A Neighborhood in Paris
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 of the city, both physically and metaphorically: the stages of Montmartre, the theaters and couture houses of the Right Bank, the publishing offices and literary salons of the Latin Quarter. To understand the world that created an obscure young woman like Violette Nozière, we must first move out of the center of Paris and travel east to a neighborhood where, in the 1930s, famous people and tourists never set foot.
Violette and her parents lived in the twelfth arrondissement, a district on the southeastern edge of the city. Moving east from Notre Dame and the heart of Paris past the Place de la Bastille, one crosses the oldest and most famous working-class district, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Saint-Antoine is where joiners, cabinetmakers, goldsmiths, tanners, and other skilled artisans took to the streets in July 1789 to besiege a hated prison-fortress, the Bastille, and tear it down stone by stone. Farther east is the twelfth arrondissement. The district became part of Paris only in 1860, an item in Baron Haussmann's plan to expand, unify, and recast the city into a marvel of modern urbanism. After presiding over the 1853 completion of Paris's biggest railway station, the Gare de Lyon, Haussmann took over the villages of Bercy and Picpus, which lay east of the station on the way to the castle and woods of Vincennes. The area that Baron Haussmann's plans gobbled up was still mostly composed of farms and convents into which the city's violent history had only once notoriously intruded. During the Revolution, the bodies and severed heads of some thirteen hundred of the guillotine's victims-nobles, priests, nuns, and commoners-were tossed into pits in the burial grounds of a convent in Picpus, and sometime later the remains of one of the heroes of that time, the Marquis de Lafayette, were interred nearby. In the decades after 1860, boulevards and apartment buildings sprang up where fields had been, but in the early twentieth century farms were still numerous in the area, and many inhabitants got their milk straight from a nearby cow. As late as the 1950s, some streets had no sidewalks, cars were few, and horse-drawn carriages were a common sight.
The twelfth was a popular neighborhood but not a poor one. Wretched poverty could still be found in the northern areas of the city, in the heights around and beyond Père Lachaise Cemetery, where factory workers put in backbreaking days and got drunk at night, and whole families lived in roach-infested flophouses known as garnis. Belleville, la Goutte d'Or, and other northern districts had earned a place in the mythology of revolution when their most radical inhabitants poured south to reclaim the city during the Paris Commune of 1871, eventually setting aflame monuments in the heart of Paris. For many in those areas, daily wages barely covered the cost of rent and food. But the city contained even greater degrees of poverty. In the 1930s Paris was ringed by shantytowns, in the area known as la zone. In the no-man's-land where the city walls had been torn down, hundreds of jobless and marginally employed people lived in shacks within a subculture, the world of the "fortifications" or fortifs, rife with addiction and violence. "A stench comes out of this strange country," wrote a contemporary, "which, at the gates of the most refined city on earth, offers a sprawling spectacle of a regression to savage life."
A far cry from all this, the douzième was a "good" neighborhood of working-class and lower-middle-class families with its own set of distinctive cultures. Down by the river in Bercy stood the great wine depots for the city of Paris, where reds and whites from all over France were unloaded from trains and barges, then barreled, bottled, and shipped into the city and farther afield. The Bercy men started work at daybreak after an alcoholic breakfast, and paused midmorning to cook the huge steaks known as entrecôtes de Bercy and drink some more. At lunchtime, female office workers hurried to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the ever-inebriated depot men. At night hobos roamed around drilling holes in the barrels, filling up on high-octane Algerian reds. There were a few small factories in the area, such as the tobacco manufacturer's on the Rue de Charenton, where women known locally as "Carmens" rolled cigars.
Mostly, people worked at steady, respectable jobs in workshops, offices, and stores. In the summer, kids swam off the quays of the Seine, buying horse-meat sausages for a snack when they had a few coins; in the winter, they played on the ramps and staircases of the train stations. On Sundays, families went for a stroll in the Bois de Vincennes, where you could play tennis, as Violette and her father did, by stretching a string between two trees. The arrondissement had fifteen cinemas, which drew gaggles of children on Thursdays when school was out, families and young couples on the weekends. Sometimes the people of Picpus or Bercy took the metro or tramway into the heart of the city, to a world so distinct from their own that they often said, "We're going to Paris." For the most part they remained in a district that was very much its own world, a village on the edge of the big city. As Albert Tourneux, who grew up not far from the Nozières early in the century, put it proudly, "I was born on Rue Crozatier. I went two hundred meters to school, three hundred to go work, four hundred to get married. I married a girl from Avenue Crozatier. After my service, we went to live on Boulevard Diderot, about one kilometer away. In the neighborhood everyone knew me."
For neighborhood people, major excitement came once a year. During the three weeks after Easter, circus performers and exotic animals took over the enormous Place de la Nation (formerly Place du Trône) at the northern end of the district, drawing crowds from all over the city. The extravaganza known as the Foire du Trône claimed origins in the twelfth century, when the monks from a local abbey held a yearly sale of spiced pastries, but the fair had really taken off in the nineteenth century as a post-Lent blowout for the Parisian working classes. Esmeralda, "queen of the gypsies," opened the fair in a crown and white dress, riding sidesaddle on a horse; in the following weeks, over two thousand acrobats, jugglers, and animal tamers showed off their skills amid a profusion of food and drink. A leading draw until her death in 1929 was the entertainer known as La Goulue ("the She-Glutton"), once immortalized in posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, who now eked out a scanty living as a dancer-cum-lion-tamer. One woman from the twelfth remembered going to the fair every afternoon as a child to watch the parades with her uncle, enjoying an event "that seemed natural, integrated into the life of the neighborhood." She was surprised that some of her friends were not allowed to do the same: "That is how I learned about social cleavages: there were those who went to the Foire du Trône, and those who did not."
More than the wine depots or the fair, however, the institution that gave the twelfth its identity was the railway. Between the wars the district was home to several smaller railway stations-at Bastille, along the quays at Bercy and La Rapée-all of them dwarfed by France's most famous train station, the Gare de Lyon. Located at the western edge of the arrondissement, the Gare de Lyon had opened under Napoleon III and reached its pinnacle in 1900, when the huge, ornate Art Nouveau building we know today was opened to coincide with Paris's Universal Exposition.
As the hub of France's north-south line, the Gare de Lyon was not just a national railway station but an international one. In pre-World War II Europe, if one traveled by train from London to Nice, Antwerp to Madrid, Berlin to Rome, the route would almost inevitably go through it. Before 1937, France's railways were in the hands of six private companies, the largest of which, based in the Gare de Lyon, had a name that said it all: Paris-Lyon-Marseille. The PLM owned the line that linked France's three biggest and richest cities, its locomotives chugging south along the country's oldest trade route, the Rhône valley. Inside the Gare de Lyon, one can still admire, adorning the famous turn-of-the-century brasserie Le Train Bleu, splendid murals showing the cities served by the PLM on the banks of the mighty Rhône and the shores of the Mediterranean. At the other end of the line, the Saint-Charles station in Marseille, with its monumental staircase and statues of nude women representing France's colonies, was planned as a southern echo of the great Parisian station.
The twelfth arrondissement was shaped, in large part, by movement into the city: barges docking at the quays, trains shrieking into the stations. A large part of its population was made up of railway workers and their families, people of modest origins born outside Paris, for whom a job with the PLM and a move to the big city offered a way out of provincial poverty. Germaine and Jean-Baptiste Nozière were among them.
Germaine Hézard did not work for the railway company; she married into it. Germaine was born in 1888 in the small town of Neuvy on the Loire River, just over a hundred miles south of Paris. The Hézards had lived in Neuvy for generations, as had other large local peasant families, such as the Boutrons and the Desbouis. Germaine's mother, Philomène, born in 1849, was a Boutron. When she was twenty-one, she and her husband, Alcime Hézard, had a daughter, also named Philomène, who married a Desbouis. Their daughter was an only child until nineteen years later. In 1889, having perhaps become careless about contraception, they had another daughter, to whom they gave the much more fashionable name Germaine. Germaine grew up like an only child in what must have been a poor family. Her father worked the land, though the 1906 census listed him as a roadworker. Her mother had no official occupation, but probably toiled in and out of the house all of her life. In 1926, widowed and living with her in-laws, the seventy-seven-year-old continued to work as a day laborer. When Germaine was eighteen and still living with her parents, she was a seamstress, probably taking in commissions at home.
Neuvy had a little over fourteen hundred inhabitants in 1901 and two hundred fewer in 1931. It was a poor place but not an isolated one, located on one of France's main thoroughfares. A river village on the Loire, Neuvy was once a postal relay on the ancient highway from Paris to Antibes. During the interwar years, trucks and cars whizzed by on the Nationale 7, as did trains on the PLM line. Neuvy had never been cut off from the rest of France, and especially not from national politics-for one thing, its inhabitants, unlike those of most French villages, had long spoken French rather than a local dialect. The Nièvre Department in which it is located has a tradition of leftism stretching back to the Revolution. In 1789 Neuvy had a National Guard unit, in 1792 a Popular Society that decreed the local church was now a "temple of Reason," and in 1793 a Surveillance Committee that promised "the death of tyrants and the execution of despots." In 1851 the inhabitants of Neuvy rose up with the rest of the French Left against Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1871 they hoisted a red flag in sympathy with the Paris Commune, and throughout the twentieth century Socialist candidates in the area regularly trounced their right-wing opponents.
Within the community, however, things changed slowly, with opportunities gradually contracting. Neuvy had once been famous for its pottery, but mass production had killed the craft. Located next to Burgundy, the area traditionally boasted great wine; vine growers still assembled every year in Neuvy to celebrate their patron, Saint Vincent, by ceremonially sucking on a Gamay-soaked vine stock and partying their way though a hundred-liter barrel over a couple of days. The Boutrons and Hézards still worked the vine, but that trade had been hit hard by the last century's phylloxera epidemic; by 1900 there were only a couple dozen small vine growers left in the village. In the late nineteenth century, a man named Fougerat had opened a rubber factory, so Neuvy now had a few industrial workers, but for most of the unskilled, there was little besides hard, unprofitable work on the land. A child who did well in school and whose parents could afford to keep him there longer than age twelve might aspire to the most coveted situation: steady employment with the post office or the railway. With options so limited and with river, rail, and road so close, it is hardly surprising that the more enterprising ended up in Paris.
Germaine left Neuvy twice. At age eighteen, she escaped the drudgery of sewing at home by wedding a man named Louis Arnal, a gilder whom she followed to Paris. The marriage lasted only thirteen months, reportedly because Arnal started seeing an old girlfriend. She returned to Neuvy for a while, then moved back to Paris, where she managed a wine store. Germaine Hézard was tall and elegant with pale skin, brown hair, and a classically handsome face, and her status as an "experienced" divorcee probably added to her allure. In June 1913 she met Jean-Baptiste Nozière, whom everybody called Baptiste. There was nothing remarkable about Baptiste's looks: he was on the short side, with thinning hair, a weak chin, and a hangdog expression that his full mustache only accentuated. He came from even poorer peasant stock than Germaine. But he had one big thing going for him: a high-paying, stable job as an engine driver for the PLM.
If you follow the Loire River several hundred miles south from Neuvy, upstream, you get to the part of Auvergne called the Haute-Loire, in the heart of France's central mountain range, the Massif Central. Here Baptiste was born in 1885 in a village called Prades. With a population of around three hundred at the turn of the century, Prades made Neuvy look downright cosmopolitan. A journalist in 1933 described the hamlet as nestled in "a desolate setting of arid hills, its fifty houses with red-tiled roofs dwarfed by a haughty rock that bears the ruins of an ancient seigneurial chateau." The village stood in a gorge of the Allier River, a tributary of the Loire, which ran through a jagged volcanic plateau. Down in the riverbed, land was scarce and poor, and to make matters worse, the river regularly overflowed when the snows melted, laying waste the crops. It was all the local farmers could do to grow enough barley, rye, and potatoes to survive on. Rough bread, cabbage, and the lard from a few pigs barely fed the population through long, snowbound winters.
Prades was located in one of those areas that urban visitors at the turn of the century considered barely French. While most of the locals understood the French language, they spoke the local patois, a mixture of Provençal and Auvergnat dialects. Stocky and weather-burned, they wore a distinctive costume, the men in wide breeches, striped waistcoats, and broad-brimmed felt hats, which they took off only to sleep, the women in headscarves topped with a smaller version of the felt hat, and clogs on everyone's feet. Clothes were washed as they had been for centuries, scrubbed with ashes twice a year. Houses were more like huts, small and dark with scant light and heat provided by smoky peat fires. Floods ate away at the feet of the rare pieces of furniture, so everything of value had to be stowed high up. The writer George Sand, who visited the area in the mid-nineteenth century, told of the suffocating stench she encountered in one such hut, where every piece of clothing and every item of food was hung from the ceiling, sweat-soaked hose and rotting sausage alike. An image of the Virgin or of the Sacred Heart usually hung on one of the walls, but Catholic devotion coexisted with witches and soothsayers in many places, and adults as well as children feared the loup-garou, the wolf from hell who roamed at night with his diabolical lupine acolytes. Many adults died young, and when a child got sick, you didn't fetch a doctor. How would you pay him, since there was no trade and therefore no money? Only women could earn a pittance in the scant daylight hours of the winter months. They made lace as they had for generations, juggling spools over a frame to produce intricate creations, breathtaking designs floating on invisible backgrounds that would be scooped up for a few coins by a traveling leveur de dentelles once the roads became passable. Unlike the people of Neuvy, the inhabitants of places like Prades, isolated and focused on survival, neither knew nor cared about politics, and the revolutions, empires, and republics of the nineteenth century passed by mostly unnoticed.
The men in Prades worked their smallholdings, even when they listed another occupation, such as grocer or innkeeper or, in the case of Baptiste's father, baker. Félix Nozière, born in 1858, came from Saint-Julien, an equally tiny place a couple of miles downstream. His mother, whose name is recorded as Naugère, had conceived him out of wedlock "of father unknown," then found a husband. In January 1884, twenty-six-year-old Félix, a rural laborer, a bastard child raised by his stepfather, married seventeen-year-old Marie-Constance Bernard from Prades. They had three children, the oldest of whom, Baptiste, was born a year into their marriage.
Baptiste seems to have distanced himself emotionally as well a physically from his family over the course of his life. His mother had died by the time he reached adulthood, and his sister, Marie-Juliette, five years his junior, figured nowhere in his life. Was she dead too, or married and living elsewhere? His brother wed a woman also named Marie, and the young couple lived with the widowed Félix. Baptiste's younger brother went off to war in 1914 never to return, and Marie continued to live with her father-in-law. It was no doubt a sensible arrangement: Félix needed someone to keep house, and it must have been difficult in those years for a woman either to remarry or to survive on her own. Whatever really went on between Félix and this Marie thirty years his junior, their cohabitation fueled much village gossip and was later to lead to a rift between the baker and his oldest son.
Life in Prades and Saint-Julien was grim, escape routes few. But Baptiste Nozière had an odd manner of fairy godmother looking out for him even before his birth. When Félix and Marie-Constance wed in January 1884, three of their witnesses were rural laborers who could barely scrawl something resembling a signature. The fourth was a railway employee from distant Langeac who signed his name, Pierre Plantin, with labored elegance, all curlicues and paraphs. Thirteen months later another railway worker served as witness on Baptiste's record of birth. There was nothing unusual about a poor peasant couple inviting men of higher status-literate folks with enviable jobs-to serve as witnesses, but it is also tempting to see in these choices a harbinger of Baptiste's later trajectory. A railway ran past Prades and Saint-Julien, just as it did by Neuvy.
The line was built in the 1860s by the PLM company, first cutting westward into the Massif Central from Lyon to the major towns of Saint-Étienne and Le Puy. Another line, completed in 1870, crossed the region from northwest to south, part of it running along the gorges of the Allier past Prades and stopping in Saint-Julien. An old-timer living in a nearby village remembered the arrival in the 1860s of men who dynamited their way through the mountains: "They were hard workers and brought some life into the village. They danced, smoked, drank. Some of them married girls from the Auvergne." But she also recalled resistance to the building of a station from villagers who feared it would "disturb their habits." Peasants said the smoke would kill their crops and the coals set fire to the fields, and anyway since they had no money to take the train, they didn't see the point of it. They did get the point eventually, especially when railways brought status to the village and work to the luckiest among them.
The few railway jobs available in Prades were hardly glamorous or easy: a handful of men in the village made a living as diggers or road menders for the company. When it came to survival, though, the PLM was surely a safer bet than the local soil and weather; and there were better company jobs out there, in other hamlets and towns. The village schoolteacher must have known to look out for the brightest boys, those who might have a shot at a good job linked to the most striking symbol of the modern world. Though we know nothing of Baptiste's trajectory, we know plenty about what drew boys like him into working for the rail company.
Railway jobs demanded a lot of a man but gave a lot in return. The six companies that the French state took over in 1937 offered many forms of security and, for certain kinds of work, excellent pay, but the company also "owned" your life in a way that comparable jobs did not. The world of rail companies was huge-about four hundred thousand workers in the early twentieth century-and far more complex than the "workers and bosses" structure of other contemporary workplaces. There were roadworkers, ticket controllers, and crossing guards at the bottom, mechanics, maintenance men, firemen, and drivers in the middle, then stationmasters and other bureaucrats, and at the top engineers trained in elite schools.
Railway companies were good to their employees for self-interested reasons. Training a man for the specialized work involved in the running of trains was a long and expensive process, and worker instability had to be avoided for reasons of cost. They recruited young men from the two groups most likely to guarantee loyalty, those whose fathers already worked for the company and provincial peasant boys. Urban workers typically did not apply for railway jobs, nor did the companies especially want them: to have a good career in the railway you had to be willing to be displaced and then submit to the company's erratic schedules and elaborate regulations. City boys were too independent and rebellious, too attached to where they came from, to be worth the training. Baptiste was probably a good student in elementary school, and someone-more likely the schoolteacher than his illiterate father-must have helped him secure a scholarship to continue his postelementary studies in a nearby town in the specialized Arts and Crafts (Arts et Métiers) School, which prepared students for the lower end of the technical professions; Baptiste trained initially as a locksmith.
We can understand Baptiste's origins and experiences through those of a close fictional counterpart, Antoine Bloyé. In 1933, the year of Violette's crime, the novelist Paul Nizan published a fictionalized account, Antoine Bloyé, of the life of his own father, a railwayman who rose to middle-class respectability from poor rural origins. Antoine grows up deep in the countryside in western France, in a village where his father works as a mailman and then a ticket controller for the Paris-Orléans line and his mother does washing for the local bigwigs. Nizan describes the ways in which the railroad disrupted life in the French countryside, opening up a new sense of space, time, and possibilities for youngsters: "More than one country boy is drawn to the chugging of copper-bodied locomotives, to those metal bees buzzing over the decks of the new iron bridges.... One day they pack their bags and make their ways to the towns on the railway line, towns where the Company is hiring." Unlike his sharecropper grandparents or his own brutal and pessimistic father, whom he compares to a goat moving only as far as his tether allows, Antoine understands, thanks to the railway, that his future is not predetermined.
Urged by his primary-school teacher, Antoine gets a scholarship to attend secondary school in a nearby town, in a technical education track. Antoine is not to study Latin or Greek, of course, for what would a worker's boy do with that kind of useless knowledge? The classics were a class marker at the time, and in his first year "Antoine gropingly understands that he will never possess the same passwords and rallying signs" as his wealthier classmates. Even his own curriculum seems strangely irrelevant, since the history and geography he learns, the tragedies of Racine and Corneille he is made to memorize, have nothing to do with "Father's night shift, his cigar smuggling, the steaming blood of butchered pigs ... and cleaning up the crud of rich folks." But he learns to write essays on Pascal and earn prizes, since he "could act the trained monkey as well as the next fellow." Success leads to three years in a craft school in the bigger town of Angers, one of those institutions that "train subaltern officers for the great armies of French industry." Out of trade school, a young man would learn his way around the stations and their great roaring beasts by doing metalwork, then repairing machines before he was allowed to ride and drive them. Antoine spent a few years rusticated in the small city of Tours doing maintenance and repairs before he was sent, as was Baptiste, to headquarters in Paris. The upper end of the workforce, firemen and engine drivers, earned a fixed monthly salary rather than a daily wage, which put them in a league with middle-class workers like civil servants.
Despite the grime on their clothes, engine drivers probably earned more than many white-collar workers: a driver made several times what a beginning office worker did, and that was just in base pay. Railway incomes from that time are difficult to evaluate because the companies controlled their workforce-which was, after all, on the move and away from direct supervision-through a complicated system of bonuses and penalties. There were primes, or bonuses, for timely arrivals, for saving on coal and oil, for the number of kilometers covered. And even before the companies were gobbled up by the French state, they provided better disability and retirement benefits than any other employer at the time. As a young boy from Prades, what better goal than driving an engine? It made the worker part of the labor aristocracy, the job was safe and well-paid, and one had a fair amount of control and autonomy on the job. As a bonus, one got to look like the embodiment of grimy, heroic working-class masculinity, like Jean Gabin in the 1938 movie La Bête humaine. The men who worked on the engines were admiringly called gueules noires, "black mugs," though it must have been a stretch for the mousy-looking Baptiste to live up to the image. Railwaymen could even flex their political muscle for real, by joining, as most railway workers did, one of the two left-wing unions, the Socialist CGT or the Communist CGTU. The age of great railway strikes was over by 1933-the last big one was in 1920-but, as we shall see, the union and party could still do a lot for their members in a time of crisis. Railway work placed an employee securely in the upper tier of the working class and earned enough that workers did not have to fear falling back into the ranks of the real proletariat.
To work for the railways in France between the wars was to enter a distinctive world, one that was privileged, to be sure, but also bureaucratic, paternalistic, and isolating. There were the myriad regulations for every job, and endless paperwork to go with them-workers joked that if they really started following the rules every train in France would come to a stop. The price paid for a good job was isolation, both from one's roots and to some extent from the world at large. Like Baptiste and Antoine, most railway employees-about six in ten-lived and worked far from their provinces of origin. While this may not be unusual in the United States today, it was atypical of French life between the wars, when people expected to live out their lives close to home. In most cases, geographical displacement was compounded by social estrangement, with parents and their better educated children inhabiting different cultural worlds as well. Finally, the men who worked on the trains had odd schedules and shifts that made it difficult to socialize with anybody, much less workers in other occupations. All of this is related to the tragedy that befell the Nozières: whatever pathologies prevailed on the sixth floor of 9 Rue de Madagascar, they were at the very least magnified by the fact that the family lived in a social vacuum.
When Baptiste arrived in Paris, he settled in the twelfth arrondissement, just as the semifictional Antoine did in the thirteenth. Every small or middle-sized town had a "station neighborhood," and in Paris there were two main eastern quartiers de la gare: the one around the Gare de Lyon, just north of the Seine, and to the south a section of the thirteenth around the Gare d'Austerlitz. These neighborhoods were both heavily populated by railway employees, many of them young single men who rented a room, worked hard at the depot, and caroused with their bachelor colleagues when they were off duty. Sex was available from the sort of women who catered to travelers and workers around every railway station. The fictional Antoine made their acquaintance in Tours, "those bare-headed, slipper-wearing girls who paced the endless walls of the railway lines under the green haloes of the gaslights." The women's rooms were in earshot of the engines, they knew the train schedules by heart, and they charged little for their services.
Did Baptiste visit prostitutes? We know little of his life outside work until, at the age of twenty-eight, he met Germaine and moved in with her. Before entering domestic life, he most likely rented a room from a landlady who did his washing and cleaning; he would have been a regular at lunch with other men, ordering the stewed meat with vegetables because it was cheaper than a steak or a cutlet, washing it down with a quarter-liter of red wine, sharing in the sexual or anticlerical banter that would make a whole table of men hoot with laughter: "If a church collapses, you'll only get a bunch of dead ignorants, imbeciles, or crazies!"
Political attitudes in these neighborhoods were divided between traditional left-wing loyalties and truculent skepticism. Railway workers read the Socialist L'Œuvre, the Communist L'Humanité, or the ostensibly apolitical (it hid its right-wing leanings) mass daily Le Petit Parisien. Baptiste, probably a L'Humanité reader, could never have imagined that one day his photograph would appear on the cover of all three. Some workers were naively hopeful: "In the new regime, we will take turns being engineers, stationmasters." Most, according to one observer, signed up with radical parties as a matter of habit and tradition: "They would have been radical [Republicans] forty years ago; they were socialists twenty years ago; they are giving in to Bolshevist pressures today. They're a docile flock." Cynical as it is, this comment accurately describes what we know of Baptiste's politics. He belonged to a Communist trade union, but there is no evidence that his membership amounted to anything more than simply what was expected in the workplace. Nothing suggests that he harbored concerns about anything beyond his job and his family. As one of his colleagues put it after his death, "He was a rose-water Communist who signed up with the party just so they'd give him some peace."
By the 1920s France had been living for half a century under the Third Republic, a heavily parliamentary political system that offered a modicum of stability while its political class lurched from scandal to scandal. In the late 1880s a presidential son-in-law was caught peddling political access from the Élysée palace; in the early 1890s the French learned that deputies were paid off handsomely to support the French company that was planning the Panama Canal; at the turn of the century, the treachery and cover-ups that led to the unjust conviction of the Jewish Captain Dreyfus besmirched the whole French army; in 1899 President Félix Faure died of a stroke in his office, pinning his mistress under his considerable bulk, and in 1914 the wife of center-left politician Joseph Caillaux was acquitted after shooting and killing a newspaper editor who had printed her husband's personal letters. The last great charismatic voice on the left, the socialist Jean Jaurès, who had been calling for the country to resist the rush to armed conflict, was murdered at the end of July 1914, three days before France declared war on Germany. The war left France depopulated and demoralized, and after the Russian Revolution the French Left split in two. Cynicism and disengagement in many quarters may have been inevitable.
Workers in the thirteenth arrondissement were quick to denounce all politicians, especially prominent figures on the left, such as Aristide Briand, Alexandre Millerand, or "that pig of a Caillaux," who got rich playing ball with all those other bigwigs. "Those people, they just used us!" was a typical refrain. "Politics is just a bunch of deal-making. Our sort don't really get it, they don't tell us what's really going on.... Then there's those that want to have a revolution! Well, buddy, I'm not wishing their revolution on you or me or anyone else." As for the unions, they took your money, all right, but where were they when you really needed them? A contemporary described politics in the district as "many indifferents and a few revolutionaries." Things were not very different across the river. Pierre Toulon, born in 1908, son of a factory worker and a concierge in the twelfth arrondissement, looked back on his childhood and said that his father never talked politics, never said whom he voted for: "Actually, I think he didn't give a damn." His wife's brother was a militant Communist, but the rest of her family was equally indifferent: "Dad was sort of a socialist, but he never went on strike.... The truth is, we really weren't that interested." The family read the ostensibly apolitical Le Petit Parisien, which gave pride of place to sensational crimes over worker unrest.
Baptiste built his career in his twenties, rising through the ranks from mechanic to the coveted, well-paid position of engine driver. Only at the age of twenty-eight did he settle down with the handsome twenty-four-year-old divorcee Germaine Hézard. They met as neighbors living on the same landing of a building at 10 Rue Montgallet, very near the Gare de Lyon. In the spring of 1913 Baptiste and Germaine moved from their separate quarters on the sixth floor of the building to a three-room flat on the third floor. They may have encountered some disapproval from the neighbors, but their families were far away and in any case in the French countryside premarital sex and even conception had long been tolerated if the couple was clearly headed for the altar. Pregnancies before marriage were not uncommon among railway couples at the time. Besides, Germaine's divorce did not come through until January 1914. She was four months pregnant when the couple married in their Paris neighborhood on August 17, 1914, two weeks after France entered the war. They returned to Neuvy for the birth, and Germaine's widowed mother was there to welcome the little girl who arrived on January 11, 1915. She was baptized Violette-a flower name, fashionable but not all that common, for a pretty little girl. Only later were some people to see a grim coincidence in the fact that it began with viol, the French word for rape.
Baptiste's job saved him from the killing fields of World War I. The country needed its trains running more than ever now that soldiers and weaponry had to be transported to and from the front. Railway employees usually avoided combat duty, to the annoyance of other workers, who sometimes unfairly branded them as shirkers, planqués. Even if Baptiste had to be away a lot more, the couple and their baby were able to settle into life in a new apartment at 9 Rue de Madagascar.
Rue de Madagascar, about three hundred feet long, is today entirely residential and devoid of street life, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was lined with no less than twenty-five shops. Simone Mayeul, who grew up next door to Violette and her parents, told me there was everything you needed on the street-butchers, grocers, dairy stores, shoemakers, sewing and notions shops. On Tuesdays and Fridays you could go to the big market on Rue de Charenton a few blocks away, but mostly all you might want was right there on the street. Another old-timer confirmed, "Those people lived just about in autarky, with every shop they needed right there. You'd have thought you were in the provinces." Because everyone shopped in the same small emporia, they learned much about each others' business-who was entertaining big, for instance, because they rushed their roasts over to the baker's oven. There was a lot of on-street sociability, especially in the summer months, when people set chairs on the sidewalk to watch the children play; in the evenings groups of men spent hours standing together smoking pipes and talking.
The street was a world unto itself, with its own character and reputation. Rue de Madagascar was "serious," Simone Mayeul insisted, a respectable place, very well considered. With 676 inhabitants in 1931, the street's population was twice the size of Prades', half that of Neuvy's. Germaine and Baptiste were back in a village of sorts, but its inhabitants were city people. The men were railroad employees, office workers, electricians and plumbers, shopkeepers. The women worked as seamstresses, secretaries, or shop attendants, or kept house. "Serious" meant that the street included few factory workers and no bars or prostitutes.
Much can go on, of course, in the tranquil lives of ordinary people on a "serious" street. Take Ernest Landry, a middle-aged grocer on Rue de Madagascar in 1933 who had a lovely wife, Marcelle, and a small daughter. A single woman named Yvonne Mercier began to spend a lot of time in the store chatting with Mme Landry. Yvonne was the object of local gossip because at thirty-four she had neither a husband nor a boyfriend, nor did she project the image of a future old maid. In fact, her "silhouette" was described by local denizens as that of a garçonne, a 1920s-style androgynous flapper-not a common sight in a popular neighborhood. Ernest soon had an unpleasant feeling about Yvonne and his wife's friendship: "The rumor, at first remote, got closer and closer: every day neighbors brought new information that confirmed the abominable truth," and one day Landry caught the two women in flagrante. When-by his account-he asked Yvonne to leave his wife alone, she laughed and taunted him like a film noir villain: "Wherever you go, I'll manage to see her." He shot her with a revolver he had just purchased. The neighborhood closed ranks around the murderer. Yvonne Mercier lived in the same building as the Nozières and was shot two months before Violette committed her crime.
The grocer couple had one child. So did the Nozières, as well as a majority of families in the neighborhood. In 1931, when Violette was sixteen, 9 Rue de Madagascar, a six-floor building with a front and back unit, housed forty families. Eleven of them had a single child; only five had two. The only large brood, the four Maunet boys, belonged to a poor family; their father was a deliveryman. The parents of single children, by contrast, were railway or office workers, or skilled craftsmen: Simone Mayeul next door was the only child of an electrician. The pattern extended to the street as a whole, where in 1931 the dominant family model by far was a couple or a widowed parent with a single child. There were one hundred and six such families on Rue de Madagascar, as opposed to only thirty-four with two or more offspring. Baptiste and Germaine, who practiced birth control by means of coitus interruptus, chose deliberately to have only one child, and in this they were utterly typical of people of their class and time.
In the late nineteenth century, the French stopped having big families: between 1900 and 1939 the population grew only by 3 percent, while that of Germany increased by 36 percent and that of Italy by 33 percent. The First World War compounded a difficult situation: with a million and a half Frenchmen dead and hundreds of thousands incapacitated, many Frenchwomen were unable to marry. But the war alone cannot be blamed for the demographic "hollow years" of the 1930s, since birthrates had dropped precipitously starting in the 1890s, especially in cities. Suddenly poorer people had started behaving like richer folks and limiting births for the sake of a better life. A third or more of the families of craftsmen, railway workers, office workers of both sexes, and generally families where women went out to work at better jobs chose to have only one child; only a tiny proportion had more than two. Even for factory workers, the average number of children per family was slightly under two.
There were probably many reasons why a couple like the Nozières decided to have only one child. For one thing, there was nobody to forbid it: even practicing Catholics in France had few qualms about birth control, and nothing suggests that the Nozières were religious. Most of all, the motive seems to have been social ambition. With Baptiste expecting to earn good money, there would be no need to send children out to work in their teens; on the contrary, it would be best to have one child, so you could comfortably support a lengthy course of studies and bask in the reflected glory of having raised a teacher, doctor, or engineer. Even a girl could enter the professions, and if she did not, with a good education and a dowry she might snare a well-heeled son-in-law.
Yet another reason to have a single child was a severe lack of space, a common problem in Paris at this time. Nine Rue de Madagascar is made up of two buildings separated by an inner courtyard, each composed of six floors with three flats per floor. The Nozières moved into a cramped two-room apartment on the sixth floor of the back building, which, over the course of the investigation, was to become the best known flat in Paris. A tiny entrance hall opened to the right onto a front room taken up by a dining-room set-table, chairs, and sideboard-in the heavy, faux-Renaissance style popular then in the middle classes (fig. 1). The back room, where the couple slept, was similarly crammed with furniture: a double bed, a dresser, and a closet fronted by a curtain that the crime was to make notorious. Between the two rooms were a tiny galley kitchen that doubled as a bathroom and an unusual luxury for such a place-the family's toilet (figs. 2 and 3). Violette did not have any space to herself: she slept on a folding cot set up every night in the dining room by the sideboard. Busy wallpaper and the family's decorative possessions-antimacassars, lace curtains, family portraits, and a calendar-add to the claustrophobic feel of the place. Birth control seems an understandable response to these cramped surroundings, which must surely, later on, have exacerbated Violette's feeling of entrapment.[Figure 1] [Figure 2] [Figure 3]
Lack of space was near universal in interwar Paris, which was experiencing a citywide housing shortage. Inflation, long leases, and government-mandated rent control made housing affordable but by the same token discouraged both new building and even upkeep by landlords, so that dwellings, even for workers of some means, tended to be small and decrepit. Parisians who grew up between the wars reminisce about folding cots, curtains and screens, and toilets on the landing or outdoors.
Aline Tourneux, the concierge's daughter, recalled sharing the concierge lodge with her parents and sister. The single room contained a big bed, a mirrored armoire, a coal stove, and a table. At night the girls' folding cot went up, as did a screen in front of the parents' bed. There was no water in the lodge: you washed in the courtyard. "We lived on top of each other, but my sister and I never saw anything that might have shocked us. I don't know how my parents managed it." A few blocks away, her future husband lived the same way, sharing a dark two-room flat with his parents and brother: "In the dining room everything folded, I mean the table for meals and the cot where my brother and I slept, as the room was very small." If you needed to wash, you went to the nearby public showers. Similarly, a woman in the neighboring eleventh recalled an apartment much like the Nozières': thirty-three square meters for a family of four, a minuscule kitchen, and a toilet but no bathroom. The girls shared a folding bed in a room as wide as the span of one's arms. "We had no shower. In those days if you'd had one put in, it would have been pretty darn expensive for one thing, and then we would have seemed pretentious."
Like their neighbors, the Nozières led a life that was cramped, modest, and economical. They were reasonably well off and could have been more so had Germaine gone back to work, as did so many women in her situation. Six out of ten single French women worked at the time, as did four out of ten wives, a higher proportion than anywhere else in Europe. Germaine chose, however, to remain a housewife. Her choice was dictated by both logistics and tradition. The wives of engine drivers were usually, like Germaine, of very modest origins: they came from villages or small towns, most often from peasant families, and had worked as seamstresses, domestics, or laundresses. Almost always, they stopped working after marriage, even before having children, and they rarely took a job after the kids were grown. Their husbands' schedules were erratic, and custom decreed that a woman had to be home to feed her man, no matter what. Since their families of origin were far away and their husbands traveled for days at a time, work and child-rearing together would have been impossible. And then it was custom, the way it had always been for railway families: there was even an expression, faire la cheminote, which referred to staying home if you were married to the rail. On the Rue de Madagascar, there were twenty-three families of PLM workers; only one included a working wife. According to a neighbor, Germaine rarely went out; she "was always doing housework, too much of it really, always throwing dust and shaking rags out the windows."
Though Germaine's stay-at-home status was dictated by her husband's work, there was more to it. The nonworking wife has frequently been a status symbol among the upwardly mobile of modest origins, a sign of the husband's ability to provide, and certainly at the time in France it served as a claim to bourgeois identity. Germaine was an aloof and difficult woman, but some of the hostility she drew in the neighborhood before and in the wake of the crime had to do with her nonworking status. If she was going to be so high and mighty as to stay home without working, shouldn't she have done a better job of raising the girl? Jealousy and resentment in the building and beyond were palpable in the weeks after the crime.
The housebound nature of Germaine's existence balanced her husband's peripatetic job; he was away for days at a time driving engines on the Vichy line. Other than that, the Nozières led a circumscribed life devoid of distractions beyond a Sunday stroll in the Bois de Vincennes and annual summer vacations, courtesy of the PLM, in either Neuvy or Prades. Baptiste did have one hobby: like other senior railwaymen, he grew vegetables in the victory garden bestowed on him by the company near Porte de Charenton at the eastern end of the district.
The policy of giving rail workers access to urban gardens was either a progressive contribution to worker well-being or yet another canny form of paternalistic control. An official of the northern line explained in a 1922 speech that the policy was a way of reconnecting railwaymen from peasant backgrounds with the soil they came from, while providing them with a healthy alternative to bars and other vices: "Nothing has the moralizing force of nature, and I know of no other sport equal to that of gardening.... Don't you believe, gentlemen, that thus we are able to reconcile nature with its most cruel enemy, the railroad?" Symbolically, the railwaymen's gardens acknowledged that the men who worked them were country boys whose jobs had put them on a fast track into the urban future. For all of its consoling power, the garden could not always compensate for the kind of social dislocation that led the fictional Antoine Bloyé eventually to commit suicide. Baptiste loved his garden, loved cultivating vegetables and with them, no doubt, his memories of a hamlet in the mountains of central France. As we shall see, however, there may have been evil slithering across Baptiste Nozière's little patch of Eden.
Germaine and Baptiste Nozière lived in a village in the city, a few miles distant but still far, far away from the skullduggery of Third Republic politics and the Paris of André Gide, Pablo Picasso, and Coco Chanel. When the world came to their doorstep, did they even venture out to explore it? From May to November 1931, the Bois de Vincennes, barely a mile from their apartment, was the site of Paris's huge International Colonial Exposition, timed to coincide with the centennial of France's conquest of Algeria. For six months some eight million visitors, half of them Parisians, came to visit the 272 acres of an extravagant theme park mostly devoted to France's colonial possessions. The centerpiece of the exposition was a huge reproduction, bigger than Paris's own Sacré-Cœur, of the Cambodian Angkor Wat temple. From there you could stroll down a broad and handsome Colonial Avenue to visit a West African village, a Moroccan souk, and a market in Martinique. Nothing that France owned was left out, not even Saint Pierre and Miquelon, represented by a lakeside fisherman's hut and a lighthouse. Other sovereign nations were invited to represent themselves, and although some demurred, Herbert Hoover reluctantly agreed to contribute a replica of Mount Vernon staffed with bewigged extras.
Did the Nozières ever visit the exposition? It would have been hard not to, unless Baptiste was enough of a true believer to heed the Communist Party's call to boycott the extravaganza. Opponents of colonialism were invited instead to an exhibition jointly organized by Communists and Surrealists, "The Truth about the Colonies," which offered photographic evidence of exploitation as well as statues of the Virgin Mary labeled "European Fetishes." The International Colonial Exposition was aimed precisely at people like the Nozières and their neighbors in the twelfth, as a lure away from unpatriotic leftism. The direction of the exposition fell to Marshal Hubert Lyautey, the officer most conspicuously identified with colonial ventures. Before the First World War, Lyautey had served in Indochina, Madagascar, and North Africa, energetically "pacifying" Algerian resistance and maintaining a balance between rival tribes in Morocco. Even with his colonial career behind him, Lyautey seemed unable to kick the habit of pacification, which is why he opted for the exposition's eastern location: the exhibition was designed to bring "social peace" to the working-class districts of eastern Paris by offering them access to the wonders of colonialism and thus diverting them from Communist sympathies.
The Bois de Vincennes, where the colonial exposition took place, marked the eastern end of Paris, the farthest of a series of places on the edge of the city where Violette's journey into notoriety began: Rue de Madagascar and the working-class neighborhoods around it, the Gare de Lyon with its influx of immigrants and travelers, the garden at Porte de Charenton where her father tended his patch of vegetables. In 1933 France's capital was still a constellation of separate neighborhoods, and many Parisians spent their life mostly within the confines of their villagelike quartiers. That was not to be the case for Violette Nozière. Ambition, desire, and a need to escape would eventually make hers a trajectory that embraced a wide span of the city's separate worlds.
Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more