Fernande Grudet, 92, who under the name "Madame Claude" operated an exclusive call-girl ring in Paris in the 1960s and '70s that attracted the patronage of dictators and diplomats, heads of state and titans of industry, died on Saturday in Nice, France. The news agency Agence France-Presse reported her death Tuesday.
Madame Claude's clients included world leaders, executives, actors and playboys - anyone with a boldface name and a deep enough wallet to afford her deluxe call-girl service. The women she offered were failed actresses and models she coiffed and polished, testing their knowledge of politics and history, counseling them on good manners, demanding weekly medical exams and daily hair appointments. 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.
The myth of Madame Claude, so powerful that for decades it shielded her from the prosecution and social stigma that most women in her position would have faced, was carefully cultivated.
Information about her childhood is sketchy, and for the most part difficult to extricate from the origin story she wove for herself.
She told the Chicago Tribune in 1987 that after World War II, she moved from the Anjou region to Paris, where she took "the kind of jobs you take when you have no proper work." When a friend offered to give her control of "this little organization," she took it.
Within a few years, as Madame Claude, she 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 she was beyond the law. Indeed, by her telling, many of world's most powerful, famous, and infamous were among the clients at her Champs-Elysees brothel - though there's little way of verifying her claims.
What she described as an insistence on elegance and quality gave her business a socially-acceptable sheen. In the 1960s, to have patronized Madame Claude's was a mark of status.
By the mid 1970s, a conservative government had come to power in France and Madame 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, according to the Associated Press.