She was once the world’s most famous madam, pimping out failed French actresses to clients she claimed ranged from John Kennedy to the Shah of Iran, and she was caught multiple times running her call-girl service over the course of at least four decades.
Fernande Grudet ― known as the very French and very luxurious Madame Claude ― died in Nice, France, on Saturday. She was 92.
“There are two things that people will always pay for: food and sex,” she reportedly once said. “I wasn’t any good at cooking.”
She’d been hospitalized over the past two years and “was very tired,” someone close to her told AFP.
Her life, however, was one full of energy and mystery. A Vanity Fair expose in 2014 painted her as a legendary madam of the ‘60s and ‘70s:
Claude, it became clear to me, was not merely something for the boys. She was a matchmaker who Pygmalionized her charges and married them off to titles, famous names, brand names. The gravamen of pimping—what the French call proxénétisme—is the selling of women into bondage. Claude sold her women into splendor.
Madame Claude was an institution, a legend, and a living legend at that. But she was also a vanishing act. We lost touch when she returned to France in 1985 and cut a deal with the French authorities. But she soon went back to her old tricks, got her business going again, and was finally brought to court in 1992. Shortly after the wave of publicity that accompanied her trial had subsided, Madame Claude left the scene.
Indeed, her reputation preceded her. When she was arrested in 1992 at age 69, she was allegedly back to her old game, but her lawyers argued that she was beyond the law.
She was collared when investigators turned up evidence that she had re-established a high-priced prostitute service involving at least 12 young women and catering to some of her former clients.
Prostitution is legal in France, but it is illegal for another person to make a living off a prostitute’s earnings.
Investigators said Madame Claude’s new operation functioned much like her previous one, which reportedly was patronized by heads of state, royalty and powerful industrialists. Clients paid $2,000 or more for the company of call girls who were recruited and groomed by Madame Claude.
Vanity Fair noted that it was impossible to corroborate so many of her claims, as some included secrets within the Kennedy family, but she was enough of a household name in 1960s Paris that nobody doubted her, either.
She chose their wardrobes, supervised their hairdos and makeup, counseled them on good manners and even arranged plastic surgery.
In a book she published in 1986, Madame Claude wrote that good manners and elegance were more important to her customers than ability in bed.
“If I have to choose between a nymphomaniac and an intellectual, I’ll hire the intellectual,” she wrote.
The product of an upper-middle class French family, Madame Claude received a strict convent education until age 18. She said the one great love of her life was her first lover, killed during World War II.
“She takes with her an alcove of state secrets ― she was legendary,” the former head of the Paris Judicial Police, Claude Cances, told AFP.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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