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Violette Nozière

Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris

Sarah Maza
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Violette Nozière
    Book Description:

    On an August evening in 1933, in a quiet, working-class neighborhood in Paris, eighteen-year-old Violette Nozière gave her mother and father glasses of barbiturate-laced “medication,” which she told them had been prescribed by the family doctor; one of her parents died, the other barely survived. Almost immediately Violette’s act of “double parricide” became the most sensational private crime of the French interwar era—discussed and debated so passionately that it was compared to the Dreyfus Affair. Why would the beloved only child of respectable parents do such a thing? To understand the motives behind this crime and the reasons for its extraordinary impact, Sarah Maza delves into the abundant case records, re-creating the daily existence of Parisians whose lives were touched by the affair. This compulsively readable book brilliantly evokes the texture of life in 1930s Paris. It also makes an important argument about French society and culture while proposing new understandings of crime and social class in the years before World War II.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94873-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    AUGUST 21, 1933. It is late summer and late at night. The city is unusually quiet because every Parisian who can afford to has gone on vacation. The scene is a two-room apartment on the sixth floor of a working-class building on the far eastern end of the city. The rooms are well appointed, over-furnished with imitation antiques, curtains, doilies, and family photographs, though the tiny kitchen between the two main rooms is shabby and primitive. Violette Nozière, a fashionably dressed young woman of eighteen, is in the bedroom, lying awake on the massive double bed. In the dining room,...

  6. ONE A Neighborhood in Paris
    (pp. 5-27)

    WHEN PEOPLE TODAY THINK ABOUT women in Paris between the wars, the names that come to mind are those of glamorous figures who created lasting works while building scandalous reputations: Coco Chanel, the pauper from Normandy who turned high fashion upside-down; the African-American Josephine Baker whose half-naked dancing titillated the city and the world; the openly bisexual best-selling author known as Colette; Simone de Beauvoir, who turned her back on a stiff -necked family to become the companion of Jean-Paul Sartre; American expatriates and sexual nonconformists like Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Janet Flanner. These women inhabited the center...

  7. TWO Interwar Girlhoods
    (pp. 28-49)

    VIOLETTE’S CHILDHOOD WAS UNREMARKABLE. She was the cherished only child of a family well integrated into its surroundings—decent people from the heart of France perfectly poised to achieve their modest ambitions. If anyone knew that Germaine had been divorced and that her child arrived a few months “early,” none of that would have stacked up against the Nozières’ blatant domestic propriety. Baptiste earned good money and was visibly devoted to the handsome, strong-minded woman he had married; not one to linger in cafés, he came straight home after work and handed over his paychecks to his wife. Th ere...

  8. THREE Violette’s Family Romance
    (pp. 50-83)

    MOST CHILDREN WISH THEIR MOTHER and father were different, and many fantasize about wealthier, more powerful, and more glamorous parents. A century ago, Sigmund Freud noted how common such daydreams were and gave them a name, “family romances.” Freud noted in 1909 that small children worship their parents, but as they grow up they experience inevitable slights just as they become aware of the existence of other—richer, kinder, more beautiful—mothers and fathers. Th ey dream of substituting these for their own. Th is fantasy often begins before puberty and is especially intense for imaginative, gifted, and neurotic children.¹...

  9. FOUR A Crime in Late Summer
    (pp. 84-106)

    ONE OF THE REMARKABLE FEATURES of Violette Nozière’s crime was that she committed it twice, making a first attempt on her parents’ lives in March 1933. In January, Violette had turned eighteen, the legal age of emancipation, but she must have felt anything but free. She had withdrawn from Lycée Fénelon, and her parents had enrolled her in a Paris correspondence school, École Universelle, so that they could keep an eye on her while she worked at home. In those early winter weeks, she had no excuse to get out of the house, and her depression and anger at being...

  10. FIVE The Accusation
    (pp. 107-139)

    MOST SOCIETIES HAVE CONSIDERED PARRICIDE—and its close analog, regicide—the most heinous crime imaginable. In ancient Rome, father-killers were sewn into a bag with a live monkey, a rooster, and a viper, symbols of unreason and viciousness, and thrown alive into the river Tiber or the sea. The French Revolution abolished all forms of torture and mutilation in the judicial system except for those who killed their parents: a parricide approached the guillotine barefoot and wearing only a long shift, his head covered by a black veil, and was executed after having his hand chopped off. Although the hand...

  11. SIX Letters to the Judge
    (pp. 140-173)

    AS SOON AS THE NOZIÈRE affair began to make headlines, men and women of all social classes started writing to Judge Lanoire to offer tips, make suggestions, or simply open their hearts about the ways in which the case had touched them. Most—though not all—of the letters are anonymous. They begin, “The crime of Violette Nozière terrifies me,” “The Nozière affair torments me,” “Please forgive an unknown woman for writing to you,” “I read thePetit Parisienevery day and could not hold back my tears when I saw what she said about her father,” “I changed...

  12. SEVEN A Culture of Crime
    (pp. 174-202)

    IT IS EASY TO IMAGINE Violette Nozière as a film noir heroine, as she was indeed portrayed by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol’s 1978 movie about the case: long, dark silhouette, tilted hat, fur stole, pale skin, and scarlet lips. Indeed, as a character, she fits a classic description of the film noir woman as a “femme fatalewho is fatal to herself”: “Frustrated and deviant, half predator, half prey, detached yet ensnared, she falls victim to her own traps.”¹ On the one hand, the Nozière case was, in its particulars, intensely real to contemporaries: brain...

  13. EIGHT A Water Lily on a Heap of Coal
    (pp. 203-227)

    BY EARLY OCTOBER 1933, coverage of the Nozière case was dwindling, displaced in the newspapers by the salacious details of Oscar Dufrenne’s murder and the search for his sailor-assassin. Readers knew to expect a hiatus of many months before Violette’s trial. When something did happen, the case still made for front-page news. Hopeful rumors surfaced now and then of an “Émile” discovery, none of which amounted to anything, and Violette’s scheduled judicial “confrontation” with Jean Dabin on October 18 provided a small jolt of excitement. This time fully anticipating “nervous breakdowns,” the judge had medical personnel on hand. The principals...

  14. NINE The Trial
    (pp. 228-257)

    IN DECEMBER 1933, the same month the Surrealists published their book of poems and artwork, Judge Lanoire completed his investigation. On December 16, the judge, the accused, and her lawyers met for a final round of questioning, which took the form of a preliminary indictment. Addressing Violette, Lanoire laid out his view of the case. In spite of repeated demands that she tell the truth, the accused had given only the most implausible explanations; if the incest had taken place, why did she say nothing for six years, even to the mother whom she claimed to love? And anyway, at...

  15. TEN Afterlives
    (pp. 258-278)

    VIOLETTE WAS NOT TO DIE on the scaffold, and neither did the prison doors close on her forever. The October 12 verdict was the prelude to three further decades of a life marked by remarkable ironies. While it was generally assumed that France’s most notorious female criminal would not be executed, it is safe to say that in 1934 nobody could have predicted how Violette’s story would end. Back in La Petite Roquette after the trial, alone in her cell, Violette must have been scared. Yes, women sentenced to death had been spared the guillotine for fifty years, but who...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 279-282)

    WHY DID CONTEMPORARIES CARE SO much about Violette Nozière that they referred to her crime as “L’Affaire,” wrote dozens of letters to newspapers and poured out their hearts in confidential notes to Judge Lanoire? The answer to that question might not at first seem obvious. The case was a private matter that did not, unlike the Dreyfus or Stavisky affairs, implicate government authorities. A genteel murder by poison, the story people read in their newspapers involved no extreme violence, and its cast of characters included nobody famous. Violette’s crime proved inescapably fascinating, however, because it echoed everything from storybook horrors...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 283-322)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 323-336)