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Wilkening Without the Rolodex : Profile: Now that she is out of prison, the former madam says she is savoring the simple pleasures and plans to write an ‘adventure story’ about her life.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soon after police raided her exclusive call-girl service and confiscated her 500-name list of clients four years ago, Karen W. Wilkening became the stuff of San Diego legend.

She gained a tabloid-style nickname--the “Rolodex Madam.” And ever since, Wilkening said Thursday in an interview with The Times, the mythology embroidered around her life has bordered on the surreal.

In her first lengthy interview since her release from prison last week, Wilkening, 44, said she is weary of being defined by a piece of office equipment--especially since the persistent Rolodex-related rumors of political connections, police protection and cover-ups are a bunch of baloney.

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“One of my top priorities is to clarify some of the facts of this case,” she said, referring to several “unexpected and crazy” allegations made about her life. “I have a tremendous need to put things in perspective.”

But right now, other basic needs weigh on Wilkening as well. Virtually penniless, living out of a borrowed sky blue El Dorado and relying on the kindness of pen pals she made during her two years in prison, the New York-born former real estate agent is looking for work and dreaming of the day when she can rent her own apartment.

It’s as if, she says, she is starting life over.

“I feel like a virgin again,” she said, as she sat in the East San Diego living room of her volunteer public relations adviser, Ray Drasnin. “Not having any possessions allows me to travel light. . . . All I have is my sense of humor and my story.”

Wilkening plans to turn that story into a book, she says, that will tell the tale of a conservative Catholic girl, a math whiz and businesswoman who took a “once in a lifetime” chance and bought an escort service in 1981.

The book, for which she still seeks a publisher, will trace the six years during which Wilkening built a discreet but flourishing business, pairing her “girls” with select “gentlemen” clients for $150 an hour. (“I was a switchboard operator,” she says now).

It will chronicle the cloak-and-dagger antics that surrounded Wilkening’s decision to don a wig, borrow a passport and flee to the Philippines to escape prosecution in 1987. And it will follow Wilkening to jail, where she read Tolstoy, studied parapsychology, did yoga and corresponded with 400 pen pals, many of them elderly and retired people who told her she had done nothing wrong.

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What the book will not do, she says, is name names.

“I will never talk about my clients by name,” she said, for a moment pushing back tears. “When I write a book, it is not going to be a kiss-and-tell book. It’s going to be an adventure story.”

This is a point of great pride for Wilkening, who says she decided not to be a “songbird” despite her lawyer’s opinion that she should not take the rap alone. If anyone is grateful for this, they haven’t let her know--of all the mail she received in jail, none came from her former clients or employees. But she says she understands their silence.

“There are no hard feelings. The people I dealt with were middle class, middle America. They had established wonderful lives. Some of them were married,” she said. “I took a tremendous amount of responsibility for all this.”

One man who was not among her clients, she insists, is Bill Kolender, San Diego’s former Police Chief. She says people who believed reports last year that she supplied police officials with companions in exchange for protection were mistaken.

“These people watch too much television,” she said, adding that the only police officer in her Rolodex was a rookie cop who called looking for dancers for a bachelor party. “Bless his heart, I’m sure he rues the day he ever called.”

She had no need for police protection, she says, because she ran essentially a private club that attracted clients by word of mouth. She did not advertise. And she says she did not collect the names of famous people in what news reports called a “super-client” list, which was supposedly kept separate from her Rolodex.

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“The super-client list is a figment of someone’s imagination,” she said. “I don’t know much about politics. I had no connections with any politicians, but I think the prosecutors hoped that I did.”

As for the Rolodex that has earned her such notoriety? It is still in police custody, she said, along with her answering machine and $900 in cash. She wants it all back, she says, and a lot more besides.

“The truth is, half of those people (in the Rolodex) were my private friends, people I’d known all my life,” she said. And many did not know about Wilkening’s “dual life” until they heard it on the news, she said.

Maybe she will recontact some of those people someday, she said. But, right now, she’s concentrating on rediscovering some of life’s little pleasures. This week, she drove a car for the first time in four years. After eating all her meals in jail with a fork and spoon, she has enjoyed getting reacquainted with a bread knife.

Determined to build herself a normal life, she has met with some obstacles. The day after she was released, she took her parole papers and her temporary driver’s license to a bank to open an account. The tellers recognized her from her pictures in the newspaper, but they said they couldn’t give her an account until she gets a valid photo I.D.

As yet, she has not been able to cash the $200 state-issued check that she received when she was released. She said she has had to borrow money to live. Only the scores of lunch and dinner invitations from her pen pals have kept her from going hungry, she said.

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But prison has taught her to be creative and rely on what she’s got. Give her 20 minutes, she said, and she can make you a set of hair rollers out of Kotex and toilet paper rolls. A vegetarian, for two years she shunned most prison food and lived mostly on tuna fish, crackers and granola bars she bought from the canteen. If she can survive that diet, she said, she can endure anything.

“I’ve gained such a varied education, dealing with the legal system, the penal system, living in a third world country, dealing with antiquated laws. . . . I’m also an expert at running an escort service,” she said with a smile, when asked to ponder the future.

She says she believes prostitution should be decriminalized--”It’s not a crime against nature,” she said. But still, she has no plans to return to the world’s oldest profession.

“Not in this lifetime,” she said.

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