At Paris dinner parties in the mid-Seventies a frisson would go round the table when the talk got around to Madame Claude. The name evoked private jets, high fashion, power, intrigue and elegant sex with beautiful young women. With her talent for self-promotion, Madame Claude, the purveyor of high-class call girls to the rich, royal and political was a byword for luxury naughtiness before Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the recently elected president, blew the whistle in 1976. Her thriving business lasted two decades, suiting everyone except, perhaps, the hundreds of women who passed through her hands.
More than four decades on, in the age of Me Too and Jeffrey Epstein, the legend looks pretty rum. Fernande Grudet, to use her real name, must inevitably be cast as a ruthless tyrant, a criminal and friend of corrupt politicians. She exploited young women and was enabled by cabinet ministers and police.
Yet Grudet, who died in December 2015 at 92, remains a potent figure. She fascinates, titillates and, as a woman of humble origin, receives lingering sympathy, especially in France, with its ambivalent view of what older celebrities, such as Catherine Deneuve, regard as a puritan modern view of sexual dalliance.
Madame Claude’s story has been revisited in a new French biopic that has been bought by Netflix and went on stream last week. The movie, directed by Sylvie Verheyde, had been scheduled to open in cinemas last year, but was blocked by the epidemic. It stars Karole Rocher, a 46-year-old who thrives on bad-woman roles.
The legend of the strict and stylish madam who turned down 29 out of 30 would-be escorts and schooled her charges in culture as well as the bedroom arts, has lived on thanks to books, news cover and especially a celebratory 1977 film, made by Just Jaeckin, the director of the Seventies erotic films Emmanuelle and Histoire d’O.
Starring Françoise Fabien and with Klaus Kinski and Dayle Haddon, that Madame Claude movie was full-on Seventies. It had skulduggery in high places and a CIA plot and lots of naked women writhing on beaches, and fireside tiger-skin rugs, to a romantic soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg. (It’s worth noting that Gainsbourg, a songsmith of the era who is now revered, added class.)
By the end of the Seventies just about everyone knew that Madame Claude’s clients — or “friends” as she called them — were a celebrity roll call of the age. According to her own and others’ accounts, they included the Shah of Iran, John F Kennedy, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Muammar Gaddafi, Marlon Brando, Rex Harrison, Aristotle Onassis and Lord Mountbatten. Jane Fonda wrote recently that Roger Vadim, her husband at the time, brought home one of Madame Claude’s “swans”, as Madame called them, for a threesome in their bed.
Madame Claude. The name evoked private jets, high fashion, power, intrigue and elegant sex with beautiful young women.
Free with her foreigners’ name-dropping, Madame Claude was careful never to reveal her French “friends”, except to the Renseignements Généraux, the police intelligence service, which through her faithful reporting kept tabs on the peccadillos of “le tout Paris” plus foreign diplomats and potentates.
The services she rendered, confirmed by police of the time, ensured her protection and survival until Giscard d’Estaing unleashed the taxman and she fled to Los Angeles. She later admitted that she had neglected to declare earnings estimated by prosecutors at the equivalent now of $1 million a year, and served four months in prison after returning in the mid-Eighties.
When she made a short-lived attempt to restart her trade in 1991 she was taken down by Martine Montiel, the glamorous first female chief of the Paris police “morals squad”. Montiel, who went on to command the Paris CID, once told me in rather admiring terms about her brush with Grudet, which ended with a six-month term for the latter for organized pimping.
Grudet’s death prompted the world’s media to recycle the old salacious stuff for a younger generation. They cited her rule that her women wear only white underwear, her use of friendly male “testers” to rate recruits and coach them if necessary, and her habit of ordering repairs to their physical flaws under the surgeon’s knife. (The young women paid for the operations from their earnings, from which Grudet had already deducted her 30 percent, but they could keep the jewelry and other gifts.)
In the new film Verheyde has aimed to examine the sordid side of the most successful procurer of the age, but also to convey the charisma that enabled Grudet to reign over Paris for so long. The director, who is 54, has said that it helps that a grandmother and a cousin of hers were prostitutes. She had always been fascinated by Madame Claude. “Our era is much more ready for the reality and to put an end to the stereotypes of those years,” she said in a recent interview. “Madame Claude built her mythology. She was a great liar, a fraud who said she wanted to ‘beautify vice’, which meant brushing all the ugliness under the carpet.
“There was the image of Paris, beautiful dresses, grand hotels, powerful men. What interested me was behind the façade … To believe that a prostitute, even in this setting, takes pleasure in her job is the same sort of hypocrisy as imagining a cleaning lady being in love with cleaning.”
Jane Fonda wrote recently that Roger Vadim, her husband at the time, brought home one of Madame Claude’s “swans”, as Madame called them, for a threesome in their bed.
That puts paid to Madame Claude’s claims that her “girls” included married bourgeoises, like the one played by Deneuve in Belle de Jour, the classic 1967 Luis Buñuel film. “You can’t imagine the number of young well-brought-up women who used to come to me because they were bored with their husbands, out of taste for the forbidden or curiosity,” Grudet once said. She even tried to recruit Joan Collins over lunch in Los Angeles, she claimed once. Jaeckin’s movie, shot with the help of Grudet, played up that fantasy. In the film Madame Claude’s dentist, suitably leggy and lissom, asks to join her stable of girls but is rejected because she shows that she likes sex too much.
Pleasure was not part of Grudet’s equation except in the trade that earned her money from men, a species that she held in contempt. “I was not pretty and I didn’t like sleeping with men, but I lied and lied very well. That’s what women have to learn first of all: to simulate,” she once said. She marveled at the money that men would pay to satisfy their appetites. “You have to be really stupid or twisted to pay a fortune for ‘a session of legs-in-the-air’,” she said, using the old French slang. “Men pay for it, poor buggers … I at least offered quality happiness. I never got any complaints.”
Verheyde says that Madame Claude, a working-class girl from the Loire city of Angers, served as something of a feminist model with her breakthrough into high society in stultified male-dominated postwar France. “At the same time she was a criminal who made use of women, Madame Claude was a sort of symbol of female emancipation,” the director said.
Verheyde says that she has steered clear of nostalgia for the age of Concorde travel and free love in the Swinging Sixties. The biopic shows the ugly side of the procurer’s business with a scene in which one of her swans is beaten and left badly bruised by clients. Françoise Fabian said after playing Madame Claude in the 1977 film that there was nothing benign about Grudet. “I was struck by her cynical view of sex between men and women. To her, men were nothing more than wallets,” the actress said.
This is far removed from the attractive gloss that Madame Claude projected when she depicted her women, usually tall, Nordic-looking types, as beneficiaries of her system. “I succeeded in erasing everything that was ugly in the profession. I never had clients who abused the girls,” she said in one of her later TV interviews. “They were escorts whom you invited to dinner in the best restaurants, who listened to you and to whom you gave cars because gentlemen were a lot more generous then. The word prostitute shocked them … Everyone enjoyed complete freedom. The girls did their job and I did mine.”
Many of her charges, often out-of-work models and actresses, made good marriages with men in the world to which she introduced them, she claimed. She groomed them sometimes for a year before releasing them on duty. “When I launched them, they were perfect,” she said.
The Greek journalist and writer Taki Theodoracopulos, who enjoyed the company of the swans as a young man, once remarked: “To say someone was a Claude girl is an honour, not a slur.”
Women who dealt with Grudet did not all agree. She was once shot in the hand by a disgruntled reject. When she died in a nursing home in Nice, poor and friendless with only six people attending her funeral, one of her former girls said that her epitaph should be: “You had to be immoral and cruel to be Madame Claude.”
Netflix is hoping to score another in its recent stream of surprise French hits, which have included the series Lupin and Call My Agent! and the popular but much derided American-made Emily in Paris.
The Netflix film nevertheless conveys the stylish side of the old legend. Paris of the Seventies looks glossy and desirable. In one scene Madame Claude chivies along an apartment full of playful-looking escorts, shouting: “Come on, girls. Tidy up this mess. Marlon Brando is arriving in 15 minutes.”
Karole Rocher’s Madame Claude is also much more glamorous than the original. Best known as a star of the successful French TV crime series Braquo, Rocher hardly matches the rather bitter little woman who gave TV interviews in the Nineties.
“She had a thin and cold smile that made me think of a lizard,” said Ève de Castro, a writer whose collaboration Grudet sought to help to produce her memoir. De Castro refused after three sessions. Recalling Madame Claude in 2016, she described an impeccably groomed “professional manipulator” but also a survivor. “I remember her as a black light, the memory of a tiny woman with a predator’s eye and uncommon magnetism,” de Castro wrote. “She was proud to have created a very profitable business that was less condemnable than arms selling or drug dealing.”
Charles Bremner has reported from all over the world, including Washington, Moscow, and Mexico City. He is currently the Paris correspondent for The Times of London