Sex, lies and spies: the mystery of Marthe Richard

Marthe Richard in her aviatrice days

Samantha David examines the rollercoaster life of the woman born Marthe Betenfeld, who rose from humble Lorraine beginnings via life as a Paris prostitute, to become a pilot, spy, politician and, eventually, law-changer 

Marthe Richard is best known in France for proposing and piloting a law through the French parliament making brothels illegal. But that was not her only claim to fame; born in April 1889 in Meurthe-et-Moselle, her career included spells as a prostitute, an aircraft pilot, a spy and a politician before she died nearly a century later, in February 1982.

Marthe Richard (pictured above during a TV interview in 1969) was a woman of many talents. 

Her family were poor; her mother, Marie Larisant, was a cleaner and her father Louis Betenfeld worked at a brewery, and there were alcohol problems too. At 14, she was sent away as an apprentice seamstress, but very soon ran away. The police took her back to her parents but she ran away again and by the age of 16 she was a prostitute in Nancy.

Wanted by the police for giving a client syphilis, she ran away to Paris and became a prostitute in a higher-class ‘maison clos’.

In September 1907, she met Henri Richer, a rich industrialist, who bought her an aeroplane which she learned to fly and this became her passion.

Disreputable, dashing, beautiful, the press nicknamed her Alouette (lark). She got her pilot’s licence ...

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