Hanau, Marthe (c. 1884–1935)

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Hanau, Marthe (c. 1884–1935)

French confidence woman who was extremely intelligent and just as notorious. Born in Paris, France, around 1884; died in Paris on July 19, 1935; married Lazare Bloch (a businessman), in 1908 (divorced); no children.

France's notorious Marthe Hanau was said to have been outdone only by the prince of swindlers, Serge Alexandre Stavisky, who stole close to ten billion francs and caused the February riots of 1934, in which 14 people lost their lives. By comparison, Hanau only bilked 150 million francs from her victims, seven of whom quietly took their own lives because of their losses.

Marthe Hanau was born in Paris around 1884. Little is known of her father; her mother was the proprietor of a small but profitable baby-clothes shop in Montmartre. Well educated, Hanau showed an early propensity for mathematics. At 24, she married Lazare Bloch; "the kind of fellow," she noted, "who could sell peanuts to the Pope." Within the course of the next 20 years, he managed to go through her dowry of 300,000 francs, forcing the couple into bankruptcy. Divorcing Bloch, Hanau opened a perfume and soap shop but was soon bored by the beauty business. Hatching a scheme to capitalize on France's postwar money woes, in 1925 she opened a so-called investment house, where she employed her ex-husband, with whom she remained on friendly terms. In addition to brokering, Hanau published the famous Gazette du Franc, a tipster's sheet in which she promoted herself as a staunch supporter of the French franc and French investments, as opposed to her competitors who marketed English and American enterprises. As her stature grew, Hanau hired a new editor for the Gazette, respected journalist Pierre Audibert, a former political protégé of Premier Édouard Herriot. Under the supervision of his new boss, Audibert went to work on a special issue of the Gazette honoring the work of Frank Billings Kellogg, the American diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929, for negotiating a pact outlawing war as a national policy. Through his political connections, Audibert obtained signed photographs and letters from leading political and public figures of France and Europe, which he printed along with announcements of Hanau's various investment opportunities. Because of Audibert's political connections with Herriot, he was able to frank (mail free of charge) the Kellogg issue to European ambassadors as well as to every schoolteacher in France. Although the diplomats saw the picture spread in the Gazette as political advertising, the schoolteachers believed that the public figures pictured were endorsing Hanau's projects along with world peace, and began sending her their hard-earned money.

Hanau's rise was meteoric. By 1928, she was presiding over the Compagnie Générale Financière et Foncière, with impressive new offices on the Rue de Provence. Calling her business "a center of brokerage operations and administration of capital," she employed 450 local residents and 175 agents operating throughout France. Working 10-to-15 hours a day, Hanau advised 60,000 investors (mostly schoolteachers, clergy, widows, retirees, and small business owners), ran several syndicates, and published two daily customers' sheets. Using the Gazette to attack big business, Hanau came to be seen by her investors as a champion of the small entrepreneur who was being squeezed out by the devalued franc and postwar industrialization. "Her relations with her readers and investors became half avuncular, half demagogic," writes Janet Flanner in Paris was Yesterday. "Being a dominant personality, she was obeyed as if she were a man; being a woman, she was loved as if she were a friend." Her clients often sent gifts of baked goods and knitted wear along with their investment checks.

Hanau was generous with her profits, buying expensive gifts for her friends and giving away money to the needy. Although she dressed in oversized schoolgirl black dresses and lived in a modest suburban villa on the outskirts of Paris, she indulged in cars, expensive jewelry, and sable coats and purportedly kept a half-million francs in her checking account. While Hanau's coffers swelled, the French government became increasingly alarmed. Savings banks were reporting large withdrawals; at one point, it was estimated that 600 billion francs had been given to Hanau for speculation. Furthermore, there were rumors of bribery between Bloch and some of the government officials who had appeared in the Kellogg edition of the Gazette.

On December 3, 1928, after a special Cabinet meeting was held to discuss her case, Hanau was arrested on charges of swindling, abuse of confidence, and infraction of corporate laws. She was taken to Saint-Lazare Prison, while her ex-husband Bloch and editor Audibert, booked as accomplices, were incarcerated at La Santé Prison. Hanau's offices were seized, her promotion schemes uncovered as dummies, and her investment syndicates declared bogus. Her complicated trial, beginning early in 1929 with a 16-month preliminary "instruction," went on for close to two years, during which time the public was as shocked about the government's complicity and corruption as they were by Hanau's crimes. During the trial's first two weeks, the Hanau suicides began—hangings, drownings, guns to the head, all involving distraught victims of Madame's business practices. Denied bail, Hanau went on a protest hunger strike. On the 25th day, when she was brought to the prison's hospital ward for forced feeding, she escaped through a window, sliding down a sheet that had been tied to a radiator by her devoted maid during a prison visit. Returning to prison on her own after only an evening of freedom, Hanau, close to death, was finally released on 800,000 francs, half of which was raised by some of her still devoted clients, who by now began to view her as a martyr.

Due to her weakened condition, Hanau's "real" trial was delayed until October 1930. It was five months in duration and, according to Flanner, was totally dominated by Hanau, who shouted herself hoarse in her defense, often leaving her lawyer standing idly by. On March 28, 1931, despite her pleas, Hanau was pronounced guilty and sentenced to two years in prison and fined 3,000 francs and costs of half a million. Her ex-husband, Bloch, got 18 months, and Audibert was acquitted. (Upon receiving the news, he suffered a heart attack and died.)

Six months later, Hanau successfully appealed her sentence, left prison, and promptly opened another brokerage house which remained in business until 1934, when her appeal was finally heard. Publishing a customers' sheet called Le Secret des Dieux, Hanau attracted 2,000 investors who paid 2,000 francs each for her predictions from the "gods." Surprisingly accurate in determining stock market swings, Hanau also profited by "going short," holding back money and buying stocks at a lower price than her customers thought she had paid for it.

By the time the Paris Court of Appeals got around to dealing with Hanau's case, she had aged considerably and could barely walk, due to a leg injury sustained in an automobile accident. Given an augmented sentence of a year in prison, she again appealed, but lost a second time. In February 1933, she was taken to the Prison de Fresnes, where she poisoned herself six months later. In a farewell note to her lawyers, Hanau, who had busied herself reading Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, denounced the pursuit of riches that had dominated and corrupted her life. "I'm sick of money—money has crushed me," she wrote. "The thought of earning money fills me with horror and perhaps impotence." Declaring herself finally at peace, she continued, "I desire that mercenary hands should burn my body and the ashes be cast to the four winds." Unfortunately, it was illegal in France at the time for anyone dying by violent means to be cremated, so Hanau was laid to rest in Montparnasse Cemetery. In attendance at the burial were her ex-husband, her loyal maid, and a half-dozen former investors.

sources:

Flanner, Janet. Paris was Yesterday. NY: Viking, 1972.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Hanau, Marthe (c. 1884–1935)

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