Obituary: Madame Claude, brothel-owner

Madame Claude, French brothel keeper who served rich and famous before being brought down for unpaid taxes. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Madame Claude, French brothel keeper who served rich and famous before being brought down for unpaid taxes. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Born: 6 July, 1923, in Angers, France. Died: 21 December, 2015, in Nice, aged 92.

Madame Claude was a French brothel-owner and procurer of high-end girls for the rich and famous from around the world; her clients ranged from Middle Eastern royalty, Hollywood stars and captains of industry to cabinet ministers, crime syndicate bosses and dictators; no-one was off limits.

Claude spotted a gap in the market for beautiful, well-groomed, educated girls and decided to go into the managerial side, explaining: “There are two things that people will always pay for – food and sex. And I wasn’t any good at cooking.”

She was also an innovator, introducing a telephone booking system which brought in the term “call girl”.

The “Claudettes”, as her girls became known, were all hand-picked by the diminutive, perfectly coiffured, Chanel-clad Claude, who had a penchant for leggy Scandinavians. The girls were usually recruited from the fringes of the Paris catwalks, show bars, film and the best colleges, with the occasional housewife thrown in. With a minimum height requirement of 5ft 9in, the girls had to undergo a thorough examination, in every sense.

If they passed an initial interview, based on “face, figure and intelligence”, they were asked to undress. If they were confident, Claude knew she would like what she saw, although she admitted: “Sometimes, it can be deceptive. You know, you see a pretty girl, a pretty face, all elegant and slim, well dressed, and when you see her naked it is a catastrophe.”

The final test came in the form of a night with one of her “essayeurs”, a trusted tester who would sample the girl and report back on their “technique”.

Successful candidates were rewarded with private tuition, learning a little about the arts, philosophy and current affairs, trips abroad to learn other cultures and languages – particularly English – as well as trips to the top Parisian couturiers. In addition to all this, Claude paid for plastic surgery where she felt it was necessary, including chins, noses and teeth; however, she drew the line at breast enhancement, claiming, “man could not create where God had not”.

Likening the girls’ transformation to that of Eliza Doolittle, Claude would 
finish-off by coaching the Claudettes on how to conduct themselves in high society. She later claimed many of her former protégées “were now-respectable wives of European aristocrats or entrepreneurs, and owed it all to her training”. Former customer and Spectator columnist Taki Theodoracopulos said: “To say someone was a Claude girl is an honour, not a slur.”

Born Fernande Grudet in Angers, in the Loire Valley, in 1923, her background is a little sketchy. She claimed she was convent educated and that her father was an aristocrat, and she was a heroine of the Resistance during the Second World War, later being interned in a concentration camp where she allegedly saved the life of Charles de Gaulle’s niece. However, stories emerged of her humble beginnings with her father running a snack stall outside the local rail station. She made her way to Paris, where she sold Bibles before ending up in Auschwitz concentration camp; it was believed she had a tattooed number on her wrist which only occurred in Auschwitz. Having caught a glimpse of it, Theodoracopulos was certain that she was not imprisoned for Resistance work but that “She was Jewish… I’m certain of that.”

In the 1950s, she learnt her trade on the back streets of Paris but her plain looks, later remedied by surgery, and dislike of sex itself meant that she saw custom go to prettier girls who gave a more convincing impression of enjoying their clients’ attentions. When a friend who managed several of these left the trade to marry a dentist, Grudet took over.

Although brothels were tolerated by the state, all were closed in 1946 and so there was little organised competition. Aiming at high-end clients, she changed her name to Madame Claude and by the end of the decade her first brothel, above a branch of Rothschild’s bank and the Travellers Club near the Champs Elysées, was well established.

After a few years, Claude expanded and relocated to 32 rue de Boulainvilliers in Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement, one of the most expensive areas of the French capital. With a network of over 500 girls and a handful of young men, the “maison” started to gain notoriety in the Sixties.

Her address book grew too. According to William Stadiem, author of an unpublished biography of Claude, clients demanded all manner of fantasies; the Shah of Iran had a weekly consignment of “jeune filles” flown to Tehran, where he lavished them with jewels; John F Kennedy asked for a lookalike of wife Jackie, “but hot”; Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli once enjoyed an orgy with a group then took them all to Mass afterwards; while painter Marc Chagall gave the girls his nude sketches of them; Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas would turn up with “depraved requests”. Even the CIA used her services to “keep up the morale” of operatives during the Paris Peace Accord negotiations in 1973 that brought an end to the Vietnam War. King Hussein of Jordan apparently 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.”

Claude once remarked, “It was so exciting to hear a millionaire or a head of state ask, in a little boy’s voice, for the one thing that only you could provide.”

Other notable clients included French presidents Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, Élie de Rothschild, Lord Mountbatten, Colonel Gaddafi, Moshe Dayan, Marlon Brando, Rex Harrison, “half the French Cabinet” and many high ranking police chiefs.

Her clientele afforded her some protection, but she mostly kept out of police trouble by secretly passing on clients’ pillow talk to the French authorities.

With the arrival of centre-right President Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, the situation changed as the administration began to investigate her for tax evasion. Three years later, to avoid arrest, she fled to Los Angeles, where she remained for almost a decade.

While in exile, Claude tried to supply her usual high-class continental escorts to Hollywood and, on one occasion over lunch, attempted to recruit actresses Joan Collins and Evie Bricusse. Collins recalled Claude saying: “I think you could do very well. Your husbands don’t have to know. I believe you could make enough money to buy yourselves a few extra baubles.” Claude also lost a fortune in a failed hotel and patisserie enterprise.

She returned to France in 1985, believing the statute of limitations meant she was safe from prosecution. Claude was wrong. With over 500 Claudettes on her books with annual earnings estimated at £600,000 per girl, of which she took 30 per cent commission, the authorities calculated that she owed 11 million francs (£4.9 million) in unpaid taxes. Prosecuted and found guilty, she served a four-month prison sentence, in a converted 17th-century château, emerging unapologetic and unreformed.

Soon after, she revived her old business but was finally brought to court in 1992. Convicted of pimping, she paid 1m francs. Shortly after the wave of publicity that accompanied her trial subsided, Claude disappeared from the public glare, only surfacing occasionally.

She was the subject of a number of French films, including Madame Claude by Just Jaeckin, director of the 1974 film Emmanuelle. Françoise Fabian, who played Claude, said she was “une femme terrible” and “I was struck by her cynical view of sex between men and women. To her, men were nothing more than wallets and women were holes. I suspected there was a secret suffering behind her words.”

Fabien likened her to a slave driver from the American South, adding: “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.”

In 1992, Claude produced a video entitled “How to Seduce” in which she advised: “Never have sex on the first date.”

Claude reportedly married twice, for reasons of expediency. The first marriage, in 1972, gained her a Swiss passport while the second, to a gay barman, aided with a US green card.

She spent her last years living as a recluse in Nice with her cats; she purportedly had little money.