The 1970s were well named as “the Years of Lead.” The term—originating from the Italian “Anni di Piombo”—referred to a violent era of kidnappings and assassinations that could be measured in bullets.
In the case of high-profile kidnappings, amputated body parts became another gruesome calling card in the quest for quick money payouts. One of John Paul Getty III’s ears was notoriously sliced off and sent to a newspaper in Rome.
Baron Édouard-Jean Empain, who is the subject of the riveting and disturbing book, The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping That Brought Down an Empire, fared only slightly better when he had the first joint of a little finger chopped off and mailed to his family, along with a massive ransom demand.
The book’s author, Tom Sancton, who has an eye for the grisly detail, notes that one of Empain’s lifelong friends recognized the finger joint because his pal had a nervous habit of chewing his fingernails: “This one was gnawed down to the quick.”
When Empain—known to his friends and family as “Wado”—was kidnapped, in Paris on January 23, 1978, he was the 40-year-old head of a global industrial empire comprising 174 companies and employing 136,000 workers in fields ranging from mining and metallurgy to banking, heavy construction, shipbuilding, armaments, and nuclear energy.
The director of the Empain-Schneider group was half Belgian and half American, but his headquarters and home were in France. His movie-star good looks, love of fast cars, and appetite for gambling made him a constant fixture in glossy magazines, such as Paris Match.
It was a story in the satirical French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné that caught the eye of Alain Caillol, a hardened criminal with left-leaning political views. The piece criticized Empain for “mass layoffs and revealing his use of private vigilantes to intimidate unions at companies under his control.”
Caillol had already been scouting candidates for kidnapping. Among them was L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, whom he eventually ruled out because one member of his gang, who would serve as a guard, didn’t want to manage “the problems of feminine hygiene.” (Sancton, a former Paris correspondent for Time magazine, decided to write his new book after stumbling upon this nugget for his last one, The Bettencourt Affair.)
The more Caillol studied Empain, the more he became convinced of his suitability. “He had regular habits, one chauffeur, no bodyguard, and lived on a service road that made it easy to trap him,” Caillol told a French policeman after his arrest.
It turns out that Empain, no doubt aware of the high number of kidnappings then rocking France (according to Sancton, there were no fewer than 15 between 1974 and 1977), had already told his family that if he were ever to be abducted, no ransom should be paid.
He quickly changed his mind after his finger was amputated and the threat of death hovered over him throughout his two months of detention, most of which was spent chained up in an abandoned quarry north of Paris. But as news began to filter out in the papers about Empain’s enormous gambling debts and his colorful love life (though married, it was revealed, he maintained a secret apartment for his mistress), the French police’s position of not paying a ransom gained favor among his family and business associates.
Sancton’s skill is to bring Empain’s kidnapping and its tragic aftermath, whereby he felt abandoned by his family and associates after he was finally released by his thwarted kidnappers, back into vivid focus by employing nonfiction novelistic techniques similar to the ones that Truman Capote patented in In Cold Blood. Like Capote, Sancton is interested in the emotional consequences of a crime and its psychological impact on the victim, the victim’s family, and the perpetrators.
Sancton came too late to interview Empain himself, who died in 2018 at the age of 80, but could draw on a revealing autobiography—La Vie en Jeu (1985)—that the baron left behind, as well as several interviews he did in his lifetime.
Into his narrative, Sancton deftly interweaves stories about Empain’s grandfather, the first Baron Édouard (Louis Joseph) Empain, and his industrial exploits, which included building the Paris Métro. He also managed to interview Empain’s half-sister, Diane, with whom he was very close, and his daughter Patricia, who talks poignantly about how her father’s kidnapping and subsequent release wrenched their family apart. “If he had accepted us back with open arms, as we were all ready to do, we could have turned the page and gone on,” says Patricia. “But too much had happened to him. He knew he could no longer be the legend he was before.”
The best parts of the book are the extensive interviews that Sancton did with Caillol, who is still alive and who looks back on events surrounding the kidnapping without fear or favor. Through these conversations with Caillol, Sancton is able to establish Empain’s extraordinary bravery throughout his ordeal. Not once did he ever complain about having his finger chopped off, maintaining a stoic dignity that earned the respect of his cutthroat jailers. “Each one of us saw in him the image of what we wanted to be: handsome, rich, powerful, and intelligent,” Caillol tells Sancton.
Regardless, the actions of Caillol and his men wrecked Empain’s life and derailed his destiny. “His career was shattered, his family ripped apart, and the proud Empain dynasty laid to ruin,” Sancton writes. “Not a Greek tragedy, perhaps, for Wado did not quite have the stature of a Greek hero. But a human tragedy nonetheless.”
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based freelance arts-and-entertainment writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times