Remember “Monsieur Verdoux,” Charlie Chaplin’s marriage swindler? Meet his real-life model, Henri Desire Landru.
“Landru -- 6H10 -- Clear Sky,” the title of the show at the Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris, is a quote from the diary of Anatole Deibler, the executioner who guillotined him on Feb. 25, 1922.
The diary is one of the items on display along with police files, court records, photographs of the killer, his victims, photographs of the crime scenes and the trial transcripts.
Old newspaper front pages remind us this was one of the most spectacular trials of the 20th century, not least because of the remarkable sangfroid of the accused: When a lady couldn’t find a seat in the audience, Landru rose to his feet and politely offered her his seat in the dock.
You look in vain, however, for the most important exhibits in the trial -- Landru’s notebooks containing the names of the 169 ladies with whom he corresponded and the oven in which he burned his 11 victims.
Landru, who was born in 1869, started his criminal career with minor swindles and forgeries which earned him seven prison sentences. When he was not locked up, he seems to have been an exemplary husband and doting father to his four children.
During World War I, Landru discovered a new field of activity. While an entire generation of men fought in the trenches, got mutilated and killed, he found a way to exploit the women left behind.
Under various pseudonyms, he placed marriage advertisements in newspapers, presenting himself as a widower “with comfortable income, affectionate, serious and moving in good society.”
A police document in the show lists 14 of the names he used in his vast correspondence.
Whenever a lady seemed worthwhile, he proposed to her and invited her to join him, along with her savings and belongings, in his isolated house outside Paris -- first the “Lodge” in Vernouillet, then the “Ermitage” in Gambais.
Later, a ticket agent recalled that Landru always bought a return ticket for himself and a one-way ticket for his companion.
In April 1919, Landru was arrested after the sister of one of the vanished ladies had recognized him with a new bride in a Paris shop.
It took more than two years before the trial opened because police were unable to uncover bodies or remains of his victims. What they found, however, were plenty of their clothes, furniture and personal papers left behind.
His neighbors confirmed that around the time when the brides disappeared, Landru’s chimney had issued putrid black smoke.
Confronted with the evidence, Landru pretended that the ladies had “gone south” to begin a new life, leaving their belongings in his care. He challenged his accusers by saying “If I killed those women, show me the corpses!”
Most of the time, though, he remained silent. He seemed to believe that, without the bodies, he couldn’t be convicted.
He was mistaken.
The exhibition runs through Sept. 15. Information: http://www.museedeslettres.fr.
Don’t forget to also have a look at the museum’s permanent collection which includes letters by Napoleon to Josephine, by Chopin to George Sand, Alfred Hitchcock’s storyboard for “Stage Fright” and Eisenhower’s telegram informing the Supreme Command that the “Mission of the Allied Forces was fulfilled 02h1, local time, May 7th, 1945.”
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include James Russell on architecture, Martin Gayford on European art and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.