Madame Claude could tell you stories.

About her clients – dictators and diplomats, heads of state and titans of industry, anyone with a bold enough name and a deep enough wallet to afford arguably the world’s most exclusive call-girl service.

Or she could tell you about the women she pimped to them –failed actresses and models she coiffed and polished and forced to study English and poetry, like a brothel-keeper Henry Higgins. When women interviewed to work for her she didn’t ask for a character reference; she would simply seize their handbags, empty out their contents and judge by what was inside.

She might even tell you a little about herself – born into a well-off bourgeois family, educated by strict Visitandine nuns, imprisoned at a concentration camp because of her connection to the French Resistance during World War II.

She could spin you any number of tales fit for a movie script or a breathless magazine tell-all (indeed, she’s been the subject of both). But there’s no telling how many of them might be true.

Claude, who for many years was the world’s most famous madam, died in Nice, France, on Saturday at age 92, according to Le Monde.

Her real name was Fernande Grudet. But that identity has been eclipsed by the myth of “Madame Claude,” a myth so powerful that for decades it shielded her from the prosecution and social stigma that most women in her position would have faced. Claude carefully cultivated it to be that way.


Information about her childhood is sketchy, and for the most part difficult to extricate from the origin story Claude wove for herself. She told the Chicago Tribune in 1987 that she was born in northwestern France to a well-off family; her father was “in politics” she said, which got them in trouble after the Germans seized control of France in 1940. She became pregnant by a man who was later killed in a concentration camp, she said, and was later imprisoned in a camp herself.

Others have contested that account, according to a Vanity Fair tell-all published last year, though no one seems to have offered proof one way or the other. Taki Theodoracopulos, the millionaire journalist and self-proclaimed playboy, told the magazine that he believed Claude had been imprisoned not for political reasons, but because she was Jewish. Either way, he and others claim to have seen the identification tattoo inked into her wrist.

After the war Claude moved to Paris, where she took “the kind of jobs you take when you have no proper work,” she told the Chicago Tribune – estate agent, door-to-door Bible saleswoman. In some reports, it’s alleged she fell into the company of criminals.

But then a friend who was getting married offered to give her control of “this little organization,” she told the Tribune. So she took it.

Within a few years, Claude was the head of a call-girl service “of such quality and exclusivity that she became almost an extension of the French state,” as the Tribune put it. Though prostitution is legal in France, procurement – what Claude was doing – is not.

But the woman known as “Madame Claude” was beyond the law. Indeed, by her telling, many of world’s most powerful leaders were among the clients at her Champs-Elysees brothel – though apart from going back in time and tapping phones, there’s little way of verifying those claims. Presidents, kings, famous actors, infamous socialites – all of them made her list. According to her Vanity Fair profiler, “there’s even a story about how the CIA hired Claude’s charges to help keep up morale during the Paris peace talks.”

“I had them all here,” Claude told the Tribune in 1987, extending a hand and digging an index finger in the middle of her cupped palm.

What Claude described as an insistence on elegance and quality gave her business a socially-acceptable sheen. She put the women she employed through a sort of “finishing school,” testing their knowledge of politics and history, counseling them on good manners, demanding weekly medical exams and daily hair appointments. Some of them, it’s said, wound up marrying the men with whom they slept.

And the people to whom she catered revered her. Clients paid thousands of dollars – in the ’60s – for her service. They plied her with gifts, made her a confidante. For better or worse, in those days, to have patronized Madame Claude’s was a mark of status.

Others have accused Claude of being exploitative. The madam paid for expensive wardrobes, hair appointments and cosmetic surgeries for the women she employed; the women would then have to work to pay off the cost of the makeover.


“It was sexual indentured servitude,” actress Francois Fabian, who played Claude in a 1977 and spent time shadowing her for the role, told Vanity Fair. She described the madam as “une femme terrible.”

By the mid ’70s, a conservative government had come to power in France and – not coincidentally, it’s implied – Claude was investigated for unpaid taxes. She fled the country for Los Angeles, where she lived for almost a decade, then returned to France and served a four-month jail sentence for failure to pay $3 million in back taxes, according to the Associated Press.

Within a few years she found herself in trouble with the law again. In 1992 she was arrested for reviving her old business, and ultimately served several more months in prison, according to the BBC.

After that, Claude moved into a small apartment in Nice, a city in southern France, and receded from public life. She died in a hospital there this weekend.

“She will take many state secrets with her,” former Paris police chief Claude Cances told Agence France-Presse. “She was a legend.”