Ahead of the publication of his book The King of Nazi Paris, Christopher Othen offers us a look at one of Paris' most infamous destinations: the home of Henri Lafont's gang of collaborators and gangsters...
Paris is the city of light and love and literature. It has so much history that the ghosts are coming out the walls. The Eiffel Tower looms down side streets like a metal monster on the attack, the Musée d’Orsay glows with a fine selection of mid to late-nineteenth century art, and the locals show their love of culture by giving over prime real estate to bookshops and art galleries.
The city has a darker side. Take a stroll down rue Lauriston in the exclusive sixteenth arrondissement keeping the reservoir and the Polish Science Academy on your right. Stop at number 93. You'll find four storeys of high ceilings and huge salons, with a grey and beige stone facade. On the wall of the building is a plaque:
‘In homage to the resistants tortured on this site during the occupation 1940–1944 by Frenchmen, auxiliary agents of the Gestapo from the group known as “Bonny-Lafont”.’
Back during the Nazi occupation of Paris, 93 rue Lauriston was one of the most infamous addresses in the city. It was headquarters to the Carlingue, a gang of crooks, corrupt cops, and fallen celebrities led by the orchid-loving thief Henri Lafont. They worked for the Nazis and lived like kings – until the Allies arrived and a price had to be paid.
When the Nazis invaded France in July 1940 they looked for local collaborators. Many volunteered, including those from the underworld. Lafont was a petty criminal with a high voice who became the most powerful crook in Paris thanks to the Nazi occupation. A chance encounter with a Nazi spy in a prison camp led to a life of luxury running a ruthless mob of gangsters who looted the city for the Germans. All it took was a talent for treason, treachery and deceit.
Lafont teamed up with former policeman, turned criminal Pierre Bonny. The pair looted Jewish properties; bought low and sold high on the black market; scammed illegal gold deals; stole priceless art; ran protection rackets; intercepted parachute drops; infiltrated resistance groups; gunned down rivals; and sprung anyone from prison for the right price. They drafted in Chamberlin’s gangster friends from prison and the underworld. Soon they had an all-star team of France’s most-wanted crooks.
The gang wore the best clothes, ate at the best restaurants, and did whatever they wanted in occupied Paris. They lived on a poisoned honeycomb. Chamberlin and Bonny moved into 93 rue Lauriston where every Saturday they hosted parties at which collaborationists mixed with ambitious young actresses and well-mannered German officers, before everyone headed off to a nightclub in one of Chamberlin’s white Bentleys. Down in the cellar, the rest of the gang worked late torturing resistance prisoners.
By 1944 the gang had become so enmeshed in the German net that it had started running the Brigade Nord-Africain, a paramilitary outfit of Algerian and Moroccan nationalists. The brigade raped, robbed and murdered the locals under the cover of fighting the resistance. But when the Allies came Chamberlin and Bonny found themselves on trial for their lives.
‘For four years, I had all the most beautiful women, orchids, champagne, caviar by the bucketful,’ said Lafont as he faced the firing squad. ‘I lived the equivalent of ten lives.’
He regretted nothing. The French still spit on his memory and 93 rue Lauriston burns like a wound that will never heal in the streets of Paris.
Christopher Othen's exploration of the lives of Henri Lafont and Pierre Bonny, The King of Nazi Paris, is out on July 14. Take a look here!