Fernande Grudet, ‘Madame Claude’ Who Ran High-Society Call-Girl Ring, Dies at 92


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Fernande Grudet, better known as Madame Claude, in Paris before appearing on a television talk show in 1986.

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Michel Gangne/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Fernande Grudet, who under the name Madame Claude operated a deluxe call-girl ring in Paris in the 1960s and ’70s that attracted the patronage of world leaders, business executives and playboys and made her a byword for sophisticated sex, died on Saturday in Nice, France. She was 92.

The news agency Agence France-Presse reported the death on Tuesday.

Ms. Grudet, a woman of modest background from the Anjou region, arrived in Paris in the 1950s. After working a series of menial jobs, one of which may have been selling sex on the streets, she decided that the managerial side of the business suited her talents.

“Two things in life sell,” she once said. “Food and sex. And I was not meant to be a chef.”

Precisely how she built her business remains a mystery, despite two memoirs, larded with colorful and eminently uncheckable stories. But build it she did, grooming a finishing school’s worth of beautiful young women, many of them foreign, from the fringes of the film and fashion worlds, with a sprinkling of students looking for extra cash and housewives looking for adventure in the manner of Catherine Deneuve in “Belle de Jour.”

Ms. Grudet zeroed in on “failed models and actresses, the ones who just missed the cut,” the high-society columnist Taki Theodoracopulos told William Stadiem, who spent many years interviewing Ms. Grudet for a book that never materialized, but that did yield an article for Vanity Fair last year. “But just because they failed in these impossible professions didn’t mean they weren’t beautiful, fabulous.”

Ms. Grudet liked to call her charges “swans”; clients referred to them as “Claude girls.” The term “prostitute,” she once said, “was revolting and denigrating.”

She was choosy: Only one in 20 candidates made the grade. Requirements included beauty — plastic surgery could be arranged — poise and a familiarity with history, literature and current events. Also, talent in bed. This was assessed by Ms. Grudet’s testers, male acquaintances who took candidates for a trial run and reported back to her.

Working with nothing more than a notebook and a telephone, Ms. Grudet received calls with a terse “Allô oui,” made polite small talk and then got down to prices: up to 1,000 francs for a night of bliss — about $200 in 1965, or $1,500 today.

Ms. Grudet kept 25 or 30 percent (accounts vary) of the young women’s earnings. Many of her “Claude girls” went on to find success in film, fashion or business. Quite a few married rich clients.

In 1975, the French tax authorities, who had begun taking an interest in Ms. Grudet’s business, estimated that she was taking in 100,000 to 140,000 francs a month. Her clients, whom she called “friends,” were a catalog of the rich and famous.

The soul of discretion in her heyday, Ms. Grudet became a heavy name-dropper when the time came to tell her life story, which she did in two memoirs: “Allô Oui, or the Memoirs of Madame Claude” (1975), written with Jacques Quoirez, the brother of her good friend Françoise Sagan and one of her testers; and “Madam,” published in 1994 under the name Claude Grudet.

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.”

Kennedy came to her with a special request, Ms. Grudet told Mr. Stadiem. He wanted a look-alike of his wife, Jacqueline, “but hot.”

Ms. Grudet aimed to please, within limits. A client requesting a dead body, still warm, was rebuffed, she said. Still, breathless need on the other end of the telephone line was music to her ears.

“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,” she once said.

Fernande Grudet was born in Angers, in western France, on July 6, 1923. Her father, who died of cancer when she was 18, kept a cafe and helped make ends meet by selling sandwiches from a cart at the train station. After graduating from Catholic schools, she made her way to occupied Paris during World War II.

She claimed to have worked as a saleswoman at Les Halles, the central food market, and as a door-to-door Bible saleswoman. She also told various people at various times that she had joined the Resistance and had been deported to Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Even friends did not know what to believe. She also said that she came from a wealthy family.

In 1958, she set up shop as a “mère maquerelle,” or “mother pimp,” as the press often referred to her, using a term she detested. She took pride in running a five-star operation and presented a well-maintained facade to the world. Meeting her for the first time, Mr. Stadiem described her as “tiny, blond, perfectly coifed and Chanel-clad.” Every morning at 8:30, she paid a visit to the hairdresser, who opened shop early for her.

The French authorities allowed her to operate undisturbed — perhaps, some theorized, because she passed along information about some of her more interesting “friends.”

After Valéry Giscard d’Estaing came to power in 1974, the climate changed. Charged with tax evasion, she was presented with a bill for 11 million francs.

In 1977, she fled to the United States and ended up in Los Angeles, where she opened an unsuccessful pastry shop and, some of her friends suspected, returned to her old trade in a small way. In the mid-1980s, she returned to France, where she bought a sheep farm by Cahors, near the home of Ms. Sagan, and tried to keep a low profile. She was arrested on the outstanding tax charges and sentenced to a short prison term.

After being released, she returned to Paris and, hoping to build a retirement nest egg, started another call-girl network — a small one with perhaps 20 “swans.” In 1992, she was arrested again, spent six months in prison awaiting trial and, after being found guilty and fined one million francs, was released.

After her trial, she became, for a time, a highly visible figure, publishing a memoir and giving interviews to promote her video on the art of seduction. She spent her final years in penury in Nice.

Her legend inspired several films, some watchable, others not. In the mid-1970s, French audiences enjoyed two Madame Claude films, “Madame Claude” — directed by Just Jaeckin, best known for the soft-pornography film “Emmanuelle” — and “The Pink Telephone.” “Madame Claude” was released in the United States as “The French Woman,” with a poster that proclaimed: “The Arab Prince, the Japanese Diplomat, the Greek Tycoon, the C.I.A. Bureau Chief — She Possessed Them All!”

Françoise Fabian, who played the title role in Mr. Jaeckin’s film, got to know Ms. Grudet well. She did not like what she saw. Behind the polished image of “swans” and “friends,” she said, was a cold, calculating business mind.

“She was like a slave driver in the American South,” Ms. Fabian told Mr. Stadiem. “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.”

Correction: December 23, 2015
An earlier version of this obituary contained an incorrect conversion of francs into dollars. The equivalent of 100,000 francs in 1975 was about $20,000, not $500,000.



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