Book review of "The Last Baron: The Kidnapping of Paris That Bringed Down an Empire", by Tom Sancton

Book review of “The Last Baron: The Kidnapping of Paris That Bringed Down an Empire”, by Tom Sancton

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A chauffeur-driven Peugeot sedan was following a man on a motorbike down Rue Foch in Paris one day in 1978. The scooter began to slalom before it overturned. “He’s totally crazy, that idiot,” muttered the driver. Then four men with automatic weapons got out of a parked car nearby, put handcuffs on the hands of a Peugeot passenger, put a black hood over his head and injected a sedative into his arm. He ended up being imprisoned in an abandoned quarry outside Paris where the Wehrmacht stored its arsenal of V-2 missiles during World War II.

Someone warned “Do as we tell you, or else we’ll blow your mind.”

Tom Sancton’s “The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping that brought down an empire” may start out like a James Bond movie, but the book is a multigenerational history rather than a true crime story. Sancton, a research professor at Tulane University and veteran Paris bureau director for Time, is the author of five previous works of realism, including The Bettencourt Affair. As it happens, the author succeeds in telling his story without gimmick or invention because even the most grotesque and dazzling detail is provided in abundance by the case itself.

Thus, for example, after the kidnappers sent a ransom note with the threat to cut off one of the victim’s fingers, they did a lot to determine who would perform the surgery. All the necessary equipment was at hand: “paper scissors in the form of a guillotine, a sledgehammer, cotton wool, bandages, alcohol and a small bottle.” They offered the victim, Baron Édouard Jean Empain, 40, a bowl of red wine and valium before the operation and a paté when the amputation was completed.

The saga that Sancton tells with such skill goes back to a family dynasty that began making money. Its founder was a Belgian businessman who “built railways, built banks, built the Paris metro, dug mines in Africa, and erected a wonderful city on the sands of Egypt.” With his newfound wealth accumulating, Belgian King Edouard Louis-Joseph Empain was elevated to baronial rank in 1907.

By 1978, the title belonged to his grandson, Edward Jean, known as Waddo to his friends. As we found out in “The Last Baron,” Wadow was an ambivalent figure who indulged in “fast cars, beautiful women, and game tables” yet “bought his suits off the rack and cut his hair”. He proudly wore the family crest on his signet ring, but was also aware that his father had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis and that his mother was a “weird ex-American dancer.” He was entitled to be called Mr. Le Baron, but was given the nickname “Mr. Noclair” after the French government gave him a lucrative monopoly on the construction of 16 new atomic power plants.

In fact, both money and politics play a crucial role in The Last Baron. The kidnappers demanded 80 million francs as a price for Wadow’s release, but they signed the ransom note in the name of the “Red Liberation Army” to create the impression that their motives were ideological rather than mercenary. Aware of the oligarchs of others who have been kidnapped in recent years, Wadow prevented his wife from paying a ransom if he suffered the same fate: “We must set an example,” he told her. However, the kidnappers warned the family that any failure to pay the full price would not result in the delivery of another part of the bodies but the corpse.

Shoot him in the head, take his picture and leave him in the trunk of the car. Next time we kidnap someone, we show the photo, And they pay on the spot,” said the kidnappers The police intervened and thought they would not receive the ransom.

Specifically, as Empain’s commercial enterprises were so scattered so far, crowned presidents and heads of state across Europe have been monitoring the work of the Judicial Police, the French law enforcement agency tasked with finding the kidnappers and their victims. Perhaps to underscore the cinematic quality of the book he authored – as if the point should ever be made – she pauses to note that its headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfévres “has provided the setting for countless French films and crime stories,” including 25 novels by Georges Semenon portraying daring detective Jules Maigret.

Then, too, the kidnapping sparked a long-running crisis within the Empain family. It turns out that his fortune was not enough to fund the ransom. His wife offered to sell her jewelry to raise money, but his mother refused to participate. However, she made a provocative proposal – why not ask the wealthy Iranian mistress of Waddu to pay the ransom? “If she loves Wadow, and she has money,” his mother said, “let’s see what she can do.” And soon the fraud spread outside the family circle – the Empain second man in his business empire “suddenly saw his chance to seize the crown.”

The parallel story of the gang that carried out the crime is no less fascinating. Alan Cayol, for example, began stealing Vespas and upgrading it to valuable antiques and even a painting by Otrillo. The next step was to steal armored cars at gunpoint. In the end, Caillol and his “brothers in crime” turn to the kidnapping. “Instead of going after money,” they decided, “why not let the money come to us?” At first they thought about the kidnapping of the banker Guy de Rothschild or the aviation magnate Marcel Dassault. Since the Rothschilds fled France before the Nazi invasion and Dassault was sent to Buchenwald, however, Kaelol “bounced at the idea of ​​targeting two old men who had been persecuted by the Nazis”. Instead, they turned to Empain, the “rising star of French capitalism”.

“The Last Baron” is a book about flashpoints in family, business, politics, and diplomacy. At the same time, much of the narration amounts to police actions that are expertly told and rich in detail. Above all, it is a completely original thriller. For this reason, out of respect for the author and his readers, the conclusion cannot be revealed here.

Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing attorney and book reviewer, is the author of “The Short and Strange Life of Herschel Greenspan: Boy Vengeance, Nazi Diplomat, and Murder in Paris. “

The kidnapping of Paris that brought down an empire

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