Usually when a celebrity dies, even an infamous one, it dominates the news for days or even weeks, depending on the cause of death.
This is true in the case of Fernande Grudet aka, Madame Claude who passed away on December 19, 2015, at the age of 92.
She ran one of the most notorious and high-end brothels in Paris whose clients were said to have included the rich and powerful including John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, the Shah of Iran, and even the artist Marc Chagoll (whom she claimed gave her “girls” priceless nude sketches of themselves).
At her peak in the 1960s she had over 500 women working for her, some of whom were rumored to charge up to $10,000 a night.
Madame Claude prided herself on only choosing from the cream of the crop. In addition to being beautiful, all of them had to meet a minimum height requirement of 5’9″ inches, be schooled in art and literature, as well as possess “sexual talent”. It was said that many of the former call girls went on to marry high-powered men and more than one went on to become a duchess.
Indeed, Grudet was so good at her job that supposedly, according to Vanity Fair, “the CIA enlisted [her] services to ‘keep up morale’ during the Paris peace talks”.
A former Paris police chief was quoted as saying, “She will take many state secrets with her. She was a legend.”
But like many legends, much of the story of Madame Claude appears to be fiction.
For instance, she claimed at various times to be an artistocrat who was educated in a convent school and was even sent to a concentration camp during World War II for being part of the French Resistance.
As it turns out, none of this was remotely true. The truth was, her father owned and ran a snack cart at train station. Despite some evidence that she may have been Jewish, she never was in a concentration camp; there is some proof however, that she may have been a hooker on the Paris streets after the War.
While some may say “so what?”, the biggest myth that Grudet appeared to have perpetrated was the myth of the happy hooker. As a feminist, I have long had a nuanced view of prostitutes and sex workers in general.
While on one hand, I support the right of everyone to do with their body as they wish (and I believe there are some sex workers who are sincerely happy and proud of the work they do), on the other there are still way too many tales of exploitation and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous people.
Madame Claude may well have been one of them.
Indeed, Françoise Fabian, the actress who shadowed her for a 1977 film called her a “terrible woman” and likened her to a plantation owner in the American South. Fabian claimed that Grudent “despised men and women alike. Men were wallets. Women were holes.”
If this sounds harsh, then take into consideration the debt that many of the prostitutes incurred while working for her. Per Fabian: “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. Claude took 30 percent. She would have taken more, but she said the girls would have cheated if she did.”
The praise of Madame Claude and the idea that being one of the girls was something of an honor seems more than a tad unsettling in light of this.
Prostitution, be it based in a high-end hotel like Madame Claude’s in Paris or on the street, is ultimately all about women (and men) selling sex—usually because they have limited choices. It also entails a certain amount of risk. Not only the physical but also the emotional toll it can take on someone. As a friend of mine from many years ago who did “escort work” on the side in London once said, “This isn’t a profession known to boost one’s self-esteem.”
However, I don’t feel the solution is to criminalize sex workers.
As it happens, Madame Claude’s death fell two days after International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. As said on the group’s website: “The assault, battery, rape and murder of sex workers must end. Racism, economic inequality, systems of colonialist and state violence and oppression must end. The stigma and discrimination and criminalization that makes violence against us acceptable must end.”
Indeed, it’s hard not to agree with all the above, especially economic inequality.
Quite by accident, a few days ago, I happened to watch the movie Tangerine which tells the tale of a transgender prostitute trying to get revenge on her cheating boyfriend/pimp. The movie is getting a lot of acclaim, not just for featuring transgender actors, but also shedding light on a very marginalized group of sex workers mostly ignored by the press—namely, trans women of color. It is fresh, witty, and sometimes even funny but what impressed me most was the matter-of-fact description of sex work.
It wasn’t glamorized nor were the characters portrayed as helpless victims. It did not shy away from the grim realities of it, including how many if not most turn to prostitution as a way to survive. It also didn’t shy away from the role that pimps play and how, more often than not, the person they look out for is themselves and only themselves.
As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think of Madame Claude.
Therefore, if any good can come from the renewed interest in her,and prostitution in general, following her death, perhaps it can be to remember the very real plight of most sex workers and the challenges they face.
Supporting and calling for better treatment of them does not mean “liking” prostitution or even saying it is a good option for most people. Rather, it’s about facing the reality that sex workers can, and probably always will, exist.
As Madame Claude herself put it, ““There are two things that people will always pay for: food and sex. And I was not meant to be a chef.”
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Sarah Kolkka