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I BELIEVE IN equal opportunity for men and women. Thus, when I learned from The New Yorker about a “woman, with vulgar, virile gestures,…and a fulminating vocabulary and voice, both indicative of a crass energy on which she had built her career,” I wanted to learn more about this con femme extraordinaire. “Femme,” because she was indeed the French equivalent of her 1920s era’s American Charles Ponzi or the more recent Bernie Madoff: a devisor of an immense swindle of duped investors.
In its online Annals of Crime series, The New Yorker offers Janet Flanner’s “The Swindling Presidente,” originally published August 19, 1939. Like so many pieces in The New Yorker, the article is replete with quotable tidbits, my favorites of which I share here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow.
Marthe’s Background. Flanner wrote, “Marthe Hanau was born Parisian, commercial-minded and respectable.” Her mother had owned a small Montmartre baby-clothes shop called La Layette Pour F. 8.45.
“Though the profit was slight—one of everything an infant needed for $1.69 took close figuring even in those days,” Flanner noted. Nevertheless, in 1908 Marthe’s mother was able to give her a dot (dowry) of F. 300,000 when “at the age of twenty-four, she married Lazare Bloch, a handsome callow suitor whose family had done nicely in the jute business. By the time he and his wife arrived in the Correctional Courts twenty years later, they were divorced but still inseparable.”
La Cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.—mathematician Blaise Pascal, 1623–1662.
Marthe’s Ex-husband. “Bloch,” Flanner wrote, “described himself to the judge as ‘the kind of fellow who could sell peanuts to the Pope.’ Police records showed that the only thing he ever sold was a bottled refreshment called the Tube du Soldat and described on the label as ‘Café et Rhum,’ an unholy fraud palmed off on soldiers during the war. Because he omitted the word ‘imitation,’ Bloch was arrested for misrepresentation of merchandise.”
Marthe’s Curiosity. Flanner noted that Marthe “had been educated to be a schoolteacher and had taken a first prize in mathematics; her brain had a native preoccupation with, and a fabulous memory for, figures.… She had learned through her ex-husband’s mishandling of their little fortunes how money could be lost on stocks; she was curious to know how it could be gained.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll learn how Marthe’s curiosity was satisfied—to the tune of 155,971,000 francs. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020