Once there was, in the St. Lazare prison, the female penitentiary in Paris, France, a very special jail cell. It was famous not because of any nasty dungeon feature but for the five beautiful, world-famous female degenerates who, at one point or another, called it home. One imagines that its walls might have been covered in runes and charms, for the women of note who looked out its grilled door enjoyed miraculously lucky fates. (Except for the lady who was shot.)
It was described as a “light and airy” cell, at least compared with all the others in the prison. There was a carpet on the floor. Some journalists ventured to call it “beautiful.” But they were perhaps dazzled by a particular occupant.
The first femme fatale of note to occupy this special cell was Marguerite Steinheil, easily the most famous nymphomaniac of all time, at least on the Continent. She killed the president of France with sex, but a few years later, her infamy reached even lower depths. In 1908-09, she was imprisoned at St. Lazare for a year while she awaited trial on double murder charges in the strangling deaths of her husband and mother. Even though she was caught in several terrible lies, and tried to pin the blame on her innocent servants in a shameful effort to redirect the executioner, the oversexed beauty was acquitted of murder. (Clews has the full story.)
(Art from the Syracuse Herald, May 11, 1930)
A few years later, the same jail cell housed Henriette Caillaux. She was the wife of the Finance Minister of France. In 1914, a Paris newspaper, Le Figaro, published unflattering news about her husband. So the minister’s wife walked into the office of the newspaper and shot and killed the editor, Gaston Clamette. It was a clear-cut case of first-degree murder and utterly indefensible in a civilized democracy. So her lawyers argued that she was the victim of uncontrollable feminine emotions. The jury acquitted her.
The next occupant was Mata Hari. You have heard of her; she was the stunning “Javanese” woman who was accused of betraying military secrets to Germany. She was shot as a spy.
The next occupant of note was Madame Bassarabo, who in 1921 murdered her husband and stuffed him in a trunk. (Unfortunately, I can’t find anything to tell me what her fate was. I'd lay odds at 2:1 that she got off.)
Alice was born not under a lucky star but a constellation of such stars. She was from a wealthy American family of the highest social set, of Buffalo and Chicago, related to the Armours of meat-packing millions. She was very pretty and charming. Eventually she landed a good catch indeed, taking for her husband the Count Frederick de Janze, a most eligible bachelor from one of France’s oldest aristocratic families, making her Countess de Janze.
And enter the victim. He was Raymond Vincent de Trafford, a wealthy young Briton, friend of the Prince of Wales, dashing soldier, and the young American countess’s lover. Alice was willing to leave her husband for Raymond, but Raymond’s mother wouldn’t hear of it. The lovers were in one another’s arms for what was to be the very last time in March, 1927, when, in her words:
…the whistle of the London Express blew, and I realized that he was going away from Paris –- and from me forever – I suddenly changed my mind and resolved to take him away with me into the Great Beyond. Slowly -- very slowly - I loosened my grip around his neck, placed the revolver between our two bodies, and, as the train started, fired twice – into his chest and into my own body.
His wound was terrible. Hers was superficial. The countess soon found herself in the St. Lazare prison, held on a charge of attempted assassination. The shooting electrified the society sets of England, France, and America.
But the love- and bullet-struck Brit refused to testify against the woman who shot him. His account went like this:
As we were about to part – she was kissing me -- I told her that I loved her, and again whispered to her not to take my decision as irrevocable. I even told her that we would meet again. As she was leaving me she attempted suicide. But a movement on my part caused the weapon to be deflected. I am sure that she did not intentionally fire at me. The accident was due to my imprudence.
She was released from the noted jail cell. Afterward, her husband divorced her and society slammed its doors.
In 1930 came word that she was marrying her shooting victim, and the pair were house-hunting in London to settle down to a less public life. Said her wounded lover: “It is one of those little incidents in the life of a man and a woman that might well be forgotten.”
And the dreams Alice dreamed in that Paris cell, a place perhaps a little bit magical, for all its dungeon-like qualities, came true.
Update: I got a nice note from a writer by the name of Konstantinos Tzikas who has written an article for Wikipedia about Alice de Trafford which can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_de_Janze. Come to find out that Alice was involved in a second scandal involving a murder in Kenya. It's too good a story to tell you any more here.