They met in 1935 in the city of Orleans, France.
Pierre Chevallier was a promising young medical student at Orleans
Hospital where Yvonne Rousseau worked as a midwife.
Theirs was an instant and passionate attraction
that overcame their immense social inequalities. He was from an old
and distinguished family. She was raised on a peasant farm.
Yvonne's love and passion for Pierre would never
waiver during their time together. Unfortunately over time her
feelings would no longer be reciprocated and would bring forth the
tragic consequences that would forever change their lives.
Four years later the two were married and their
first son, Mathieu was born in 1940 during the era of Adolf Hitler and
the invasion of France.
Pierre joined the French resistance and quickly
rose to become a leading figure. He received the French Legion
d'Honneur and Croix de Guerre for his heroism during the war. After
the war he was elected Mayor of Orleans and in 1945 Yvonne gave birth
to the couples second son, Thugal.
Pierre threw himself into politics and spent more
and more time in Paris while Yvonne was left behind in Orleans to care
for their children.
Pierre was described as handsome, dashing and
socially adept. Yvonne, on the other hand, was described as dull,
witless, and socially unacceptable.
Pierre began to look on her with growing contempt
and at one point told her, "you disgust me."
Yvonne was desperate to win back her husband's
love. She read about art, literature and politics. She frequented
fashionable beauty salons and bought more flattering clothes. All to
no avail. She eventually turned to drugs and booze to provide the
comfort that was denied her by Pierre.
In the spring of 1951, Mrs Chevallier received an
anonymous letter suggesting her husband was having an affair.
As she searched Pierre's closet for evidence she
found a love letter in the pocket of one of his suits. It read,
"Without you life would have no beauty or meaning for me." The letter
was signed "Jeannette."
In her heart Yvonne knew "Jeannette" was none other
than her neighbor Jeanne Perreau, wife of Leon Perreau, owner of one
of Orleans' most prestigious department stores.
Jeanne Perreau was beautiful, intelligent and ultra
sophisticated. The sort of woman Pierre should have married.
Yvonne left the children in the care of a maid and
boarded a train bound for Paris to confront Pierre. But she returned
home utterly humiliated when she was turned away from the National
Assembly by an usher who was under strict orders not to allow her
admittance and Pierre refused to meet with her.
When she returned home she confronted Jeanne
Perreau and engaged in a shouting match that brought no resolution to
Pierre eventually returned to Orleans to face his
wife but refused to discuss his affair with her claiming it was a
private matter and continued to treat her with contempt.
Yvonne tried to force Pierre to return her
affections by attempting suicide. When that did not work she went to a
police station and applied for a handgun license claiming she needed
protection due to her husband's political prominence.
Once she obtained the permit she went to a gun shop
and eventually purchased a Mab 7.65mm, a semiautomatic handgun, and
In August of 1951, Pierre was appointed government
minister for education, youth and athletics. While he was in his
dressing room changing his clothes for a public appearance, Yvonne
decided to make one last ditch effort to save their marriage.
Pierre's dismissal of her was brutal. He coldly
explained to her that he no longer wished to have anything else to do
with her and had another woman he wanted to marry.
She fled from the room and retrieved the gun from
the linen closet where she hid it and returned to Pierre's dressing
She turned the gun on herself and threatened to
kill herself if he tried to leave her for another woman. But Pierre
mocked her, telling her to go ahead and shoot herself but wait until
he left the room.
That was the final straw. With deadly precision she
pointed the gun at Pierre and fired four shots, hitting him in the
chest, forearm, thigh, and chin.
As she stood over him their oldest child, Mathieu
burst into the room and saw his father lying on the floor. Yvonne
calmly led him back downstairs and handed him over to the maid. She
returned to Pierre's dressing room and shot him a fifth and final time
in the back.
Minutes later she called the Orleans police station
and spoke with Commissaire Gazano simply stating, "Please come here at
once. My husband needs you urgently." She was patiently waiting in
widow's weeds when the gendarmes arrived and arrested her.
Yvonne Chevallier went on trial November 5, 1952.
In those days the French penal code included a love-triangle provision
that absolved from punishment any man who committed homicide after
finding his wife in the bed with another man. Albeit the roles were
reversed, the Chevallier case was widely viewed throughout France as a
crime-of-passion which fell under the provision.
When Jeanne Perreau was called to the witness stand
it was clear that the sympathy in the courtroom rested solely with
Yvonne. Her approach to the stand was accompanied by hissing from the
gallery. She testified that the affair began in 1950 and continued up
until the day Pierre was killed. They met in Paris two to three times
a week. When asked if she was ashamed of the affair she proudly
replied, "Not at all." She went on to state that even though she felt
pity for Mrs. Chevallier, she had no intentions of ending the affair.
Before handing the case over to the jury, the
presiding judge, M. Raymond Jadin gave Yvonne a fatherly lecture for
failing to conquer her "animal passion" she felt for her husband. He
said, "this passion overwhelmed your whole life, without any attempt
on your part to control it. I understand your cavalier action, but do
not condone it."
After deliberating for 45 minutes the jury returned
with a verdict, "Not Guilty", much to the relief of the crowd that had
gathered to show Yvonne their support.
Even though she had been absolved of the crime by
the church, Yvonne could not rid herself of the overwhelming guilt she
felt. So she devised her own form of penance by moving to French New
Guinea with her sons where she worked as a volunteer nurse in a
hospital for the poor until her death in the 1970's.
The love between Yvonne Rousseau and Pierre
Chevallier began as a bodice-ripping romance straight from a
They met at the hospital where they worked in the
lovely old French city of
Orleans, in the center of the famed
Valley, the garden region of
France that is
dotted with 300 majestic chateaux.
From the start, the relationship featured an
intense physical and emotional cravingan animal passion, as a judge
would one day describe it.
Rousseau would never lose her passion for
Chevallier, even after they married and she bore him two sons.
Unfortunately for her, over time the passion grew
one-sided, and she was destined for a life of tortured jealousythe
injured lovers hell, as John Milton put it in Paradise Lost.
Theirs would prove to be a tragic love of operatic
proportiona story worthy of Puccini. It would play out in a classic
French crime passionnel that gripped
Europe half a century ago.
Four days before the surrender, French army General
Charles de Gaulle, in exile in
London, was given time on BBC radio to
make a plea to his countrymen across the
English Channel. He first explained
apologetically that the French military had been overwhelmed by the
He went on:
"But has the last word been spoken? Must hope
disappear? Is defeat final? No! Believe me, I speak to you with full
knowledge of the facts and tell you that nothing is lost for
France. The same
means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For
France is not
alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast empire
behind her. She can align with the
British empire that holds the sea and
continues the fight. She can, like
without limit the immense industry of the
This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our
country...The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle,
London, invite the
officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory
or who would come there--with their weapons or without their weapons.
I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries
who are located in British territory or who would come there to put
themselves in contact with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the
French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be
A War Hero
Among those listening that June evening was Pierre
Yvonne had just given birth to their first son,
Pierre was in his final
stretch of medical training. He could have raised his arms in
surrender like most of his countrymen, and few would have blamed him,
given the circumstances of his life.
But Chevallier made the brave decision to join the
Free French movementone of just 7,000 Frenchmen who followed de
Gaulles lead in the six weeks immediately after
gave in to
Chevallier quickly became a leading figure of the
With recruitment and momentum, the movement grew
over the ensuing four years of occupation. Some like Chevallier
participated in cells of resistance fighters who managed to pull off
daring acts of sabotage against the German occupiers. For others, the
resistance was more passive.
By D-Day in 1944, the Free French movement included
some 400,000 Frenchman.
Orleans was bombed by the
Allies that summer as they tried to cut off river crossings from the
Allied soldiers arrived in the city on August 16,
1944, 10 weeks after the D-Day invasion. The Allies liberated
Orleans, but they found
the city had a thriving shadow government led by Dr. Chevallier and a
handful of others.
Pierre Chevallier received the French Legion
dHonneur and Croix de Guerre for his wartime heroism, and
he was elected mayor of his adoring hometown in the euphoric glee
after the wars end.
Yvonne gave birth in 1945 to the couples second
son, Thugal, conceived during the liberation of
While Yvonne looked after the boys, Chevallier
threw himself into the rebuilding of
France. He was
elected to the National Assembly and became a protege of Rene Pleven,
a fellow freedom fighter who served as minister of finance after the
Chevallier began spending more and more time in
Paris, the French seat of
government. He took an apartment there in 1950 and frequently stayed
Like any politician, he maintained a busy schedule
of appearances at political and social functions. His wife rarely
Chevallier was considered dashing and handsome, to
French tastes. He was well-spoken and composed, even in crowds of
The Marriage Turns
Yvonne Chevallier had none of her husbands social
Gaunt and prematurely haggard, she was best be
described as plain.
A photograph of the woman at age 40 bears a marked
resemblance to the American character actress Nancy Kulp, the homely
Miss Hathaway of TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies."
Mrs. Chevallier did not feel comfortable in her
Paris social and political
circle. She was the anxious typeowing perhaps to the travails of war
and the stress of child-rearing.
Biographical sketches of the woman painted her as
dull, witless and rather uncouthan uneducated farm girl more at home
in a barnyard than a castle. Crime author Colin Wilson described her
as awkward, gauche, and conversationally clumsy in his Mammoth Book
of True Crime.
After a dozen years with Yvonne, Chevallier had
begun to treat his wife with coolness.
Sometime in 1950, son Mathieu developed an illness
that lingered for several weeks. Yvonne moved the boy into the couples
bedroom in case an emergency developed overnight.
Pierre began sleeping in
the study during the illness, and he stayed there when Mathieu
Yvonne tried to win back her husbands affection.
She read about art and literature and tried to stay abreast of
politics. She made appointments at fashionable beauty salons and
bought more flattering clothes.
She did her best to entice
Pierre with romantic
blandishments on the nights that he spent at home. But he made it
resoundingly clear that he had lost all interest in intimacy with his
He told her, You disgust me.
His coolness had become contempt.
As they grew up, the Chevallier boys began spending
playtime with the three children of a wealthy neighbor couple, Jeanne
and Leon Perreau.
Like Pierre and Yvonne, they seemed a mismatched
Mr. Perreau was middle-aged, bald, short and
rotund. Owner of one of
Orleans most prestigious and profitable
Leon ran the
business with a heavy hand that kept him away from home from sunrise
until well after sundown six days a week.
His wife, 15 years younger, was a redheaded siren
who could set mens teeth chattering with a withering come-hither look.
An independent spirit, she traveled in intellectual
and literary circles. She dressed stylishly and comported herself with
The couples began socializing, and dinner parties
with the Perreaus were the only social events that would consistently
draw Pierre Chevallier back home from
Yvonne soon heard gossip about Jeanne Perreau:
Women whispered about her romantic affairsa string of lovers that
could stretch across the
In the meantime, Yvonne had grown increasingly
anxious about her standing with
She developed a case of nerves that led to doctors
visits, prescription drugs and addiction to Maxiton, an amphetamine,
and Veronal, a barbiturate.
When she wasnt popping pills, she was chain-smoking
cigarettes and slugging down coffee. Her sleep became sporadic, and
she developed hooded eyes.
In the spring of 1951, Mrs. Chevallier received an
anonymous letter suggesting that her husband had become Jeanne
Perreaus latest triumph.
She searched Dr. Chevallier's closet and, in a
jacket, found a crumpled "Dear Pierre" love letter. It read, "Without
you life would have no beauty or meaning for me." The letter was
The French rules of marital manners demanded
discretion, if not fidelity. Yvonne made inquiries and learned that
the affair was an open secret in
She left her sons with a maid and took a train to
Paris to confront the
But the trip became a series of humiliating
First, she was turned away at the National Assembly
by an usher who had been warned by Chevallier that his wife was not
In tears, she retreated to his
She waited all night, but he did not come home. This she took as
confirmation of the affair.
Yvonne retreated to
Orleans, where she paid a
visit to Jeanne Perreau. The women accused one another of various
moral and marital gaffes, and the meeting ended acrimoniously and
She next confronted Leon Perreau, her counterpart
cuckold. Yes, he said he understood that his wife was Dr. Chevallier's
lover. But he had no intention of interceding.
Pierre finally traveled to
Orleans to hear out his
She pleaded, argued and cajoled, but it was of
little use. He took the aloof position that his affair was his private
That same week, Chevallier had been nominated to a
cabinet position as government minister for education, youth and
athletics. He apparently believed that a divorce would end his
Catholic nation, tolerated affairs but would not brook a failed
Yvonne took the boys to the coast for a two-week
holiday, hoping the time and distance apart from his children would
Pierre back to his family.
But when they returned, Chevallier continued to
display contempt, not affection.
Yvonne swallowed a handful of her medications in a
wishy-washy suicide try. She recovered, then marched to a police
station near her home to apply for a handgun license, explaining that
she needed protection since her husband was about to assume a lofty
She obtained the permit and visited a gun shop,
asking the owner to show her a pistol that kills without any doubt.
The owner directed Yvonne toward a Mab 7.65mm, a French-made
semiautomatic with a nine-round magazine.
She returned the next day and bought the Mab and 25
rounds of ammunition.
On August 11, 1951, Dr. Chevallier was sworn in to
his ministry post in
Paris. The next day, he
had an appointment for his first public appearance, at a country fair
not far from
He asked his chauffeur to stop in
Orleans so he could change
Pierre upstairs to his
dressing room. The couple had not been together in some days, and
Yvonne used the opportunity to once again plead her case to save their
First she threatened, saying she would send the
boys to boarding school and deny him visits.
Then she pleaded, saying she could not possibly
love another man, and she could not fathom her
Pierre in the arms of
another woman. She said she could changethat she would work hard to
make herself a more worthy companion.
Pierre disrobed, Yvonne
fell to her knees and begged him to love her.
Chevallier was brutally dismissive of her
entreaty. For the first time, he brought up the possibility of
divorce, explaining through gritted teeth that he no longer loved
Yvonne and would be happier with Jeanne Perreau.
Yvonne fled from the room, went to an armoire and
fished out her Mab pistol. She returned to confront
Chevallier again was pitiless.
He taunted Yvonne, saying she should go ahead and
kill herselfbut to wait until he had left the room.
Downstairs, a maid was watching after the two boys,
by then 10 and 6. The maid eavesdropped as the couple argued.
Suddenly, she and the boys were startled by a gunshot--then a second,
a third, and a fourth.
Mathieu Chevallier ran upstairs and saw his father
slumped on the floor. Yvonne calmly took the boy by the hand and led
him back downstairs, asking the maid to look after him.
The maid asked, "What is happening?"
Yvonne Chevallier replied, "Nothing at all."
She returned upstairs. After an interval, the maid
heard a fifth and final shot. She huddled with the Chevallier boys,
not daring to investigate.
A few minutes later, the phone jangled at
headquarters. Yvonne Chevallier told a police commander, "My husband
needs you urgently."
She was waiting in a black mourning dress when the
Mrs. Chevallier had used her new pistol
efficiently. The first four shots hit him in the chest, forearm, thigh
and chin. The fifth hit him in the back as he lay dying.
A French Sensation
It is impossible to overstate the sensation the
The story was front-page news across
months. British, Spanish and Italian newspapers also covered it with
breathless prose. The case rated a story in the New York Times
and a long epistle in the New Yorker magazine.
Initially, most Frenchmen were angry that their war
hero had been taken from them. News accounts characterized Yvonne
Chevallier as an uncouth hick who was outmatched culturally and
intellectually by the young statesman. Who could blame
Pierre for seeking more
Yvonne had not mentioned the love triangle motive
in her first interview with police. But she later confessed that she
had been jealous of her husbands affection for the redhead.
Gradually, public opinion began to shift as the
details of Chevalliers brazen affair and cold, cruel treatment of his
wife began to leak out.
Jean Laborde, a reporter with France-Soir,
cozied up to Yvonnes family and was given access to her letters. Again
and again, she had sworn eternal love for
Pierre, even as she
revealed her anxiety over his relationship with Jeanne Perreau.
Americans living in
Paris in those days
observed with slack jaws the gasping manner in which the French
treated love triangle crimes. This phenomenon made its way into the
memoirs of a number of Yankee writers who witnessed laffair
I never ceased to be intrigued by the way crimes
passionnels spellbound the French, wrote journalist Stanley Karnow
in Paris in the Fifties. They worshipped reason and cherished
moderation as the traits that made humans superior to animals. But
they would drool over the sight of wives, husbands, mistresses and
loves enmeshed in sordid imbroglios, as though these tragedies were
The American journalist Ben Bradlee, longtime
editor of the Washington Post, observed the Chevallier theater
while working as a young reporter in
In his memoir, A Good Life, Bradlee
described the Chevallier case as "one of the great French cultural
events, a crime passionel."
Bradley wrote, The French press went crazy,
throwing caution to the wind with police reporters, court reporters,
sob sisters, psychiatrists, novelists, the works. The French felt they
invented the crime passionnel. They were determined to leave
nothing unsaid and they left nothing unsaid. The whole country was
either outraged, or outraged that anyone would be outraged.
Yvonne Chevallier was accused of murder and
confined to jail for more than a year while awaiting trial. The
proceedings were moved to Reims, 150 miles northeast of
Orleans, in a failed
attempt to reduce the public spectacle.
By the time the trial began, on November 5, 1952,
no detailreal or imagined--of the lives, relationships and affairs of
the principals involved had gone unreported.
Karnow wrote, As her trial approached, the French
press plunged into a feeding frenzy. Reporters, psychologists,
sociologists, criminologists and other commentators advanced an array
of theses on the Chevalliers relationship. Characteristically, in
France, much was
made of their divergent backgrounds: she a peasants daughter, he the
scion on an illustrious dynasty...But most opinion blamed Chevallier
for his misbehavior.
The French penal code in those days included a
love-triangle provision that was a vestige of the Napoleonic era. It
absolved from punishment any man who committed homicide after finding
his wife in bed with another man.
The Chevallier case was widely viewed as a
clear-cut--albeit gender-reversed--example of the crime-of-passion
The trial was a highly entertaining but
The jury of seven men listened to a total of just
16 hours of testimony.
The gallery tittered when Mrs. Chevallier, dressed
in a stern gray suit, mounted the defendants dock.
Jail had left the woman thin and pale, evoking even
more sympathy from spectators, reporters and the judge, Raymond Jadin.
The judge asked Mrs. Chevallier a series of
questions about her marriage. She began to sob as she described her
relationship with her husbands bourgeois family.
They regarded me as one of the mistakes of
Pierres youth, she said.
Judge Jadin questioned Mrs. Chevallier closely
about the hostile meeting she had with Jeanne Perreau after the affair
came to light. According to author David Rowans account in his book
Famous European Crimes, the following exchange took place.
Jadin asked, You told Madam Perreau that you were
going to kill your husband?
No! Mrs. Chevallier replied.
You added that it would be a crime passionnel
and you would be acquitted?
Cest faux! (Thats not true!) she cried.
Jadin pressed her for her reaction when
Pierre coldly informed her
that he would divorce her in favor of Jeanne Perreau, who was sitting
in the courtroom.
Mrs. Chevallier began to stammer an answer, then
collapsed in faint.
After a 15-minute recess, Judge Jadin asked Mrs.
Chevallier to explain the circumstances of the fifth shot, whose
premeditation would seem to mitigate the crime passionnel
She replied that she had intended to return to the
bedroom and commit suicide beside her beloved
Pierre. She explained that
the gun fired accidentally, striking her husband in the back.
Again titters rippled through the gallery. But
Jadin let the explanation stand without further interrogation.
The Cuckold and the Lover
Comic relief was provided by Leon Perreau, husband
of the mistress. As Perreau gallivanted into court with head held
high, some in the crowd made hand gestures indicating hornsthe taunt
of a cuckolded husband.
Perreau displayed a calm self-assurance.
He testified that he was quite fond of Pierre
Chevallier, that he knew of the affair and deemed the war hero worthy
of his wifes affection. He went so far as to say that Chevallier was
his favorite among his wife's lovers. He bragged that he had run off
her previous paramour, whom he dismissed as a Lothario.
But Chevallier was different, Perreau said.
To peals of laughter, the businessman added, "It
may seem strange, but I found him more likable. I got on with him very
His wife followed Leon Perreau on the stand.
Jeanne Perreau glided into court as though it were
a movie set, her curled red tresses cascading from beneath a seductive
Mrs. Perreau, 34, was proud and unflappable,
despite frequent hissing from the gallery.
She gave her basic biographical informationage,
marital status, address. When Mrs. Chevalliers lawyer asked about
employment, Mrs. Perreau replied she was of no profession, an odd
phrase that sent tongues clucking in the courtroom.
In response to questions, she said the affair had
begun in May 1950 and had continued to the day of the slaying, 15
months later. Mrs. Perreau said the lovers rendezvoused in
Paris two or three times a
When asked whether she was ashamed of her affaira
married mother of three young children, after all--the woman firmly
replied, "Not at all."
She said she felt pity for Mrs. Chevallier, but
that she felt deep affection for
Pierre and did not plan to
end the affair, even after she was confronted by the woman.
The defense attorney thundered, Your place is in
the dock! The audience whooped in agreement, and Judge Jadin
threatened to clear the courtroom.
Like a Teenager
The trial continued the next day with miscellaneous
testimony designed to impugn the characterization of Mrs. Chevallier
as a hapless victim.
Pierre said the wife was a
virtual recluse who refused to attend Chevallier family functions and
was suspicious of anyone who vied for her husband's time and
A police investigator testified that the accused
had given a series of differing accounts of the fatal events in the
But Yvonne regained sympathy with the final
First, a confidante of Mrs. Chevallier testified
that she ran to her in tears on the day that
Pierre had told her, You
The same woman said Yvonne vowed to kill herself
after learning of the affair. The wife explained that she had no
chance against Jeanne Perreau, who was younger, wealthier, prettier
and better educated.
Finally, a psychiatrist revealed that the
Chevalliers had had a sexless marriage for years, causing "physical
depreciation" and desperation in the spurned wife. He added that
Yvonne suffered from social, physical and intellectual inferiority
The doctor said Yvonne had retained the mentality
of a teenager in love with a student.
By trial's end, observers felt the judge and
prosecutor were squarely on Yvonne Chevallier's side.
The prosecutor read into evidence a love letter
Pierre to Jeanne Perreau
that said he felt only pity, not love or compassion, for his wife. The
prosecutor, sounding like a defense attorney, called the letter
Judge Jadin took a paternalistic tone with Yvonne,
which no doubt influenced the jury. French judicial tradition deemed
that crime suspects are referred to as the accused. But Jadin
addressed the woman with the more polite and respectful Madam.
Before turning the case over to the jury, he mildly
scolded Mrs. Chevallier for failing to overcome the animal passion she
felt for the husband.
You should have conquered it and have realized that
you have no right to take the life of another person, Jadin said. This
passion overwhelmed your whole way of lifewithout any attempt on your
part to control it. I understand your cavalier action, but do not
While Jadin lectured, Mrs. Chevallier again began
bawling, muttering over and over, Im sorry. Im sorry. Im sorry...
As the jurors retired to begin deliberations, a
throng gathered outside the Reims Palace of Justice, located on the
city square. Jurors watched from a window as the crowd grew to
thousands in just 30 minutes.
Shouts of support for Yvonne evolved into a unison
chant: Liberez-la! (Free her!)
And so they did. The seven men voted to acquit
after just 45 minutes of discussion. Mrs. Chevallier was cheered as
she left the courthouse, and the Perreaus, walking arm in arm, were
that justice had been done, although Le Parisien Libere wrote
that the chanting crowd outside the jury room was a bit excessive. A
number of women writers declared the verdict a victory for their sex.
Mrs. Chevallier rejoined her sons on her familys
farm. The Catholic Church granted Yvonne absolution for the
killing--an important appendage of her criminal trial for the
She tried to resume a normal life, but her
Frances No. 1
criminelle passionelle would not allow it.
Gradually, she became overwhelmed by a combination
of guilt, heartache and notoriety.
Finally, under advice from her priest, family and
friends, she decided to move away and start life anew.
She devised a self-imposed penance by moving with
her sons to French New Guinea, in
West Africa. She spent years there
working as a volunteer nurse at a hospital for the poor.
By and large, the French press left her alone in
her work. In the countrys crime lore, she is regarded today as a
victim of Cupids mistakea mismatched love. She is believed to have
died in obscurity in the 1970s.