PARIS — She said she sought to “make vice pretty,” and in doing so, added a heady dose of glamour and intrigue to the world's oldest profession. On Dec. 19, France’s world famous brothel owner, Fernande Grudet, better known as “Madame Claude,” passed away in the south of France at the age of 92.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Grudet ran an upscale call-girl enterprise in Paris that catered to the rich, famous, and powerful. John F. Kennedy was rumored to be a client. (Legend has it he asked for a woman who looked like Jackie, but “hot.”) Marlon Brando and the Shah of Iran also were said to have made the scene.
So vast was Madame Claude’s roster of French public servants, that she is believed to have been the keeper of an equally vast number of state secrets. Even the CIA got in on the action, allegedly hiring Claude's “girls” — beautiful young women she had groomed and made over with Pygmalion-like flourish to blend into the upper echelons of French society — to maintain morale during the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in 1973.
Lustful politicos weren't the only ones who divulged covert information during the afterglow of a session with one of her several hundred girls. Mafia bosses and other shady characters also let slip a few incriminating tidbits that Claude then passed on to the police. Such clandestine pillow talk is the main reason the authorities left her business alone to flourish, despite the fact that brothels—maisons closes—were outlawed in France in 1946.
“She will take many state secrets with her,” Claude Cances, a onetime Paris police chief, told Agence France-Press.
An air of mystery also surrounded Grudet herself, a petite, well-coiffed blond, who had skills in the art of reinvention to rival those of any covert operator. Born in the western French town of Angers in 1923 to a family of humble means, she came to Paris as a broke young woman in the 1950s and reportedly fell into the sex trade. However, in the 1960s she emerged as the Chanel-clad child from a privileged background, who ran her own establishment and rubbed shoulders with the world elite.
The maison close of Madame Claude, deep in the snooty 16th arrondissement of Paris, was so low profile that to this day the people of the neighborhood disagree about where it was precisely and when it might have stopped serving up beautiful women to the rich and powerful of French and, indeed, American business and politics.
Most published accounts about her say the house was at 32 rue Boulainvilliers, a building tastefully faced with brick, where the buzzers on the door beneath a state of the art video camera are identified only with initials. Some of the windows are shuttered. On the long balcony at the top there are dead plants. But according to neighbors the house that gave so many clients so much pleasure may have been in more modern quarters at number 30, or a somewhat grander building of the Belle Époque on the corner of rue Ranelagh.
The fact is, the best little whorehouse in Paris has passed into legend.
“It didn’t exist, but it existed,” said the sexagenarian owner of a local business who didn’t want to be quoted because of “all this merde going on” with terrorists and cops in France. “I don’t need to attract attention,” he said.
“OK,” we said. “But what do you mean it didn’t exist but it existed?”
“They had a free pass,” said the sexagenarian. “You know, it is like with customs.” He lowered his glasses. “They [the authorities] see what they want to see and don’t see what they don’t.”
In a neighborhood café, L'Antenne (near the headquarters of Radio France), an aging Corsican resident of Paris, when asked about Madame Claude, said, “God rest her soul,” but conceded somewhat ruefully he’d never met her.
“But did you see some of the girls from her house in the neighborhood from time to time?”
“Yes, sometimes,” he said.
The younger man behind the bar chimed in. “You find them in the Bois de Boulogne,” he said, the huge park on the western edge of Paris that is famous for streetwalkers of every persuasion and description. “And, anyway, with the Internet, all that is finished.”
A look of reminiscence, if not remorse, crossed the face of the aging Corsican as he thought about what Madame Claude and her women and clients represented in this place at that time, long ago. “The were,” he said, “discreet.”
Discreet or not, Grudet fell out of favor with the French state in the mid-1970s when she was charged with tax evasion. She fled to California, but was jailed for four months on her return to France in the 1980s. Upon her release, the authorities nabbed her for pimping after she attempted to establish a new network of pretty young things. Grudet’s reign as queen of the maison close had officially ended.
Although her tumultuous life was the subject of books and films, including Madame Claude, by Just Jaeckin, Grudet spent her later years in a modest apartment in Nice, where she lived as a veritable recluse.
Loneliness has always been a friend,” she told a Le Point journalist earlier this year.
Grudet died in a local hospital in Nice on Saturday. “A calm death,” remarked the French weekly VSD. Indeed, maybe too calm for a larger-than-life woman who had unleashed so many passions and kept so many secrets.
— With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey.