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Ode to La Belle Arlette

A little tale about an antiheroine, a writing prompt, some chocolate-y goodness, a hat-tip to my second-favorite Greek, and me saving you some time.

Paige Bowers
Paige Bowers
11 min read
Ode to La Belle Arlette
As you can see, Arlette Stavisky was a big bit of fabulous.

It's Women's History Month, so I thought I'd share an old, not-quite-polished piece of writing that I might want to revisit soon. It involves an a real-life antiheroine, who married a Russian swindler who was the talk of interwar France. Said con man eventually got caught and went on the run, leaving the wife alone with their two kids. That's just the tip of the iceberg. The scandal (which is putting it lightly) played out on the front pages of French newspapers and ultimately led to our antiheroine wanting to start anew in the United States. My beloved grad school mentor planted the seed of this story in my head one day while we were having lunch. I suspect he knew that once I went home and started looking into this, he'd be hit with a bunch of "DO YOU KNOW WHAT I JUST FOUND OUT?" emails, which is exactly what happened.


Who was she and where did she come from? How much did she know about her husband's trickery, and did she play a part in it? And what happened to her after her husband's demise? I had begun looking into this long before I started working on Overnight Code, and found some pretty interesting things. Maybe I'll serialize some of this with you, kind of like newspapers used to do in the olden days. Maybe I'll just send out this one part. Not sure. Anyway, pop your popcorn and get ready, because we're going to hop into my imaginary Hispano-Suiza and take a little trip back in time to late-December 1933...

Dense fog blanketed parts of France in the waning days of 1933, deepening the sense that something dark and dangerous lurked in the distance. A deadly railway accident on December 23 only reinforced those fears. Seventeen miles east of Paris, a packed passenger train plowed through the murky darkness into a slower-moving locomotive that had been delayed by the weather. The impact shattered seven wooden coaches full of riders on the overdue train, killing 230 and injuring 300 more. “Despite the profusion of [warning] signals used by the rail network, how is it that catastrophes like this are still possible?” wrote Charles d’Avron in a front-page article for L’Excelsior. To the French, the crash was yet another sign that things were going desperately wrong in their country. Daily newspaper headlines catalogued the concerns: the people were unhappy and financially struggling; Germany was rearming and refusing to pay its World War I debts; a spy named Lydia Stahl was arrested after sharing secret documents with Soviet Military Intelligence. Hate, fear and anger were pervasive, as it seemed that no one, not even the government, could protect the nation from the many forces that threatened it.

That same evening, a statuesque woman with alabaster skin and piercing, jade-green eyes hurried down rue François 1er with two packed suitcases and the last of her jewels. Her name was Arlette Stavisky. For more than a decade, Arlette, a thirty-year-old mother of two, turned heads at fine restaurants, chic hotels, couture houses and all the best parties in Paris. Women wanted to be her, or failing that, break her into a million little shards. After all, their men gawked when Arlette drifted past them in one of her slinky silk gowns, leaving behind a cloud of Shalimar perfume and ribbons of smoke from her Abdullah cigarette.

As Arlette made her way down the block from her home at the Hotel Claridge to the smaller and more modestly priced Hotel Chateau Frontenac, she knew that it was important to be inconspicuous. If anyone recognized her hauling luggage down the street alone just before Christmas, chances were that they’d remember it as odd, and later realize that it was a sign of even more trouble to come.

The source of the trouble: A gentleman who sat alone in one of the Chateau Frontenac’s rooms, nervously waiting for her to arrive with the bags and baubles. That man was Arlette’s husband, Alexandre, and he was in quite a bit of trouble, which is what brought her to the door of his hideaway. Although Alexandre would not explain to her the full extent of the problems he was having – at least not yet – he looked his beautiful wife in the eye and admitted that things were bad enough for him to leave Paris for a while. As much as she hated to be apart from him, Arlette could easily explain his departure to anyone who asked. Alexandre often traveled for business. The trickier proposition: explaining to others why she had to move herself, their two children, and their nanny out of their suites in the Hotel Claridge and into a smaller, more affordable place. Alexandre urged her to do this as quickly and discreetly as possible, and to keep a low profile until he told her otherwise.

Although Arlette was alarmed by Alexandre's request, she did what he asked of her. She had their children to think about; she mustn’t upset them by seeming anxious about this move or their father’s absence. She had to carry herself as if all of this was perfectly normal, and most important, temporary. “It is often difficult to understand the exact influence of a wife,” the writer Joseph Kessel later wrote of Arlette. “This was not the case for [Arlette]. Her beauty was the sort that kept away shadows and uncertainty...She seemed to be guiding him, protecting him,”

She was also protecting herself. Arlette knew that she and her husband had not led an ordinary life, and his distress suggested that their separation might not be brief. They had struggled before, and rebounded afterwards. Yet something felt different this time. Throughout the course of 1933, their world had come crashing down around them. With Alexandre going into hiding and most of her jewels sold in desperation, it was as if the electricity had been turned off on an existence that shined as brightly as the Riviera sun.

If only Alexandre hadn’t flown so close to it.

But he had, and Arlette had to keep her feet on the ground. Her next step was either a sign of panic, or of hope that she’d return someday to the splendid address she was about to leave. She found a rental on the opposite side of the Champs-Elysées, a five-minute car ride from the Hotel Claridge. There, at 1 Rue Obligado, tenants began whispering about the stylish, raven-haired woman who devoted her Christmas Day to moving packages, suitcases, trunks and other objects into a tiny furnished apartment, instead of spending the holiday with her family. She was in a rush, it seemed, and stole furtive glances over her shoulder, as if she feared she was being followed through the fog, or worse yet, judged. According to the landlord’s register, the young woman’s name was Arlette Simon.

Why Arlette Stavisky reverted to her maiden name at this moment was a curious move, especially when she had lived under more creative aliases. Perhaps it was a sign of the strain she felt. It wouldn’t take long for investigators to realize that the lady listed on this building’s index was, in fact, the wife of a wanted man. As soon as they reached that conclusion, they’d come calling, and they’d have no shortage of questions for her. Arlette was prepared for this. Papers had been hidden, burned and buried. Tracks had been covered. A story had been concocted that would shield her children from the truth about their father. Arlette would tell Claude, 7, and Micheline, 3, that Papa was working in America for a while.

Her tale would not be enough to keep the peace. When the youngsters and their nanny Camille Lefrançois joined Arlette in the new domicile on December 26, Claude was the first to react unfavorably to the small, old suite full of cockroaches. Rattled by his reaction, and frustrated because the boy never made anything easy on her, Arlette snapped that it would have to do because their father had not left her enough money. Frantic, Claude asked her again where his father was and when they’d see him.

“He’s far away in a warm country, and we will join him soon,” she said, as she forced a smile. “We will take a boat over there, and will go to Argentina, Brazil…all over the world! Don’t worry!”

Arlette tried to sell this to the children as one big adventure they would embark upon together, but all it did was make Claude worry more. He didn’t know where Argentina or Brazil were. To him, they felt as far away as the sun and the moon, or the Hotel Claridge, which he already missed, with its beautiful flowers, well-decorated rooms and kind staff. He wanted his father, who never left his mother without money. He sensed his mother was hiding something, and because of that, something had to be wrong. Camille stepped in to distract the children, and soon the sounds of their laughter, singing and games began radiating throughout the complex. Now Arlette had to figure out how to make ends meet. It had been a while since she had worked, the economy was bad, and there weren’t many jobs that would allow a woman with her skills to care for her family in the manner to which they had been accustomed.

It was a quandary that would have made her own mother flee.

Writing prompt: Think of a quandary you've faced. What was it and how did you deal with it? What did you learn from the experience, and, of course, about yourself?

A quandary that led to a second career...

Photo: Equal Justice Initiative

In 2011, Emory anesthesiologist Dr. Joel Zivot had a hard time getting his hands on sodium thiopental, a drug that slows a patient's brain and nervous system activity before general anesthesia. After looking into it, Zivot learned that the drug had been pulled after its manufacturer, Hospira, couldn't assure the European Union that it wouldn't be used before lethal injections on Death Row. Incensed that a drug that he used for healing was also bring used for killing, Zivot began a second career as a medical expert in lethal injection cases.

Zivot recently told Atlanta Magazine:

“Around a death penalty case, we’re told maximally evocative stories about a convict’s transformation, or that these horrible murderers are owed nothing in return. It occurred to me...that those narratives were false. They are owed not to be tortured or punished in a cruel way.”

Zivot comes from a family of lawyers, so he believes in arguing for death penalty ethics with evidence and expertise, which is probably why he went back to school to earn a master's degree in bioethics and a law degree. Now that Alabama has committed to using nitrogen hypoxia on 43 death row inmates, Zivot vows he'll keep exposing cruel means of capital punishment. His is an inspiring and important story that I hope you'll take the time to read.

A good recipe for times like these: World Peace Cookies

Photo: King Arthur Flour

Online, a lot of people complain about having to scroll through too much backstory before getting to a recipe. I personally find it lovely, because so much of food is tied to memory. Still...fine. Just know that this Dorie Greenspan/Pierre Herme cookie is everything you could ever want and then some. I dare you to not like them.

  • 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur del sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips (no pieces larger than 1/3 inch), or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips
  1. Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.
  2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more.
  3. Pour in the dry ingredients and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don't be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours.
  5. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 °F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
  6. Using a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. (The rounds are likely to crack as you're cutting them — don't be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them.
  7. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes — they won't look done but that's just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature.

What I'm happy about: Last weekend, Atlanta United won its home opener 4-1. My second-favorite Greek in the world, striker Giorgos Giakoumakis, scored three of those goals for his first hat trick in MLS. Next up: Orlando City on Sunday night.

What I'm looking forward to: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs Tchiakovsky's Sleeping Beauty Saturday night. Also? Mandatory pixie maintenance chez Salon Vagabond on Sunday morning.

What you can skip on TV: I can be a sucker for a Tom Hanks-adjacent World War II story, but "Masters of the Air" feels like nothing but a bunch of flight porn to me. Pilots get their directive, pilots wait, pilots take off in formation, pilots shoot at enemy (the navigator pukes...ew), pilots lose comrades, pilots land... wash, rinse, repeat. I care about brave young men and women in history, and the sacrifices they made. But I cannot, repeat, cannot, care about any of the ill-developed characters in this show. Believe me, I have tried.

Anyone out there have a good TV suggestion for me? Do tell.

Where I hope you'll make a donation this week: This week we learned that Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager in Oklahoma, committed suicide after being beaten by peers in a high school bathroom. The world has become an increasingly dangerous place for transgender kids. Please, if you can, donate to The Trevor Project which provides 24/7/365 crisis services, advocacy, peer support, education and research programs for LGBTQ+ youth.

Thank you for allowing me to visit your inbox each Friday with these tidbits. If you know someone who might enjoy this newsletter, please share it with them and encourage them to subscribe for free. Each week(ish), I'll be sharing an eclectic range of stories and so forth. Sometimes I'll throw in a little bit of writing advice, and answer whatever questions you may have. It's a work in progress, rooted in my passion for writing about history, people from all walks of life, and the various things that interest me. Having said that, please don't hesitate to reach out with any feedback or suggestions for other things you'd like to see here. I want this to be a little weekly treat full of things you might find interesting, entertaining, inspiring and maybe even helpful, too!

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Paige Bowers

Paige Bowers is a journalist and the author of two biographies about bold, barrier-breaking women in history.


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