Storied life

Notorious madam whose clients were world leaders dies, age 92

PARIS, FRANCE: Fernande Grudet aka Madame Claude poses 05 May 1986 in Paris for the photographer prior a TV talk-show. (MICHEL GANGNE/AFP/Getty Images)

Fernande Grudet — who, under the name Madame Claude, operated a deluxe call-girl service in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s — has died in Nice, aged 92. Grudet’s business was patronized by world leaders and titans of business, and was associated with “sophisticated sex,” the New York Times reports.

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

Exactly how she built her highly successful enterprise, from very modest beginnings, is unclear, despite the existence of two memoirs. Part of her modus operandi was to zero in on “beautiful, fabulous” but failed models and actresses, “who just missed the cut,” according to high-society columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, quoted in a Vanity Fair article last year.

The one-in-20 selected by Grudet were referred to by her as “swans.” Clients — who she claimed included John F. Kennedy, the shah of Iran, Muammar el-Qaddafi, Gianni Agnelli, Moshe Dayan, Marc Chagall, Rex Harrison and King Hussein of Jordan — called them “Claude girls.” Grudet derided the term “prostitute” as “revolting and denigrating.”

Many of her employees went on to be successful in film or married wealthy clients. The high life was not sustainable for Grudet, however. She fell out with the law after being charged with tax evasion in the 1970s. In 1977, she fled to the United States, establishing an unsuccessful pastry shop and possibly returning to her old trade in a minor way. In the 1980s she returned to France, invested in a farm and once again was targeted for tax charges, serving a short prison term. Another call-girl network followed in Paris, followed by another arrest and a million-franc fine.

Her life inspired several films, including Madame Claude (by Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin) — released in the U.S. as The French Woman — and The Pink Telephone. Actress Francoise Fabian, who played Grudet in Jaeckin’s film, was highly critical. “She was like a slave driver in the American South,” she said. “Once she took a girl on, the makeover put the girl in debt … It was sexual indentured servitude.”

Read the full obituary at The New York Times.

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