Obituary: Madame Claude
Brothel-keeper to the jet set whose working girls combined beauty and sexual expertise with intelligence and style
Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30
Madame Claude (real name Fernande Grudet), who died last Saturday, aged 92, was known to the international jet set as perhaps the most famous purveyor of high-class call girls in the world.
Her career in the vice trade began in Paris after the war (in which she claimed to have worked with the Resistance).
Following a brief but not particularly successful period as a call girl ("I was never pretty enough," she recalled later), she astutely realised that the saucy image of the Parisian prostitute with the enormous cleavage was out of date and that there was an unmet demand among well-heeled punters for girls they would not be ashamed to show off in public - girls who combined beauty and sexual expertise with intelligence and total discretion.
"There are two things that people will always pay money for," she wrote in her autobiography Madam (1994): "Food and sex and I wasn't any good at cooking."
Opening an establishment on the Quai des Orfevres in 1961, she recruited girls from the Paris catwalks, the best colleges and the show bars. She hired private tutors to teach them a smattering of art and philosophy, sent them on trips abroad to learn languages and culture, paid for any necessary plastic surgery (of which she was herself a huge fan, having had everything but her breasts "done"), and encouraged them to broaden their sexual repertoire.
Her stroke of genius was to introduce a system whereby clients booked an appointment over the telephone, giving rise to the term "call girls".
Recruitment appears to have been no problem; indeed Madame Claude maintained she was over-subscribed.
"About 20 girls a month would come to me and I would choose one," she recalled. She judged them initially on "face, figure and intelligence", before subjecting them to a final hurdle - a night with one of her "essayeurs", a trusted team of testers who would sample the girls and report back on their sexual technique.
For those who passed, the rewards were substantial. At her height, she ran 200 'swans' with 30 to 50 favourites, many of whom could say they did not get into bed for less than $10,000 a day. Madame Claude took 30pc of the takings.
Among her recruits she claimed to have a Normandy countess, the daughter of a French air marshal, a university professor, a famous fashion model and the wives of several leading Paris figures.
"If you walked into a room in London or Rome and saw a girl who was better looking, better dressed and more distinguished than the others," one client, a New York banker, was quoted as saying, "you presumed she was a girl from Claude."
According to William Stadiem (who wrote an unpublished biography of Madame Claude), her clients in the 1960s and 1970s included such figures as Colonel Gaddafi, Moshe Dayan, Marlon Brando and "half the French Cabinet".
The Shah of Iran had a standing order of girls flown out to Tehran every Friday. The painter Marc Chagall gave the girls his nude sketches of them, while the Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli once enjoyed an orgy with a group, then took them all to Mass afterwards.
The more famous the client, the more peculiar his tastes. John F Kennedy wanted a girl who resembled his wife, Jackie, "but hot", while Jackie's second husband, Aristotle Onassis, who arrived at the brothel accompanied by his then mistress Maria Callas, made "depraved requests that made Claude blush".
Madame Claude was proud of her business. "It was run in as moral a fashion as any business you could imagine," she wrote later. "There was no pimping... Everyone enjoyed complete freedom. The girls did their job and I did mine."
While Claude herself loathed sex and did not think that anyone over 40 should be allowed to "do it", she loved the control she exercised.
"It makes me laugh when I see the photographs of the ladies and countesses in the social pages of Tatler, Harpers and Vogue and count up which ones started off by working for me," she told an interviewer.
But in 1976 the French tax authorities began to investigate her finances. To avoid arrest, she fled to Los Angeles, where she remained for a decade. But attempts to resume her business (during which she tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Joan Collins) came to nothing and she lost a fortune in a failed patisserie and hotel enterprise.
In 1985, she returned to France, believing the statute of limitations meant she was safe from prosecution.
She was wrong and served four months, albeit in a converted 17th-century castle, from which she emerged, unapologetic and unreformed, to revive her old business.
She moved back to Paris, ostensibly to work in a boutique, and started off again. By 1992, she had a dozen girls on her books at £1,000 an hour.
The previous year, however, had seen the appointment of a new head of the Paris vice squad, Martine Monteuil, an insouciant blonde, who, in her younger days would not have looked out of place in Madame Claude's establishment.
Commissionaire Monteuil set about cleaning up the streets with unusual zeal.
When she heard rumours that Madame Claude was back in business, a vice squad undercover unit began checking out an address in the Marais district. When police burst into Madame Claude's third-floor flat, they found her inspecting a naked job applicant called Sabrina. "My dear," she was heard saying on a tape later played in court, "those thighs are a little heavy."
Back she went to prison, this time for five years.
"My treatment has been a disgrace," she complained. "If I was Madame Nobody, I would have been in and out of court in a day, fined and freed. Monteuil has used me to make her reputation, she has squeezed all the glory she can out of me. I am an old lady being forced to suffer for the vanity of others."
After serving her time, she moved to Nice, where she was reported to be living quietly with several cats.
Fernande Grudet was born in Angers, western France, on July 6, 1923. According to her version, she was the daughter of a politician from an aristocratic family, was educated by nuns from the Visitandine order, became a Resistance heroine, was interned in a concentration camp, where she saved the life of Charles de Gaulle's niece, survived and later sold Bibles to survive.
An alternative version had her father running a snack cart at Angers railway station and an early life on the back streets of Paris, learning her trade the hard way. It seems to be true, however, that she had a concentration camp number tattooed on her wrist.
It was also true that she had a daughter (she claimed the father had died in a concentration camp), who was raised by her mother and with whom she had no contact.
Fernande Grudet adopted the name Madame Claude when she opened her first brothel in the 1950s and then moved to more prestigious premises near the Champs Élysées.
Although she claimed to dislike sex, she reportedly married twice - for practical reasons. The first marriage, in 1972, gained her a Swiss passport; the second, a US green card.
Madame Claude was not, by all accounts, a pleasant woman. One of her girls was quoted as likening her to a "slave driver on a plantation in the American South", who considered it unprofessional if her girls "wasted energy experiencing pleasure" during sex.
The actress Francoise Fabian, who portrayed her in a 1977 film, described her as "une femme terrible" to whom "men were wallets and women were holes".