What 1930s were like for ordinary Parisians

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

Violette Nozière tells the story of a high-profile criminal case that took place in Paris in 1933-34.

An eighteen-year-old girl, the only child of a striving lower-middle-class couple, carefully devised and carried out a plan to poison her parents. Her father died but her mother survived. The case immediately became a sensation, and continued to hold its grip on the public as new details of the affair came out.

Germaine and Jean-Baptiste Nozière were considered a model couple: he had a good job with the railways, she was a housewife; they were ambitious for their daughter Violette and sent her to the best possible schools.

Violette was beautiful and stylish but in other ways a disappointment to her parents: she dropped out of a series of schools, slept with students and businessmen, stole her parents’ money to go clothes shopping, and went around telling tall tales about her allegedly glamorous social background.

One evening she came home with a forged note from the family doctor and instructed her parents to mix “medicine from the doctor” into their water glasses and to drink up. After they collapsed, Violette went shopping and partying, and when she returned tried to stage their “suicide” by turning on the gas.

Violette was soon under suspicion but escaped from the police and hid in Paris for several days. After her arrest she dropped a bombshell: she said that she had intended for her mother to survive, and wanted only to get rid of her father who had been forcing her to have sex with her one or more times a week since she was twelve years old.

This was only the first in a series of surprising turns the case would take. Violette Nozière was probably the most famous woman in France at the time, and certainly the most hated. In September of 1933, when the Nuremberg Rally was taking place in Germany, a French cartoon showed Hitler angrily shaking a newspaper and complaining: “That Violette, it’s all about her!”

My book is the story of Violette’s crime and the subsequent investigation and also a social history of Paris in the early 1930s. I reconstruct what she did and try to explain why her contemporaries were so obsessed with her.

“Men and women wrote to the judge to give their opinion of Violette, her parents, and especially her explosive charge of incest. Several of the most extraordinary letters came from women who were themselves victims of paternal incest. They begged the judge to believe Violette, and in doing so told the stories of their own lives.”

The wide angle

There is only one previous book about this case, an account of the bare facts of the matter published in French in 1975. I happened to read it a few years ago and was instantly hooked. I decided that I would tell the story again—but document it more fully and give it as much historical context as possible.

The story of Violette’s crime and what happened to her subsequently is a gripping one, but I also use the case as a microcosm for explaining how different classes of people in Paris lived and interacted in those years.

The crime hit a nerve with contemporaries because Violette’s parents were typical of a widespread social experience: immigrants from the countryside who came to the capital to make a good life for themselves, had an only child by choice, and lived, as so many others did in a tiny two-room apartment with no bathroom and no privacy.

To many newspaper readers they were “people like us.” How and why had they failed so spectacularly with their daughter?

Violette’s parents came under criticism for sending their daughter to a high school (lycée), which was considered inappropriately ambitious: people of their class typically sent their children to school only until their early teens, and out in the workforce as soon as possible. Had Baptiste and Germaine somehow brought this on themselves? And how could they not know that their teenage daughter was seeing men?

These questions allow me to explore the educational and sexual norms for girls of different classes at the time—for instance by comparing Violette’s experiences with those of an upper-class contemporary, the future philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir.

Another “wide angle” of the book is the question of social class in Paris at the time. When Violette ventured out into the city and met people—men especially—she told lies about her background. She pretended to be an upper-class girl, told people that her father was an engineer, that her mother worked for the fashion designer Paquin, that she had a rich aunt who lived in a hotel. When she was on the lam she invented for herself a aristocratic identity as “Christian d’Arfeuil.”

She evidently looked the part, since she wore elegant clothes she bought at the Galeries Lafayette and other ready-to-wear emporia. But did she really fool people? In order to answer that question I explore the nature of class identities at the time. What were the real differences between working class and “bourgeois” people? In what circumstances was it possible to cross that barrier? Was it easier for women than for men?

One of the book’s sections is about women and fashion: what women of different classes wore, and how class differences in fashion were blurring for the first time in this period.

Other themes in the book have to do with crime and the avant-garde in this period. 1933 was a year of extraordinary crimes in France. The other most famous case of that year was the crime of the Papin sisters, a pair of maids in a provincial town who suddenly, for no apparent reason, slaughtered their mistress and her daughter in a spectacularly savage way. Another big case involved the murder of a prominent gay nightclub owner, Oscar Dufrenne, by a young man wearing a sailor costume whom the police took months to track down. What was the meaning of the “culture of crime” in this period? Why were contemporaries apparently more interested in these kinds of seedy tales than in alarming developments on the international scene?

One group of people who had a special interest in crime was the Surrealists. Some of the most prominent Surrealists working in France—Paul Éluard, Salvador Dalì, Man Ray, and others, headed by André Breton—put together a volume of poems and art-work in her honor. It was published in Belgium and banned in France—no doubt because they were the only group to proclaim their belief in her story of incest.

The poems in the volume are a cry of outrage at what they saw as the metaphorical “gang rape” of this young girl by her father, the judges and officials, and ultimately by the state. This coterie of artists and writers, had come to the defense of female criminals in the past, and they were gripped by Violette’s story. Their involvement allows me to draw connections between the lives of ordinary people and the avant-garde in interwar Paris.

My book is powered by the story of the case, and I weave all of these contextual matters into the twists and turns of the affair.

July 18, 2011

A close-up

A chapter that I hope readers will find as exciting to read as I did to write is entitled “Letters to the Judge.”

In the French criminal justice system, the initial investigation of a case is carried out entirely by the juge d’instruction (investigating magistrate), who therefore has great power to shape the story. In this case, people from all over France wrote letters to Judge Edmond Lanoire, either to give him tips or to share their views of the case and try to influence him.

These letters are a really unique source of information on attitudes towards this case and larger matters of sex, family, education and other things among ordinary French people at the time. Men and women wrote to the judge to give their opinion of Violette (cold-hearted spoiled child or victim?), her parents (were they to be pitied, or somehow blamed?), and especially her explosive charge of incest.

Several of the most extraordinary letters came from women who were themselves victims of paternal incest. They begged the judge to believe Violette, and in doing so told the stories of their own lives. One of the letters is barely literate, written by a woman from a peasant family in pencil on a sheet of wrapping paper. In other parts of the book I address the question of whether Violette’s claims about her father were likely true. But in this chapter I dwell on how society at the time dealt with this “unspeakable” matter.

Incest was the central mystery in the case, but not the only one. After Violette committed her crime it was widely assumed that her motive was money: her parents had carefully saved up a lot of money which she was set to inherit if they “committed suicide.”

Violette countered that she did not need money because she had a “protector,” a sixty-year-old gentleman who for a few months had been taking her out to restaurants and shows and giving her money—though he did not, she said, ask for sex in return. She knew him as Monsieur Émile and gave the police precise details about his car, his appearance, and where he said he lived. The police never found him, though many clues suggest he did exist; they may not have tried very hard because he was a person of some importance whose privacy needed to be protected.

Parisians were obsessed with Monsieur Émile, and many letters that came in to the judge were tips about his possible identity and whereabouts. A persistent rumor began to circulate that this Émile was Violette’s biological father. In that case, was she still guilty of parricide, and was the incest, if it happened really incest? These are the sorts of issues that people pored over in their letters, hashed out in cafés, stores, and with their neighbors.

I end the book with the surprising stories of what happened to all the main characters during and after Violette’s trials. I believe that the power of this case came from the fact that despite judicial resolution it was never really settled in people’s minds.

“I believe that the power of this case came from the fact that despite judicial resolution it was never really settled in people’s minds.”


Why should the story of Violette Nozière matter to us?

First of all, it’s a great story, both a mystery with many surprising characters and twists (including the story of what finally happened to Violette) and a “tale of the city” about Paris in 1933.

It should matter because it loomed so large to Parisians at the time that they sometimes compared its impact (with some exaggeration, to be sure) to that of the Dreyfus case.

I argue that the case grabbed people’s attention in part because incest and parricide are mythical themes: for contemporaries the story evoked the French fairy tale “Donkey Skin” in which a beautiful princess runs away from home under the skin of an ass, and then dons various disguises to escape the father who wants to marry her.

At the same time, it is a case rooted in the particulars of time and place—the sort of story that allows readers to get a very concrete and detailed sense of what life was like for Parisians of different classes in the 1930s.

I hope my book reveals many aspects of Paris in the thirties that have been obscured by our retrospective obsession with the origins of World War II, the stories of ordinary people struggling to get by on the margins in the City of Light.

© 2011 Sarah Maza
Sarah Maza Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris University of California Press 352 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 0520260702

Sarah Maza is Jane Long Professor of History at Northwestern University. Besides the book on Violette Nozière, featured in her Rorotoko interview, she is the author of Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Célèbres of Pre-Revolutionary France (California, 1993), The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary (Harvard, 2003), and other writing on French history from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Sarah Maza has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Humanities Center, Guggenheim Foundation, and Wilson Center among others, has twice been a visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and is a past President of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Cover Interview of
July 18, 2011