Fernande Grudet, the controversial figure—better known by the name “Madame Claude”—who operated high-end call girl rings for powerful clientele throughout the latter half of the 20th century, has passed away in Nice, France, at the age of 92. “Two things in life sell: food and sex,” Claude once said. “And I was not meant to be a chef.”

Grudet’s business peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with her “Claude girls” (mostly actresses and models, many of whom went onto marry into high society) entertaining the most influential celebrities, politicians, and businessmen in the world.

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As her New York Times obituary tells it:

Her clients, whom she called “friends,” were a catalog of the rich and famous.

[...]

By her account, the “friends” included John F. Kennedy, the shah of Iran, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Gianni Agnelli, Moshe Dayan, Marc Chagall, Rex Harrison and King Hussein of Jordan, who, she said, once told a Claude girl: “You and I are in the same business. We have to smile even when we don’t feel like it.”

Grudet herself is an ambiguous character. Her past is shady and unclear; she often told lies about herself to further her own lore.

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In a fascinating 2014 profile of Grudet, Vanity Fair’s William Grimes writes:

In Madam, a memoir she published in France in 1994, Fernande Grudet portrayed herself as an aristocrat, born in the château country of the Loire Valley, where her father was a local solon. She had been educated at a Visitandines convent, taking vows of austerity. She had also been a war heroine, a Resistance fighter who paid for that resistance with an internment at a concentration camp.

Lies, all lies, according to a 2010 French television documentary about Claude. Trying to see the entirety of this program is like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code. The production company that had made it is defunct, and I could not find it in any film archive. It was available, in snippets, on the Internet. It alleged to show proof that père Grudet actually ran a snack cart at the Angers train station, that little Fernande had never been at the convent. As for her time in the concentration camp, ostensibly Ravensbrück, the program explored a story that Claude is said to have told about how she saved the life of Charles de Gaulle’s niece while there (or vice versa) and submitted to an affair with a German doctor in order to survive. A historian in the documentary said that Claude probably made all of this up, and the idea that the madam was ever interned was dismissed as another example of Claude’s talent for self-mythologizing.

The truth—maybe—is that Grudet was a sex worker herself who eventually realized that she had a greater talent (or preference) for managing prostitutes than for being one herself. As for her selection of Claude girls (or “swans,” as she liked to call them), Grudet was known as a tyrant. Women had to be a certain height (no shorter than 5’9”) and very thin. They had to be knowledgeable in art and literature. If they had the right charisma and sexual talent, but didn’t have the right look, they would undergo plastic surgery.

The madame, though worshipped socially, was known for being cold and unkind. Françoise Fabian, who played Grudet in the 1977 French film Madame Claude, described her as “une femme terrible,” telling Grimes that Grudet “despised men and women alike. Men were wallets. Women were holes.”

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In the same Vanity Fair profile, Grimes reported:

Claude was both self-deprecating and arrogant. “Nobody knows me. But I know everybody,” she told Fabian. “She was like a slave driver on a plantation in the American South,” Fabian said. “Once she took a girl on, the makeover put the girl in debt, because Claude paid all the bills, to Dior, Vuitton, to the hairdressers, to the doctors, and the girls had to work to pay them off. It was sexual indentured servitude. Claude took 30 percent. She would have taken more, but she said the girls would have cheated if she did.”

Despite her cruelty (or perhaps because of it), Grudet was, for decades, the toast of the Western world. When the French government went after her for tax evasion in the late ‘70s, she fled to Los Angeles where—thanks to her “friendships” with Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and other famous Hollywood socialites—she was greeted like a celebrity and able to pick up her brothel business in a brand new town. “It was like meeting Al Capone,” Pompidou minister Sylvette Balland told Grimes about his first L.A. encounter with Grudet.

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The madame eventually returned to France and, throughout the course of her life, would do several brief stints in cushy white-collar prisons. In the early ‘90s, after being found guilty on charges of proxénétisme (pimping) and charged one million francs, Grudet began pursuing publicity more actively, conducting interviews and writing a (highly fictionalized) memoir. She eventually retired to Nice where, according to Grimes, she became almost impossible to track down.

Fernande Grudet died Sunday, December 20, 2015.


Contact the author at madeleine@jezebel.com.

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Image via the AP.