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Paris has an unrivaled reputation for being one of the most romantic cities in the world, and it is often visited by couples seeking a private and personal weekend filled with cozying up over candlelit dinners and walking hand in hand down picturesque streets. But Paris was once home to the biggest brothel in all of France, run by a woman of repute named Madame Claude.
Born in 1923 in Anger as Fernande Grudet, Claude was the second daughter of a modest family. After moving to Paris in 1953, she got involved with criminals and briefly worked in the sex trade herself.
Grudet had no desire to do this forever, so she completely reinvented herself as the child of a Bourgeois family and assumed the name Madame Claude. She then set up her own high-class brothel in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, which, at the time, was the wealthiest of them all. She was in charge of more than 500 young women and a handful of young men, whom she selected from Paris fashion shows, the best colleges, and show bars. Claude wanted her business to be frequented by the very top tiers of Parisian society, so she funded tutoring, travel and even plastic surgery for her girls to ensure they were intelligent, knowledgeable, and beautiful.
During the 1960s, her business became a great success, and Claude ensured her own protection from the authorities by becoming a police informant. The arrival of centre-right President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 70s, however, saw the beginning of her downfall when she was fined 11m francs (now around 6.6m euros) in unpaid taxes. After temporarily fleeing to the United States, she returned to France in 1986 to serve a four-month prison sentence. Attempts to restart her business saw her back behind bars, after which she went on to live her life as a recluse on the French Riviera until her death on December 19th, 2015.
It is clear Fernande Grudet had a very real acumen for business, writing, “There are two things that people will always pay money for. Food and sex — and I wasn’t any good at cooking” in her 1994 autobiography. Claude’s nonchalant and straightforward attitude towards sex was quite unexpected for a woman, especially at that time. The French actress Françoise Fabian, who played her on film in 1977, once said that “to her, men were nothing more than wallets,” showing that Claude saw sex as a way of making money rather than a romantic act of love between two people.
From ministers and diplomats to film stars and business leaders, Madame Claude’s clients were usually well known figures from all different walks of life — however, one thing they did always have in common was a big wallet. They went to Claude to have their sexual pleasures fulfilled, and many of them were married men, including fallen President of the United States John F. Kennedy, who is said to have asked for a lookalike version of his wife, “but hot.”
Men have been known to frequent brothels throughout our history, but we often get very little insight into the lives and personalities of the women working in such places. Therefore, it is rather surprising what we can unveil about the women that worked for Madame Claude. Working for Madame Claude was by no means something to be ashamed of — in fact, spots in her brothel were in high demand, with just one girl amongst 20 candidates selected per month to become one of Claude’s 200 “swans.” Among her swans were the daughter of a French Air Marshall, a university professor, a famous fashion model, and perhaps most surprisingly, the wives of several leading Paris figures — not women we would expect to find working in such a trade.
Madame Claude’s business gives us a different perspective on the prostitution trade as something that was endorsed and appreciated by high society, making it a thing of luxury. It also shows us a different side of Paris — one of promiscuity, but also liberation. “There was no pimping… Everyone enjoyed complete freedom. The girls did their job and I did mine.” While vague remnants of this provocative lifestyle can still be seen near Pigalle (where the Moulin Rouge and its surrounding adult shops and shows stand), it is hard to imagine such a business operating behind closed doors in the demure Paris that we know today.