Home » London Theatre News » Murders and Tragedies: Oscar Dufrenne – Paris 1933

Murders and Tragedies: Oscar Dufrenne – Paris 1933

Oscar Dufrenne was born in Lille on 13th March 1875. As a young man, he left his working-class family in Lille (his parents were upholsterers) and set off to make his fortune in Paris.

Oscar Dufrenne
Oscar Dufrenne

Having created a successful career, during the Roaring Twenties and into the thirties, Dufrenne offered colourful, sequin-laden shows, with scenes featuring scantily-clothed entertainers that while highly popular with most of the public, were labelled ‘obscene’ by detractors.

Dufrenne fiercely defended his profession against the public authorities. Sensitive to the harsh working conditions endured by both theatre workers and artists, he campaigned against their precariousness and irregular wages.

In April 1929, at the age of 54, he stood as a candidate for the Radical Party in the municipal elections for the 10th Arrondissement in Paris, where there were many entertainment venues. His programme focused on defending businesses and tradesmen who made a living from theatre. With substantial support from the local people, he was easily elected.

Dufrenne was a prominent figure at council meetings. He tirelessly proposed measures in support of theatres and social hygiene. He stood in the legislative elections of May 1932, but narrowly lost to the right-wing candidate.
Dufrenne’s professional success as a theatre producer aroused envy and jealousy amongst some, for his lifestyle did not correspond with the ideal of notability: he made no secret of his homosexuality or his affiliations with groups that were reviled by reactionaries.

Before founding touring companies, Dufrenne had played at the Grand Guignol in Paris. He played melodrama, and ultimately became managing director of the Casino de Paris and the Palace Kinema, together with a number of casinos. He was a charitable man and a well-known figure in Montmartre, the centre of Paris nightlife.

Dufrenne was murdered late on the evening of Sunday 24th September 1933. Shortly after half-past midnight, his body was found in his office half rolled up in a carpet and covered with the mattress from a divan. There were several wounds on his head.

Dufrenne’s wallet, with 3,500 francs, and his gold watch were missing. The safe had also been opened with Dufrenne’s keys, but it had contained only papers. The police thought that robbery may not have been the motive.

Blood was spattered all over the desk, walls and divan and Dufrenne’s clothes were half torn off, showing how violent the struggle had been. His face showed evidence of his terrible injuries but no weapon was found.

Dufrenne had dined with friends earlier that evening and was cheerful when he left for the Palace Music Hall, which he reached at 10.20 pm, going straight up to his office.

At 12.45 am, M. Audouis, the manager of the Palace, entered the office and found the lamp lit and everything in disorder. He unravelled the bundle lying in a corner and was horrified to find Dufrenne’s body.

There were seventeen head wounds, but doctors stated that death resulted from suffocation, likely due to the weight of the murderer kneeling on his chest.

Nothing had been seen or heard by anyone. There were numerous entrances and exits to the Palace and Dufrenne’s office was clearly marked.

During the days after the crime, the newspapers stated that the police were keen to interview a young man, who was either a sailor or someone dressed as one. There were reports of Dufrenne having met a sailor in July of that year on the French Riviera and that a young man wearing a sailor’s uniform was seen accompanying Dufrenne into his office on the evening of his murder. It was thought that Dufrenne met him in the auditorium where they probably had a rendezvous.

M. Serge Nicolesco, Dufrenne’s private secretary, made a statement to the press in which he declared that there was no truth in the statement that he was a beneficiary of the will of Dufrenne. He said the sole beneficiaries were members of Dufrenne’s family.

On Monday 2nd October 1933, Reuters reported: a pair of scissors missing from the desk of Oscar Dufrenne, were by their absence providing a new clue.

When Dr Paul, the medical-legal expert, performed the post mortem, he stated that the facial injuries were caused by a sharp instrument rather than a heavy one – and could have been caused by scissors.

Death was caused by suffocation – the mattress from the divan had been thrown on top of the prostrate Dufrenne, possibly in an effort to deaden any moans. It is thought that the thief may only have meant to stun Dufrenne while he opened the safe.

French detectives followed up on several clues. The most important was the discovery that the murderer had washed their bloodstained hands in a private cloakroom, the existence of which was not generally known, even to most of the theatre staff.

Another clue was that a man with fresh scratches on his face had a hurried drink at a bar nearby shortly after the time when the murder is believed to have taken place.

Letters are said to have been found in Dufrenne’s house which may have thrown light on the mystery.

Enquiries by the police led them to find out that a man dressed as a sailor had, on the evening of the murder, applied for a free pass to the promenade, using Dufrenne’s name.

Suspicion fell on Paul Laborie, and during the investigations, two of his acquaintances are alleged to have stated that he had borrowed a sailor’s uniform from one of them and a billiard cue from another. Laborie was alleged to have said that the cue would make a capital bludgeon.

On Monday 16th October 1933, a young Frenchman called Andre Pierrat (aged 25-26), surrendered to police at Santander in northern Spain, where he made a statement in which he confessed to killing Oscar Dufrenne. The police first thought he was ‘shamming’ but then telegraphed French police to come to Santander to investigate.
According to Pierrat’s confession, Dufrenne invited him into his office and made a ‘certain proposition’. When Pierrat declined, Dufrenne refused to let him leave.

Pierrat’s statement alleged that he attacked Dufrenne with a paperweight (or a knife, depending on which newspaper report you read) while he was with him in his office. He then went to Versailles, where he changed the naval uniform he was wearing for plain clothes. He then proceeded to the Franco-Spanish frontier, which he crossed at Fuenterrabia by swimming. He then walked to Santander. He stated that he thought he had only wounded Dufrenne and he was horrified to learn the next day when he read in the newspapers that Dufrenne was dead.

On Tuesday 17th October 1933, Inspector Bonny of the Paris CID, stated that the man’s statement was untrue, and that his name was not Andre Pierrat but Pierre Riou. It was established that Riou had been living in Spain since November 1931.

Monday 24th September 1934: Following the detention in Barcelona of a young Frenchman, Paul Laborie, in connection with the murder of Dufrenne, Police were onto a new lead. They had a clue as to the identity of an unknown man who placed a laurel wreath on the grave of Dufrenne, with the words, “First anniversary, the unknown sailor. P Laborie is innocent.

The florist where the wreath was bought described the customer who she had sold it to. The description matched a young man who was alleged to have known Dufrenne and who had suddenly disappeared from his lodgings in Paris. A formal extradition was submitted to the Spanish authorities.

In Barcelona, Marie Delage (also known as Nelly Alonso), a 40-year-old French woman who shared Laborie’s existence in Spain, declared that she was ready to die to save Laborie.

The police in Paris looked for a man named ‘Bobby’ who placed the wreath on Dufrenne’s grave. They believed that ‘Bobby’ had known Laborie.

September 1934: ‘Bobby’, whose full name was Raymond Perrier, was subsequently detained and he stated that he would help prove the innocence of Paul Laborie.

A woman of the name of Madame Lacroix declared that she had ‘inside’ information regarding the murder – although this information did not materialise.

In November 1934, Paul Laborie was questioned by the examining magistrate. A witness, who had noticed a man in a sailor’s uniform on the night of the murder on the promenade of the Palace Music Hall, stated on seeing Laborie, “That’s the fellow. I recognise him formally.

An acquaintance of Laborie said that he had met him at a friend’s rooms a couple of days before the tragedy. Laborie had picked up a billiard cue with the words – “That ought to do the trick. I missed him the first time, but the next time I will make a good job of it.” A sailor’s uniform was lying on the bed. Laborie was said to have laughed at this evidence.

At the trial of Paul Laborie in October 1935, Laborie denied that he had known Dufrenne, that he had gone to the Palace Theatre, or that he had dressed as a sailor. He said that he went to Spain the morning after the crime was committed without knowing what had happened.

At the opening of the trial, the Advocate General, Maitre Gaudel, suggested that all those with “tender ears” should withdraw, in view of the unsavoury details in the case – but none moved.

The main witness for the prosecution, Davidovitz, had claimed to have seen Laborie dressed as a sailor in the Palace Music Hall on the night of the crime, but when he gave evidence he seemed to waver in the opinion that Laborie really was the man after all.

A second witness, Jean Riguet, said that while riding on the underground around the time of the murder, his attention was drawn to a sailor who appeared extremely nervous. When he saw Laborie’s picture in the paper he was convinced they were one and the same person.

Counsel for the defence said it had been suggested that a former sailor had lent his uniform to Laborie. With the permission of the court, Laborie was asked to try on the uniform. When he did so and returned to court all present roared with laughter, as the uniform barely reached his elbows and stopped short of his socks.

A series of charges were made against Paul Laborie, primarily one of premeditated murder. Facing the death penalty, Laborie strongly denied all of the charges. Many of the witnesses called to testify withdrew or changed their statements, causing confusion among the jurors. Gradually, people began to doubt the value of the investigation.

Most of all, the victim, Oscar Dufrenne, was gradually transformed into a culprit whose “bad morals” offended decent morality.

Despite the evidence gathered by the police, which left little doubt about Laborie’s guilt, the court case quickly descended into farce.

The complexity and contradictions of the investigation, brought about by the intense focus on the victim’s lifestyle and habits, meant that Laborie was set free and the methods used by the police were criticized in a court case that ultimately put homosexuality on trial. The victim became the guilty party – and the acquittal of Laborie signalled a ‘return to order’.

October 1935: After a trial lasting three days, Paul Laborie, ‘the pale-faced delicate youth of 24‘, was acquitted at the Seine Assize Court of the murder of M. Oscar Dufrenne. The verdict was as expected, while the press revelled in the scandalous nature of the affair.

Dufrenne is buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise (89th Division).

His former partner Henri Varna succeeded him alone at the head of the Casino de Paris and other theatres. The name of the Palace was changed to that of Alcazar de Paris.

Homosexuality on Trial
by Danièle Voldman , 19 February 2018
translated by Susannah Dale
https://booksandideas.net/Homosexuality-on-Trial.html

Florence Tamagne, Le Crime du Palace. Enquête sur l’une des plus grandes affaires criminelles des années 1930
https://journals.openedition.org/criminocorpus/4407

Père Lachaise - Tomb of Oscar Dufrenne
Père Lachaise – Tomb of Oscar Dufrenne

Tomb
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Author

  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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