Literature has been no more kind to its prostitutes than real life has been. While fallen wives have made memorable heroines — Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina among them — few novels feature the travails of working girls. Fannie Hill and Moll Flanders are the exceptions, and Nana, of course, ÉmileZola’s story of the woman from the streets who enters high society only to die of small pox. Still, as a lifestyle, their stories are largely untold
While In college, I knew a young man who frequented brothels and brought back the yarns of women who were brutally honest about how they’d settled upon their “careers.” Not all of them were hard luck stories of poverty or child abuse. Some admitted they liked the job, especially the hours which allowed them to sleep-in. As employees of a house, they didn’t work the streets, felt safe, and were fond of some of their customers, many of whom they’d accommodated for years.
Perhaps the extracurricular education I was afforded by my classmate was the reason I was attracted to the story of Madame Claude that recently appeared in Vanity Fair. Madame had escaped death in a German concentration camp to became proprietress of a house of “deluxe prostitution,” a place where “the best people wanted the best women.” (“Behind Claude’s Doors,” by William Stadem, Vanity Fair, September 2014, pg. 326.) To Claude’s credit and business savvy, she saw value in giving her courtesans a boost, marrying some of them into the highest echelons of society and doing so with astounding success so that her tentacles reached into every corner of the classiest bedrooms. To work for Madame Claude was like winning a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Of course, her girls had to meet rigid specifications. Men, it seems, do prefer blondes, and Madame provided an endless line of tall, leggy partners. (Ibid, pg. 310) For many years her business thrived and then she clashed with the French government over a tax dispute.
Rather than face prosecution, Claude fled to the United States and set up business again. When the political climate changed in France, however, she assumed it was safe to return home and did so. Unfortunately Martine Monteil was waiting to greet her. Monteil cared nothing about taxes. She was head of the Paris vice squad and managed to send Madame to prison for a couple of years, though it was no ordinary prison. The accommodation was more like a palace. Released from bondage, at last, the unrepentant Madame returned to her affairs and to the frustration of Monteil, she was never arrested again.
Today, this purveyor of passions is 90 years-old and lives in a nursing home. She claims she is frail but her nemesis, Monteil, isn’t buying it. She insists the woman keeps a firm grip on her illicit business, which is thriving.
I hope Monteil is right. Call it a perversity left over from my extracurricular education, but I see no harm in the service Madame Claude provides. Her profession is older than dirt and one which involves consenting adults who reap a mutual benefit. Legal corporations exist that are guilty of far worse.