The Murder That Transfixed
By Judith Warner - The New York Times
June 3, 2011
On Aug. 21, 1933, Violette Nozière, the
18-year-old only daughter of an engine driver and a housewife who
lived in a claustrophobic two-room apartment in the working-class
12th Arrondissement of Paris, gave her parents drinks laced with
a lethal dose of barbiturates. Her father died. Her mother, who
drank only half her glass, fell into a deeply drugged sleep, but
survived. When Violette was arrested — after a brief attempt at
flight and a costly shopping spree paid for with her parents’
pilfered savings — she gave a full confession. She also explained,
as motive for her crime, that her father had been raping her for
the past six years.
The allegation of sexual abuse brought the
young woman no sympathy. Indeed, as Sarah Maza shows in her
excellent new book, “Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s
Paris,” it only fanned the flames of public outrage against her.
“Odious Accusations,” “An Abominable Lie,” the
Paris dailies railed as they raced to thrill readers with the
shiver-inducing details of a crime that would soon become the
great cause célèbre of the interwar era. The presiding judge at
Violette’s trial opened the proceedings by reminding the jurors of
Violette’s “taste for lying.” The police officer who first
questioned, and believed, Violette was never called to testify.
Indeed, all testimony from those willing to confirm her story — or
at least to confirm it was a story Violette had been telling long
before she killed her father — was essentially purged from the
public record, as journalists shaped and packaged the trial to
conform to popular opinion.
The story of incest simply wasn’t one that
Depression-era France was willing to hear. It didn’t jibe with the
image journalists spread of the Nozière couple as upstanding
citizens, “excellent people who bled themselves dry,” as the
mass-market press put it, describing the parents’ efforts to raise
their daughter above their own working-class status. “The Nozières
stood as quintessential representatives of the new interwar middle
classes,” writes Maza, a professor of history at Northwestern
University. They were “civilized city people, an intact model
couple with a well-educated, chic daughter: the incest accusation
just did not make sense.”
Violette — who’d been lucky enough to attend
high school and had even, briefly, had a place at Paris’s most
prestigious girls’ school, the Lycée Fénelon — was “not serious,”
her neighbors judged. She’d started dating at 15 or 16. She was,
commentators said, typical of the dangerously independent, newly
“emancipated” young women taking the Métro, working in offices,
earning money to buy fancy clothes that allowed them to pass
(among their working-class peers) for elegant ladies. She’d fallen
in with a bad crowd of “effete,” morally questionable Latin
Quarter students: “men with jackets of extremely narrow waist and
coat-hanger shoulders, with Mexican-style trousers,” as one Paris
daily condemningly put it. Her well-meaning parents, blinded by
loving ambition in an age of unprecedented social mobility and new
educational and occupational opportunities for working-class boys
and girls, had given her too much freedom. “Violette Nozière will
remain in our memories a sad and lovely ode to perversity,” said a
writer in Paris-Midi. “She is the inverted muse of youth, the
scarlet idol of a capsized world, the flower of evil of our age.”
Because this story line worked so well as a
cautionary tale, and because Violette’s narrative so neatly
embodied the many unresolved tensions — about gender, class,
tradition, change — bearing down on French society in the interwar
years, it quickly became a national obsession. Hundreds of French
people wrote to the investigating magistrate to express outrage,
demand the death penalty and, in a tiny number of cases, share
stories about their own experiences of childhood sexual abuse and
beg, on the girl’s behalf, for mercy. Journalists dissected every
aspect of Violette’s life before the crime: the perceived coddling
she’d received at home from a mother devoted to her every need;
her lies and promiscuity (she told men she was trying to seduce
that her father was a railway executive and her mother a head
saleswoman in the couture house of Paquin); and her eventual, not
terribly successful, forays into prostitution with older, and
wealthier, Right Bank businessmen.
Why this sinister, sordid and ultimately very
sad story so captivated the French is the subject at the heart of
Maza’s book, and she explores the question in rich detail. The
Nozière case, she writes, united and excited a public increasingly
split between political extremes, worn out by government scandals
and unmoored by the carnage of World War I. It also successfully
distracted the French from the frightening events taking place in
Germany. (During the Nuremberg rally, the left-wing daily L’Oeuvre
published a cartoon in which a peeved Nazi officer waved a
newspaper at Hitler over a caption that read: “That Violette! It’s
all about her!”)
The Nozière case, Maza shows, had something for
everyone. For French Communists, it was a chance to attack the
“decadent” bourgeois students Violette befriended in the Latin
Quarter, many of whom, in the 1930s, had extreme right-wing
leanings. For the right, it was an indictment of a time when
insufficient respect for social hierarchy was creating moral
chaos. The Nozières, in this view, were a family who overstepped:
a child who took too much from her parents; parents who wanted too
much for their child. Even the Surrealists, who fervently believed
Violette’s incest allegations, got a piece of the action, seeing
in the case a way to skewer conformity, the bourgeois family and
the forces of order. “Violette dreamt of undoing / And undid / The
hideous vipers’ knot of blood connections,” the poet Paul Éluard
wrote in a volume of poetry and artwork the Surrealists published
in her honor.
Violette Nozière was found guilty of parricide
in 1934 and sentenced to death, though few believed she would ever
reach the guillotine. (In fact, after she underwent a Catholic
“rebirth” in prison, her story was embraced as a symbol of
redemption in Vichy-era France, and she was freed in 1945.) Maza
explains brilliantly how and why Violette’s story — or a
culturally acceptable version of her story — grew from being a
mere fait divers, or miscellaneous news item, into a
nationally staged drama that bound France in schadenfreude-laced
fascination near the end of the turbulent and divisive Third
Republic. Combining a neatly suspenseful account of Violette’s
crime and its consequences with a richly layered cultural history
(told via interrogation records, trial notes, an expert
psychological report and an exhaustive reading of the popular
press), she skillfully analyzes Violette’s transformation from
wretched schoolgirl to cultural icon.
Occasionally, the power of Maza’s prose is
marred by heavy-handed academic tics: a strangely uncritical use
of Freudian theory to analyze the Nozière “family romance”; a
self-conscious, gratuitous-seeming tip of the hat toward
deconstruction (“an abyss of explanation”) in an overlong
digression on the significance of the fait divers as
narrative form. These are minor quibbles, however; the faults of
“Violette Nozière” stand out so sharply only because the rest of
the book is so very, very good.
The Paris that Maza evokes is a mosaic of poor
and working-class neighborhoods almost unimaginable in the
gentrified ville musée of today. But the tendency of a
society uncomfortable with change to come together around easy
opprobrium and shared clichés is, unfortunately, still very much
The French Have a Way... With
By Edward S. Sullivan -
Monsieur Mailleul! Wake up! Come quick!"
The clock-towers of Paris had just chimed
midnight on the sultry summer night of Monday, August 21, when the
frantic knocking and terrified screams of a young girl disturbed
the sedate quiet of the high, narrow old house at Number 9, Rue de
By the time M. Mailleul and his wife, still
half asleep, had groggily put on their robes and unbolted the
apartment door, other voices and footsteps were resounding
throughout the house. The concierge was pounding up the stairs,
demanding in a hoarse voice what the disturbance was all about.
The tall, buxom, dark-haired girl, wearing a
low-cut spangled evening gown under a man's cloth topcoat, fell
into the arms of the flustered Mailleul as he opened the door.
"Oh, it's terrible!" she cried. "I can't go
The girl's mascaraed eyes were wide pools of
terror in her white face. She seemed on the verge of fainting.
"What is it? What's the matter?" M. Mailleul
was embarrassed as well as startled. Though clearly it was no idea
of his, he could detect a rising hostile note in the heavy
breathing of Mme Mailleul directly behind him, as the trembling
girl threw her arms around him and pressed her face against the
folds of his nightshirt.
For the midnight visitor was no stranger to
them. She was Violette Noziere, beautiful 18-year-old daughter of
the couple that lived across the hall. Although Mailleul, with
instinctive caution, had never said more than hello to her as they
passed infrequently on the stairs, Mme Mailleul shared the other
good housewives' intuitive distrust and suspicion of the exotic
butterfly that had been bred in their midst.
"What's the matter? Pull yourself together!"
Mailleul urged the girl, as he strove to disengage himself from
her convulsive clutch, and drew back from the odor of perfume that
assailed his nostrils. The concierge had reached the landing by
this time and was hovering in the background, adding to the
"It's Mama and Papa!" Violette finally managed
to gasp. "They're dead! The place is full of gas!"
As she spoke, the others could detect the
sickly sweet odor of gas mingled with Violette's perfume and the
cooking smells that always lingered in the narrow stairwell.
The door of the Noziere apartment was closed.
Cautioning the excited neighbors to wait and let him open it, the
concierge hurried downstairs again, to turn off the gas at the
While they waited, young Violette gasped out a
few more details to the assemblage on the landing.
"I just came home. I've been staying with
friends, you know. As soon as I opened the door, I smelled the
gas! I called and there was no answer.
"I ran through the apartment and found Papa's
body on the bedroom floor, and Mama stretched out in the bed. I
shook them, but they're dead!"
The concierge panted up the stairs again. Gas
rushed out when he opened the Nozieres' door. Handkerchief to his
nose, he hastened in, turned off the open jets of the kitchen
stove, and threw open the windows.
It was as Violette had said. Middle-aged,
husky, moustached Jean-Baptiste Noziere lay on the floor in his
nightshirt beside the big double bed, his legs twisted and one
hand clutching the leg of the bed as though he had been trying to
get up. His thin, frail wife, her bony face lined with care and
anxiety, lay full length on the bed in her nightgown, hands folded
as though she had been calmly waiting for death.
Someone had summoned police and ambulance. An
interne examined the bodies, while Violette sobbed her brief story
to a uniformed gendarme. She had not been staying at home much of
late, she said, and she knew of no reason for her parents'
suicide. Money worries, perhaps—
Violette allowed herself to be led away by the
The medicos completed their examination of
Noziere's body, and it was covered and taken away on a stretcher.
The interne was just about to draw a sheet over
the still face of Mme Noziere, when he suddenly started, exclaimed
in amazement, and bent closer.
"I thought I felt— quick, get me a mirror—"
The gendarme hastened to comply. Sure enough,
the mirror, held under Mme Noziere's nostrils, showed a faint film
"This woman is still alive! Get her to the
At the nearby Hospital Saint-Antoine, it was
touch-and-go. Mme Noziere was literally on the threshold of death
when she was wheeled in, and doctors applied rigorous efforts to
save her, battling for her life throughout the early morning
Meanwhile, Assistant Police Chief Gaston Mozer
of the Seine Prefecture drove to the flat in the Rue de
Madagascar, to make his routine investigation and formal report.
The case at first glance seemed a clear-cut
one; the middle-aged couple, alone in the apartment, for some
reason had chosen to turn on the gas and lie down to die; M.
Noziere at the last minute had apparently changed his mind, but
was too weak to do anything about it.
None of the neighbors could offer any motive
for suicide, other than that the Nozieres had been upset over the
antics of their wayward daughter, who had left home a month or so
previously— "to live her own life" as she defiantly put it.
But Violette herself was nowhere to be found
when Chief Mozer asked for her. The neighbors had last seen her
running sobbing down the stairs, just before it was discovered
that her mother was still alive. The gendarme, assuming that she
would remain nearby, had neglected to obtain the address — of the
friends with whom she was stopping, and none of the apartment
tenants knew any details of Violette's life, which was led in
quarters away from the respectable middle-class Rue de Madagascar.
"Well, she'll probably turn up in the morning,"
Chief Mozer shrugged. "She was so upset she simply, forgot to say
where she was going. It's a shame, though, that we can't reach her
to tell her about her mother!"
Violette had mentioned that her parents were
worried over money; but no one else knew anything of this. M.
Noziere had made a comfortable salary as a locomotive engineer on
the Paris-Lyons-Marseilles line, and the couple lived very
Cursory search of the apartment turned up no
money anywhere, but there were several bank-books in a dresser
drawer, and there was no sign of anything out of order.
One thing puzzled Mozer: the supper dishes and
remnants of food still stood on the kitchen table, which was set,
complete with wineglasses, for three persons. It was possible that
the Nozieres had entered into their suicide pact immediately after
supper, and omitted to clear off the table. But who was the third
diner? Could it have been Violette?
The concierge said no. He had been sitting out
in front until about' 10 p.m., and was certain that neither
Violette nor anyone else except tenants whom he knew had gone in
or out since before the dinner hour. And the Mailleuls, who had
retired about an hour before Violette came pounding on their door,
insisted that they had not heard the slightest sound all evening
from the adjoining apartment, much less the noise of a convivial
dinner. In fact, no one recalled seeing even the Nozieres
themselves ail day.
Chief Mozer philosophized that these details
would be cleared up shortly; that Violette would return, and Mme
Noziere would be able to tell the whole story if she lived.
But in the morning a report came to the desk of
the Seine Prefect that put a different complexion on the case. The
doctors at Saint-Antoine reported that Mme Noziere, still in a
critical condition, was suffering not from the effects of inhaling
gas, but from a huge, more than lethal dose of veronal — another
name for the sleeping-drug, barbital. The amount of gas she had
inhaled was negligible, and she had already been drugged when she
inhaled it. Obviously she could not have turned on the gas
The prefect referred the case to M. Lanom, juge
d'instruction of the district, who immediately ordered an autopsy
on the body of M. Noziere to be made by Dr. Paul of the Institute
of Forensic Medicine. Sure enough — the engineer had died from a
massive dose of veronal.
With what had seemed a simple suicide pact now
assuming sinister proportions of double murder, the famous Surete
Nationale — the Police Judiciaire — was called in to determine the
facts, and Inspector Marcel Guillaume — the fabulous prototype of
Georges Simenon's fictional Maigret — took personal charge of the
investigation of the crime.
Guillaume wanted — urgently — to talk to young
Violette, but she still had not turned up. In her absence the
Surete men and a crew of technicians went through the death
apartment inch by inch. In two of the wine-glasses they found
traces of veronal. Fingerprints on the third glass were too
smudged for identification.
In the kitchen waste-basket was a note signed
by a Dr. Doron, addressed to the elder Nozieres, instructing them
to take the powders which he enclosed.
In a dresser drawer the detectives found a
packet of passionate love letters addressed to Violette Noziere,
from one Louis Pierre. The latest ones spoke of marriage. A return
address in the Quartier Latin was given; the last couple of
letters were written from a summer resort at Sables-d'Olonne,
where Louis was apparently visiting his parents.
Interviewed by Guillaume, Dr. Doron, a highly
respectable practitioner, said the note on his stationery was a
forgery. Further, he did not know the elder Nozieres, but had been
treating young Violette for anemia.
While provincial police were asked to contact
Louis Pierre, Guillaume went to the address in the Quartier Latin,
a small studio apartment. There was no one home, but the inspector
quickly learned from the concierge and the neighbors that the
tenant was Pierre, a young law student and the son of well-to-do
parents. He dabbled in the arts and was known as a rather
wild-living young man. Lately, they said, his flashy-looking girl
friend Violette had frequently been staying with him.
Visiting nearby cafes and asking innumerable
questions, Inspector Guillaume's men located a blonde girl named
Madeleine Debize, who said she was Violette's closest girl friend.
She said she didn't know where her friend was at the moment, but
she swiftly dispelled any idea the detectives had that Violette
had sat at table with her parents at the fatal dinner.
"Violette and I were at a party with some
student friends last night, that would be Monday night," the
willing and voluble witness said. "We had dinner about 5 o'clock
in a little brasserie up the street here. Then we all went dancing
at the Bal Tabarin.
"We were tired and left the party early, about
11 o'clock, and Violette said she thought she'd go home to her
parents' place for the night.
"I don't know what you're after her for, but I
can swear she never left my sight the whole night. I had a special
reason to stick close to her, because I was broke and Violette
happened to have a roll of money. In fact, she loaned me 100
francs when she left me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. That was
just about 11.30."
Madeleine was even able to fill them in on
Violette's movements earlier in the day. The popular brunette had
had lunch with a young artist in a cafe on the Boulevard
Haussmann, and then spent most of the afternoon riding around the
cafes of the Quartier with two Egyptian students in their new car.
But back in the Rue de Madagascar, Inspector
Guillaume and his colleague Inspector Gripois were picking up a
different kind of information about young Violette.
Friends and neighbors could not provide any
clue to her whereabouts or current activities, but they had plenty
to say about her past, which was already more than a bit lurid for
a girl of 18, even in Paris.
"Her parents just couldn't seem to control
her," one woman said. "She was always in trouble at school, and
since the age of 12 or 13 she's been running around with men one
man after another. She simply became attractive to men too soon,
and it turned her head."
Violette had left home several times, but
always had come back. She was constantly quarreling with her
long-suffering parents, asserting her right "to live her own life"
— and constantly coming back to them for help.
M. Mailleul provided more sinister information.
This wasn't the first time there had been suspicious happenings in
the Noziere apartment. Only two months before, the elder Nozieres
had been almost overcome by a leaking gas-jet. Another time, their
bedroom window curtains mysteriously caught fire. And three or
four times, the engineer and his wife were seized with terrible
pains after eating, and called Mailleul to send for the doctor. On
these occasions, Violette also complained of pains.
Investigation of M. Noziere's affairs revealed
that he had about 180,000 francs in the bank, which would go to
Violette in event of the death of both parents.
In the midst of this investigation, Louis
Pierre came back to Paris voluntarily and submitted to
questioning. He and Violette had been friends for about a year,
the nervous, pasty-faced youth said. When her parents happened to
find his letters to her and forbade her seeing him, he promised
marriage and Violette left home and moved into his studio.
Pressed, the furtive Pierre admitted that Violette had been
getting money from other men and helping to support him, when his
parents cut down his allowance.
"I haven't seen her since last week, and I
don't know where she is," he said, "but she mentioned a funny
thing in a letter just the other day. She said she had inherited
some money, and was going to buy a car and come to get me!"
The hunt for Violette Noziere became first
order of business for the Surete. But when the reports from
detectives checking on her recent movements were all in, it
appeared impossible that she could have had anything to do with
the poisoning of her parents Monday evening. A dozen witnesses
were ready to swear to her whereabouts Monday afternoon and
As far as could be established, she had last
visited the Rue de Madagascar Sunday afternoon. She had spent
Sunday night in the Montmartre cafes, dancing and drinking till
dawn. It looked as though Violette was in the clear. Nevertheless
Guillaume wanted to talk to her, if only to clear up the source of
the money she was reported to have been spending lavishly.
Neighbors said M. Noziere usually kept a good sum on hand — but
none had been found in the apartment.
A factor that puzzled Guillaume was the report
from the railway that Noziere had failed to show up for work on
Monday, for the first time in 10 years. Where had he spent Monday?
Was he with the mysterious dinner guest? Close investigation of
the dead engineer's past was indicated, and Guillaume assigned a
corps of men to the task.
But the very next morning came news from the
hospital that broke the case wide open. Mme Noziere had recovered
from her coma and was winning her struggle for life.
And the first words she uttered when she was
able to talk and learned her husband was dead, were to accuse
Violette of poisoning them! The girl had administered the veronal,
she said, under guise of powders prescribed by Dr. Doron for
And Mme Noziere's fragmentary statement cleared
up the principal puzzle: the poisoning had taken place after
dinner Sunday afternoon when Violette had dined with them, and not
Monday night as had been taken for granted. The couple had lain in
a coma for some 30 hours before M. Noziere died.
"That girl has the cunning of a devil"'
Guillaume exclaimed. "She drugged her parents Sunday afternoon and
left them to die. Then, after establishing her alibi for Monday
night, she came back at midnight and turned on the gas, to make it
look as though it had just happened!"
The hunt for the unnatural killer now spread
over the nation, blazoned by newspapers and radio. The public was
aroused as it had not been for many years. Public meetings
demanded the guillotine for the cold-blooded slayer.
Shortly Mme Noziere was able to relate further
details of the night of horror. Violette had persuaded them to
take the powders in their wine-glasses right after dinner.
Stricken in a few minutes, they had gone to bed on her advice, and
she promised to call the doctor.
While they lay semi-conscious, Violette came
back and said the doctor had told her to give them baking soda;
she forced a liquid down their mouths, which it now appeared had
contained still more veronal.
Mme Noziere also established that 3,000 francs,
waiting to be banked, was missing from the dresser, and 1,000
francs from the hem of her dress. It was clear where Violette had
obtained the money for her lavish night in the artist's flat.
* * *
On August 29, more than a week after the
murder, Count Henri Dubec, a young engineer, reported to the
Surete that he had met and made a date for that night with a girl
dressed all in black who called herself Christiane d'Arfeui, who
he was sure from her looks and evasive conversation was the hunted
Violette. When the slim brunette showed up at a subway station
that night for their date, a squad of detectives closed in and the
hunt was over.
Sullenly Violette admitted the poisoning of her
parents. She said she had meant to kill only her father, and had
given her mother a mild dose.
She came up with a startling motive for the
patricide; she said her father had assaulted her on a trip to the
country, and that she was pregnant by him! He had threatened to
kill her if she had told anyone, according to her story.
But the doctors reported that Violette was not
pregnant, and investigation by Guillaume proved that the incident
could not have happened at the time and place she said. Mme
Noziere filed a civil suit against Violette for slandering the
Violette denied that she had taken her parents'
money. She said an elderly professor of the Sorbonne had given her
3,000 francs. But this too was proved a falsehood, a figment of
her warped mind.
Public feeling was so strong that a mob tried
to storm the Petite-Roquette prison, and Violette had to be
removed under heavy guard.
French justice is slow and thorough, and more
than a year passed before the police investigation of her life was
completed and Violette was brought to trial for murder before
Judge Peyre at the Seine Assizes. Her various confessions were
introduced, and a parade of witnesses condemned her. The defense
attorney argued that her strong passion had driven her to poison
the parents who stood in her way.
At the last minute Mme Noziere took the stand
to plead mercy for her unnatural daughter. But it took the jury
only a few minutes, on October 13, 1934, to find her guilty, and
Judge Peyre sentenced her to die on the guillotine.
However, no woman had been executed in France
since 1887, when Jeanne Thomas and her husband were beheaded for
burning Jeanne's mother in a fireplace. Jeanne collapsed in
hysterics on the scaffold, and had to be dragged by the hair.
Since then, the death sentence for women has become simply a
matter of form.
So despite the atrocity of her crime and the
feeling of the public, President Lebrun on Christmas Day commuted
the sentence of Violette Noziere to life imprisonment.