Rouge of Stormy’s childhood isn’t as vivid in her retelling as the people in her orbit, but there are details that should be familiar to those of a certain age from her hometown: As a teenager, she hung out at the old location of Coffee Call on College Drive, which was demolished to make room for a Wal-Mart. Her favorite band of all-time, she says, is Acid Bath, the emerging “sludge rock” group from Houma whose promise was cut tragically short after bass guitarist Audie Pitre and his parents were killed by a drunk driver.
There are many ironies and coincidences in her story, an undercurrent of a vague belief in destiny or design: Her first kiss was with a troubled boy named Damien, who told her he would always think of her when he heard the Bon Jovi song, “You Give Love A Bad Name.” Damien had moved away from Baton Rouge, and later, she found out that he had been shot to death. The lyrics to the song resonated. “Your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye.” Her very first “boyfriend” also died young. “Fucking black widow,” she jokes.
Her horse shared a birthday with her; the horse ended up dying on their birthday. She fell for her husband Brendon, who was born in Missouri, when he correctly guessed the name of her favorite band: Acid Bath.
For the most part, the Baton Rouge of her childhood is a dreary city, populated by racists and uncaring adults. Yet, throughout her book and her life, she has been drawn back to Louisiana, most notably, when political consultant Brian Welsh convinced her to challenge David Vitter, who had just been named as a client of the D.C. Madam, for the U.S. Senate.
At least initially, Daniels seemed to have enjoyed her brief campaign, though she never acknowledges its fatal flaw: She was no longer a resident of Louisiana, and it’s likely her residency would have been challenged had she decided to show up for qualifying. Still, there is plenty of evidence that the Vitter campaign was rattled by her presence on the campaign trail. One night, famously, Welsh’s car was fire-bombed; it was a suspicious crime that remains unsolved. Thankfully, no one was injured.
Stormy tells readers the fate of her would-be opponent, and she drops a name that political observers in Louisiana would never expect to be included: Lane Grigsby.
Obviously, she has kept up with state politics. From her book Full Disclosure:
There is no redemptive ending to her story, at least yet, but what emerges from the book is much more than a crude and sleazy protagonist. Instead, Daniels asserts herself as a thoughtful, flawed, tenacious, and accomplished woman.
The book opens with the story of Stormy Daniels, alongside her attorney Michael Avenatti, receiving a key to the city of West Hollywood, California. It’s unlikely her hometown would ever honor her with the same distinction, but maybe one day, they’ll consider it.
People may disagree with her lifestyle and loath her profession, but Full Disclosure is ultimately a story of success by Baton Rouge’s most famous native daughter.