by William Stadiem
In post-WWII Paris, Madame Claude ran the most exclusive finishing school in the world. Her alumnae married more fortunes, titles and famous names than any of the Seven Sisters. The names on her client list were epic—Kennedy, Rothschild, Agnelli, Onassis, Niarchos, Brando, Sinatra, McQueen, Picasso, Chagall, Qaddafi, the Shah, and that’s just for starters. By the 1950s, she was the richest and most celebrated self-made woman in Europe, as much of a legend as Coco Chanel.
Born Fernande Grudet, a poor Jewish girl in the aristocratic chateau city of Angers, the future Madame led a life of high adventure—resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, gun moll of the Corsican Mafia and erstwhile streetwalker—before becoming the ultimate broker between beauty and power. She harnessed the emerging postwar technology of the telephone to create the concept of the call girl. But Madame Claude wasn’t just selling sex—she was the world’s ultimate matchmaker, the Dolly Levi of the Power Elite.
She was also one of the most controversial—and most wanted—women in the world. Now, through his own conversations with the woman herself and interviews with the great men and remarkable women on whom she built her empire, social historian and biographer William Stadiem pierces the veil of Claude’s secret, forbidden universe of pleasure and privilege. Keep reading for an adapted excerpt of Madame Claude.
Camelot was coming to Paris. It was their first official European tour, and the First Couple couldn’t have been more excited. While Jackie Kennedy was thrilled to be meeting one of her literary idols, the new French minister of culture, André Malraux (Man’s Fate), who was going to give her a special tour of the Louvre, the person John Kennedy may have been thinking the most about was Madame Claude, who was going to provide JFK with her own take on man’s fate. It was a rendezvous with destiny that the new president had been plotting for weeks.
Catering to the erotic whims of a visiting president was dollar diplomacy on the most delicate and demanding level. It was also a logistical nightmare, given that the eyes of the world were on the new president and his lovely wife in the first manifestation of her Francophile icon-hood. That JFK could be caught with his pants down on a state visit was a possibility that couldn’t even be contemplated. However, John Kennedy was so obsessed with sex, and so bold and reckless in his obsessions, possessing his father’s arrogance that the right kind of bad boy could get away with everything, that JFK forged ahead in strategizing his French sexcapade as if it were a priapic D-day.
Most of the preliminary planning was done between Madame Claude herself and Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s trusted press secretary, who, despite so many assumptions, was only half French (his mother) and had grown up and been educated in San Francisco. Still, he was fluent in French; plus, he shared his boss’s penchant for naughtiness. So the assignment was literally a labor of love. At first, Madame Claude turned Salinger down. There were too many things that could go wrong and too much attention on the prospective client, arguably the most famous man on earth.
Claude was relatively new in the business, and the last thing she needed was a scandal on the front pages of the world press. Most of her clients came from show business, industry, and finance; she had few contacts at this point with the French government. If they could shut down the mighty Le One-Two-Two or the iconic Sphinx, they could shut down her little operation like swatting a fly and ship her off to Fleury-Mérogis, the brutal Alcatraz of la belle France, where bad madams went to die. Claude was doing fine. Why risk losing it all?
Salinger, a born salesman, turned all the negatives into positives. The French loved sex as much as they loved the privacy of their dalliances. They would avert their eyes. And, Salinger pressed, if Madame Claude could service President Kennedy, she would become a “made woman,” capable of taking care of all the top men in every country. This was the stuff myths were made of. Would Maxim’s have feared to serve Curnonsky, the “Prince of Gastronomes,” the ultimate gourmet of the twentieth century? Rise to the occasion, Salinger exhorted Claude. Do it for your career. Do it for your country, he riffed, paraphrasing JFK’s inaugural address. Think big! Weighing risks and rewards like the shrewd banker she might have otherwise been, Claude decided to go for it.
Of course, there was no such thing as “an easy lay,” even where Madame Claude was concerned. To begin with, the trip to Europe soon mushroomed into a huge geopolitical event. It also mushroomed into a family vacation. Because Paris had a glamour that few women can resist, Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, insisted on tagging along, as did Jack’s mother, Rose, and sister Eunice, Jackie’s two secretaries, Tish Baldridge and Pam Turnure (JFK’s ex-secretary and reputed ad hoc mistress), as well as Jackie’s friend Tony Bradlee, wife of The Washington Post’s Ben, who was covering the trip. Ben’s sister, the pot-smoking artist Mary Meyer, was already flirting with JFK back in Washington and would soon begin a series of White House trysts with him.
Too many women, Joe Kennedy concluded, and he opted to stay home. How his son would figure out a way to add still another Jackiesque filly to his stable while in the glare of the world’s spotlights was beyond him. However, Joe was all for such Flying Wallenda tightrope feats and, if consulted, would surely have urged his son to go for it. Meanwhile, primed by his confidant Igor Cassini about the wonders of Paris’s new supermadam, Joe himself began planning his next French excursion with her firmly in mind.
Settling in to their state apartment for visiting dignitaries at the quai d’Orsay, Jack felt trapped. How in the hell was he ever going to get to Madame Claude and cheat on a wife who had instantly become the hottest thing to hit France since Brigitte Bardot took off her bikini top in And God Created Woman? It was no problem to fight with that wife. Their initial presidential spat was that Jackie was way too French for America’s good, and good image. This was many decades before “freedom fries” and the Francophobia occasioned by France’s rejection of the war in Iraq. Still, America and France had major differences, particularly over NATO, nuclear weapons, and the coveted oil of Algeria, which de Gaulle was willing to give its independence, an act that many Americans feared would throw it, like Nasser’s Egypt, into the open arms of Soviet Russia. Jackie’s flaunting of her Frenchness seemed to Jack like sleeping with the enemy, even though it was he who was dead set on doing so.
Their battle focused on a dress. The second night in Paris was the highlight of the entire trip, a candlelit multicourse champagne dinner for 150 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, followed by a performance of the ballet of the Paris Opéra in a theater built by Louis XV. Even for JFK, who loved a big bash, especially one with this much deep décolletage, the event seemed a little too “let them eat cake” for the Americans back home who would be reading about the ball in Life magazine. Jackie, he insisted, had to stand up a little for America by wearing her Oleg Cassini dress.
Never mind that Oleg Cassini was a Russian and the dress was a knockoff of a design by Jackie’s favorite French couturier, Hubert de Givenchy. It was still an American dress, and Jack wanted her to flaunt it for the old red, white, and blue. But Jackie, perhaps emboldened by Jacobson’s frequent injections, quietly staged her own war of independence and insisted on wearing her Givenchy rhinestone-studded white satin extravaganza, which she secretly had taken with her, to the palace of the Roi Soleil.
Jack wasn’t being overly sensitive or overreacting to Jackie’s obsession with all things French. A group of French women reporters, knowing her fascination with Givenchy, asked her if she were planning a visit to his atelier. Jackie snapped back, “I have more important things to do.” And when a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily, which had taken a gadfly approach to Jackie’s lavish expenditures on her wardrobe, asked her if she read that fashion journal, she snapped once again, “I try not to anymore.” A final question from the press corps was whether she would buy a French dress for Caroline, then three. Jackie said a terse “No,” after which the reporter followed up with “Was it forbidden?” “No, it’s not forbidden,” Jackie snapped again. “I just don’t have time.”
If clothes were Jackie’s “thing,” sex was Jack’s. Because Madame Claude’s essence was the telephone (her greeting, “Allô, oui,” would become part of the French culture), Pierre Salinger was continually on the line to Claude, juggling the time of the rendezvous, which could be no more than one hour. Kennedy and Salinger had their own code for the transaction, which involved buying for Jackie a gift saddle from Hermès, the famed store, which had become a fashion status symbol for the rich and famous. Claude played right along, asking if the jockey (her simulacrum “Zhack-ee”) had any need for riding crops, whips, or spurs.
The girl Claude had lined up was a twenty-three-year-old Sorbonne graduate from a poor but tony family of Normandy’s lesser nobility. She was a trusted two-year veteran, whose older sister also worked for Claude, sometimes selling herself to the same men she had sold jewels to for their wives while working days at Harry Winston on Avenue Montaigne. JFK’s blind date was a very Jackie-like sylph who was employed as a fitting model for Givenchy himself, and thus was in the perfect position to be decked out in samples of the designer couture that Jack had wanted his wife to eschew, for the glory of Old Glory.
And what was in it for the model? The thrill of meeting the president? The notion that she was representing la gloire de La France? The large fee? Most of Claude’s girls weren’t in it for the money. If they were, they didn’t stay for long. Claude’s was a sort of finishing school for superbeauties. They would be meeting the most important men in France, and, case in point, the world. A lot of these men weren’t married. The goal Claude instilled in all of her charges was that beautiful women deserved to marry beautifully. Claude was in many ways an old-fashioned matchmaker with a modern, direct approach to cutting through the archaic courtship rituals. Her amazing track record of beaux mariages in the decades ahead was testament to her own vision and her finesse and her brilliance as matchmaker to the rich, titled, and famous.
Because Salinger had been filling Claude in with the continuing “America First” psychodrama, the idea to turn the encounter into a French version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart obsessively remakes Kim Novak into a fake image she had herself concocted as part of a scam, was Madame’s idea, not the president’s. Pierre Salinger was sure it would have the desired effect. JFK was known for the “quick in-and-out,” but, as a man of wit and taste, he liked his quickies with a liberal dash of imagination and inspiration. Madame Claude, who would in time become a sort of Dr. Ruth, if not Dr. Spock, in the psychology of sex, understood the relationship of hostility and eros, of frustration and arousal. Dressing her damsel in Givenchy was waving a red cape at a bull; the bull was sure to charge, as was the president.
William Stadiem is the author of such bestsellers as Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe Confidential, and Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. He writes for Vanity Fair and has been the Hollywood columnist for Andy Warhol’s Interview and the restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine. Stadiem is also a screenwriter whose credits include Elizabeth Taylor’s last starring vehicle, Franco Zeffirelli’s Young Toscanini, and the television series L.A. Law.