Her clients were the world’s richest and most powerful men, her girls the sort of super-sexy and ultra-classy young women who more than justified Madame Claude’s penchant for calling them her ‘swans’. And her job was, in her own words, ‘to make vice pretty’.
Between 1955 and 1977, the 20th century’s most celebrated brothel-keeper served the sexual peccadilloes — some routine, some exotic, others depraved — of kings, presidents, film stars, captains of industry and dictators.
Her smart and very discreet establishment at 18 Rue de Marignan, off the Champs-Elysees in Paris, was the headquarters for a prostitution business that eclipsed the imaginings of the most over-excited Hollywood screenwriter.
Over the years, its ‘madam’ — her real name was Fernande Grudet — recruited and trained some 500 ‘Claudettes’ to provide expensive distraction for a clientele for whom no visit to the City of Lights was complete without a respectful phone call to Madame Claude.
Her exhaustingly famous client list reportedly included John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Groucho Marx, Rex Harrison, Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi.
Between 1955 and 1977 Fernande Grudet, better known as Madame Claude, became the one of the most infamous procurers of prostitutes in Paris, serving some of the world’s most high profile politicians and actors of the time
President Kennedy famously asked Madame Claude for a girl who looked just like his wife Jackie ‘but hot’.
Fiat king Gianni Agnelli hired enough Claudettes for an orgy and then marched them off to Mass. Painter Marc Chagall would give them sketches of themselves — naked, of course.
The Shah of Iran had a fresh consignment of young women flown to him in Tehran every week.
In another notorious plane journey — this time in the private jet of Elie de Rothschild — the banker and his friend Lord Mountbatten reputedly cavorted with some of Claude’s jeune filles as they flew over Paris.
Madame Claude, a coldly efficient businesswoman, claimed she was ‘ferocious’ with her swans as she moulded them into plutocrat-pleasing perfection.
They were drilled in current affairs and literary knowledge for those moments when clients wanted to talk rather than play, while Claude’s male contacts would road test them in bed to assess and perfect their skills.
Credited with transforming prostitution by taking it off street corners and grubby hotels, Claude’s policy of allowing clients to subtly book girls on the phone — a luxury item when she first went into business — is credited with spawning the phrase ‘call girl’ (and so much nicer sounding than other names for the world’s oldest profession).
At one time, half the French cabinet was said to be patronising Claude’s bordello, a fact that not only protected her from prosecution but went to the head of a woman motivated only by money and power over the powerful.
John F Kennedy is said to have asked Madame Claude for a girl who look just liked his wife Jackie (pictured together) ‘but hot’
‘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 said.
While she insisted she was discreet, it later emerged that Claude was providing French intelligence with information on her clients’ sexual proclivities.
By the 1970s, even Paris was no longer quite so indulgent towards a businesswoman like Madame Claude and, after several attempts to revive her operation, she spent her final decades living obscurely and with little money in Nice.
She died aged 92 in 2015, drawing just six mourners to her funeral.
Since then, of course, we have had the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo Movement, ushering in a climate of zero tolerance towards the sexual exploitation of young women — well-rewarded or not — by predatory, powerful men.
And now a new film about Madame Claude promises to address her dark side.
‘Things were far from wonderful in her universe,’ says Sylvie Verheyde, director of Madame Claude.
‘To believe that a prostitute, even in this setting, takes pleasure in her job is the same sort of hypocrisy as imagining a cleaning lady being in love with cleaning.’
Verheyde’s film drama acknowledges, however, that Madame Claude — who came from poverty — was a tough woman who carved out an empire.
She says her own mother, who like Claude left the sticks to make her way in Paris, admired the madam’s self-made success, although Verheyde concedes that ‘there weren’t that many models of upward mobility among women at the time’.
Madame Claude hated the word ‘prostitution’, calling it ‘revolting and denigrating’.
Joan Collins was said to have left ‘giggling and shrieking like a schoolgirl,’ when Madame Claude tried to recruit her over lunch
The director says Claude’s big idea was to create a fantasy world that allowed her clients to forget they were paying for sex — that this wasn’t prostitution.
And yet, Verheyde includes in the new film — it is not clear whether this is based on fact or supposition — a degrading scene in which three 40-something men pay handsomely to rain punches on a young ‘Claudette’ in a sumptuous mansion in the South of France, leaving her shocked and covered in bruises.
Many French people — especially Parisians — are unlikely to take kindly to the new film and its damning re-examination of a national icon of sexual sangfroid.
The #MeToo movement has already met with resistance in France, where it clashed with laid-back Gallic attitudes to sex and morality.
French fashion designer Richard Rene last December dressed his catwalk models as 1960s call girls in homage to Madame Claude and defiance of #MeToo.
Former president Charles de Gaulle, who led the French resistance during the Second World War, was said to be a client of Madame Claude. The brothel-keeper is said to have once observed: ‘Only two things in life sell — food and sex — and I was not meant to be a chef’
Catherine Deneuve, France’s most revered actress and star of the classic 1967 film Belle Du Jour, in which she played a high-class prostitute, joined 99 other prominent French women in a #MeToo backlash, defending men’s right to try to seduce them.
She also joined a battle against a 2016 law that finally made it an offence to solicit a prostitute.
Madame Claude — who would have applauded such a stand — insisted in her own memoir she sold not sex but ‘fantasies’, although she never admitted that many of the fantasies were about herself.
She claimed to be a convent girl from an aristocratic background who was imprisoned by the Nazis for being in the French Resistance and who, after the war, became a door-to-door Bible saleswoman.
The less glamorous reality, according to those who researched her life, was that she was the daughter of a female railway station snack-seller who was sent to Auschwitz for being Jewish and after the war worked briefly as a street prostitute.
She famously once observed: ‘Only two things in life sell — food and sex — and I was not meant to be a chef.’
She wasn’t meant to be a high-class prostitute either for she was no beauty and had cosmetic surgery to sort out her crooked teeth and big nose.
Small, physically unassuming and a conservative dresser who opted for cashmere and classic designs — even at the height of her fame , she was mistaken for a bank manager — Madame Claude never enjoyed sex herself and insisted people over 40 shouldn’t indulge in it.
She built her prostitution business largely by cannily targeting failed models and actresses, women with impressive looks but little money and unfulfilled ambition.
Many were attracted by her claims that, Pygmalion like, her ‘swans’ often ended up marrying a client. Madame Claude never identified her Claudettes but some did indeed ‘marry well’, according to insiders or had successful careers in film, fashion and business.
Marlon Brando, pictured in A Streetcar Named Desire, is said to be one of a host of celebrities to have used Madame Claude’s so-called ‘Claudettes’. It’s claimed she would insist some of the women have plastic surgery, usually on their face
Which, perhaps, is no surprise given they had cut their teeth in a business that had an unmatched reputation for client satisfaction. Madame Claude tried to cater for all requests.
She provided film director Roger Vadim with a redhead for a threesome with his wife Jane Fonda but even she was taken aback by the ‘depraved requests’ (never revealed) of shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis when he once pitched up with his opera singer girlfriend Maria Callas.
Madame Claude was highly selective about who she recruited to her business, choosing only one out of every 20 applicants — including some young men — after making them strip naked in front of her.
The women had to be tall — rich men preferred their women like their houses and their yachts, she’d say, and had a penchant for long-legged, icy Scandinavians.
They also had to be elegant — she liked to empty out applicants’ handbags for evidence of dirt or clutter.
For Claudettes who needed it, she would insist on ‘corrections’ in the form of plastic surgery, usually limited to the face and teeth as she didn’t think much of breast enhancement.
Critics say it was a way for the madam to leave her imprint on her girls.
Some wannabe Claudettes took rejection badly — a German girl turned up at Claude’s office with a gun, shooting her through the hand and paralysing two of her fingers.
Frank Sinatra was said to be another client, but those who knew Madame Claude said she despised men horribly and women even more,’
Although she had spies looking for potential Claudettes in Paris nightclubs, most of her recruits heard about her through word of mouth.
She would personally educate them in etiquette and decorum, cultural and current affairs, while she insisted they learnt some English — and only ever wore white lingerie.
Developing their talents could take up to a year. Madame Claude was the ultimate control freak but there was one attribute she couldn’t assess for herself.
To ensure the girls were, as she put it, ‘tres bien au lit’ (good in bed), she had a team of ‘essayeurs’, or samplers, who paid for the privilege of providing carefully graded reports on how the girls performed between the sheets.
She styled her swans, too, dressing them in Yves Saint Laurent and providing them with Louis Vuitton luggage and Cartier watches — all of which were paid for out of their future earnings.
Madame Claude took a 30 per cent cut. Her girls were not prohibitively expensive in the early years but prices rocketed in the Seventies after the Arabs from oil-rich states arrived in Paris with limitless spending power.
Business became so successful that Claude was able to buy a small, discreet hotel which she turned into a 12-room brothel.
Clients would be greeted with a musical turn by a well-known New York pianist.
It’s rumoured that Madame Claude even counted the CIA among her customers while they were carrying out peace talks with Vietnam in 1973
Claude usually answered the phone herself. ‘Allo, oui?’, she would always say before swiftly getting down to business and listing prices. It was rumoured that even the CIA used her services, hiring her girls to entertain over-stressed negotiators during the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in 1973.
According to a biographer, her clients included former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, three generations of the Getty family, Charles de Gaulle, Sammy Davis Jr, and Israeli general Moshe Dayan.
Claude said King Hussein of Jordan was another, once telling a Claudette: ‘You and I are in the same business. We have to smile even when we don’t feel like it.’
By all accounts, Madame Claude didn’t smile much.
Madame Claude, pictured in 1986, ‘found a way to be independent in a man’s world,’ her former lawyer said
Some who knew her said she was arrogant and pretentious, a cold fish who hated men and showed no affection towards women, including her girls.
‘She despised men horribly and women even more,’ said actress Francoise Fabian, who spent time with the ‘terrifying’ Claude before playing her in an early film about her life.
Her former lawyer, Francis Szpiner, said Claude ‘found a way to be independent and have power in a man’s world, but she was not remotely a feminist’.
She was accused of treating her girls like slaves and admitted she considered it highly unprofessional if they ‘wasted energy experiencing pleasure’ during sex.
Madame Claude’s reign finally came to an end after the conservative Valery Giscard d’Estaing became French president in 1974.
He reportedly felt she had tried to set him up for blackmail by ‘thrusting’ one of her girls at him.
Two years later, she was fined 11 million francs (around £10m today) for tax evasion and avoided further charges by fleeing to Los Angeles.
There she opened a pastry shop that failed and married a gay barman so she could get a permit to work in the U.S., (a previous 1972 marriage to a Swiss man had failed). She tried to re-start her old business, targeting Hollywood.
She even tried to recruit Joan Collins and fellow British actress Evie Bricusse over lunch.
‘I think you could do very well. Your husbands don’t have to know,’ she said. Collins says she turned her down, ‘giggling and shrieking like a hysterical schoolgirl’.
Claude returned to France in the mid-1980s and was jailed for four months for outstanding tax evasion charges.
However, she couldn’t stay away from brothel-keeping — albeit now with only 20 Claudettes — and, in 1991, after a girl she’d turned down for being overweight informed the police about her in revenge, her home was raided.
Officers burst into her apartment just as she was sizing up a semi-naked young woman and telling her that her thighs were too fat.
Aged 69, Claude was convicted of ‘aggravated pimping’ and served six months in prison.
The game was finally up. ‘She will take many state secrets with her,’ a former Paris police chief said when she died — as well as that outrageous request by Aristotle Onassis which had this most infamous of madams blush.