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French luxury brothel owner ‘Madame Claude’ dies at 92

Michel Gangne, AFP | Fernande Grudet, better known as "Madame Claude” in Paris in 1986

Fernande Grudet – better known as “Madame Claude” – who gained notoriety in France for running a luxury prostitution ring popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s, died Saturday in Nice. She was 92.

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One of France’s best-known brothel keepers – whose client list, by her own reckoning, included top politicians and civil servants – Grudet died over the weekend in the southern French city of Nice. Her death was first reported in the French weekly Le Point on Tuesday.

The subject of several books and films, Grudet’s frequent brushes with the law put her in the media spotlight for decades, making her a figure of almost mythical notoriety in her heyday.

Her network of call girls – internationally known as “Claude’s girls” – had serviced kings, presidents, ministers, ambassadors and business leaders, she claimed. Few doubted the veracity of her boasts and many believed her rich and powerful clientele protected her illegal business.

For her part, Grudet steadfastly dismissed allegations of procurement. Her girls were not “prostitutes” and her “clients” were “friends” – sometimes even “family”. What’s more, she insisted, she never lived off immoral earnings – she merely “introduced” men to women.

Tales of her notoriety included a patron list peppered with mafia bosses whose pillow talk “Madame Claude” duly passed on to the police, making her a particularly valuable informant. As a 1987 Vanity Fair profile noted, “...she became almost an extension of the French state and was considered to have its protection".

But in the end she fell afoul of the French state – not for the illegality of her business, but for evading taxes on incomes earned from her highly profitable trade.

Remaking a convent girl

Born into a modest family in the northwestern Angers region, she was educated in a convent before moving in the 1950s to Paris, where she fell in with criminal networks and began working in the sex trade.

By the 1960s, the ambitious Grudet had redefined her business and social class, moving into French bourgeois circles, and establishing a highly successful business.

Her brothel in Paris’s bourgeois 16th arrondissement became an address familiar in elite circles across the globe, and was frequented, she claimed, by John F. Kennedy and the Shah of Iran.

Prisons and a lonely death

But by the 1970s, she was frequently coming up against the law, a turn of fate that occurred under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s centre-right presidency which Grudet viewed as some sort of personal campaign against her.

Pursued by French authorities for unpaid taxes worth 11 million francs (6.6 million euros) Grudet fled to the US, only returning to her native France in 1986, where she spent four months in prison.

Following her release she tried to set up a new prostitution organisation, but was sentenced to a term in France's notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison in 1992.

Her eventful life was the subject of many books and films -- many of them fictionalised and dramatised – including the film, Madame Claude, by Just Jaeckin.

Her final days were akin to a Hollywood saga on fading stars. Living in a rented apartment in Nice, estranged from her daughter, Grudet died far from the luxury salons of Paris, with, as she told a local journalist, her “only friend loneliness” for company.

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