Map: France with Orleans & Paris marked
The love between Yvonne Rousseau and Pierre Chevallier began as a bodice-ripping romance straight from a dime-store novel.
They met at the hospital where they worked in the lovely old French city of Orleans, in the center of the famed Loire River Valley, the garden region of France that is dotted with 300 majestic chateaux.
Loire Valley chateau
She was 24, a lithe but timid nurse raised on a farm near Orleans, 75 miles south of Paris. He was 26, a self-assured medical student and scion of an eminent Orleans family.
They found one another in 1937, as Germany was spoiling for a fight with its neighbors. The war would serve as the backdrop for their relationship.
Yvonne moved into Pierre’s apartment just weeks after they met. With the impending war, civil niceties such as a marriage license and wedding ceremony seemed superfluous.
From the start, the relationship featured an intense physical and emotional craving—an “animal passion,” as a judge would one day describe it.
Rousseau would never lose her passion for Chevallier, even after they married and she bore him two sons.
Unfortunately for her, over time the passion grew one-sided, and she was destined for a life of tortured jealousy—”the injured lover’s hell,” as John Milton put it in Paradise Lost.
Theirs would prove to be a tragic love of operatic proportion—a story worthy of Puccini. It would play out in a classic French crime passionnel that gripped Europe half a century ago.
Invasion and Resistance
In the years of the couple’s romance, France had a wary eye cocked toward Germany. Although he was a busy medical student, Pierre Chevallier was an acute observer of political developments on the continent. He would rant to Yvonne that the English and French strategy of German appeasement would ultimately fail because Adolf Hitler was mad for power.
Appeasement failed, of course, and France declared war on its neighbor when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The Germans arrived on French soil in 1940, and the mighty Third Reich tanks and bombers quickly steamrolled most of France.
Nazis in Paris
Although just the 10th largest city in the nation, Orleans became a tactical target because the Loire River developed into a line of demarcation. Germany bombed Orleans mercilessly, destroying many of its historic treasures, including a museum dedicated to its hometown hero, Joan of Arc.
France surrendered on June 22, 1940. A German military force occupied three-fifths of the country, including Paris and Orleans, and the remainder was administered by the French Vichy government, a puppet for Germany.
Charles de Gaulle
Four days before the surrender, French army General Charles de Gaulle, in exile in London, was given time on BBC radio to make a plea to his countrymen across the English Channel. He first explained apologetically that the French military had been overwhelmed by the German blitzkrieg.
He went on:
“But has the last word been spoken? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No! Believe me, I speak to you with full knowledge of the facts and tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us to a day of victory. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast empire behind her. She can align with the British empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States. This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country…The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there–with their weapons or without their weapons. I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there to put themselves in contact with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”
A War HeroAmong those listening that June evening was Pierre Chevallier.
Yvonne had just given birth to their first son, Mathieu, and Pierre was in his final stretch of medical training. He could have raised his arms in surrender like most of his countrymen, and few would have blamed him, given the circumstances of his life.
Men of the Free French movement
Chevallier quickly became a leading figure of the resistance in Orleans.
With recruitment and momentum, the movement grew over the ensuing four years of occupation. Some like Chevallier participated in cells of resistance fighters who managed to pull off daring acts of sabotage against the German occupiers. For others, the resistance was more passive.
By D-Day in 1944, the Free French movement included some 400,000 Frenchman. Orleans was bombed by the Allies that summer as they tried to cut off river crossings from the retreating Germans.
De Gaulle returns to France
Legion d’Honneur medal
Pierre Chevallier received the French Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre for his wartime heroism, and he was elected mayor of his adoring hometown in the euphoric glee after the war’s end.
Croix de Guerre medal
Yvonne gave birth in 1945 to the couple’s second son, Thugal, conceived during the liberation of Orleans.
While Yvonne looked after the boys, Chevallier threw himself into the rebuilding of France. He was elected to the National Assembly and became a protégé of René Pleven, a fellow freedom fighter who served as minister of finance after the war.
Chevallier began spending more and more time in Paris, the French seat of government. He took an apartment there in 1950 and frequently stayed overnight.
Like any politician, he maintained a busy schedule of appearances at political and social functions. His wife rarely accompanied him.
Chevallier was considered dashing and handsome, to French tastes. He was well-spoken and composed, even in crowds of strangers.
The Marriage Turns
Yvonne Chevallier had none of her husband’s social skills.
Gaunt and prematurely haggard, she was best be described as plain.
A photograph of the woman at age 40 bears a marked resemblance to the American character actress Nancy Kulp, the homely Miss Hathaway of TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Actress Nancy Kulp
Mrs. Chevallier did not feel comfortable in her husband’s Paris social and political circle. She was the anxious type—owing perhaps to the travails of war and the stress of child-rearing.
Biographical sketches of the woman painted her as dull, witless and rather uncouth—an uneducated farm girl more at home in a barnyard than a castle. Crime author Colin Wilson described her as “awkward, gauche, and conversationally clumsy” in his Mammoth Book of True Crime.
Mammoth Book of True Crime
After a dozen years with Yvonne, Chevallier had begun to treat his wife with coolness.
Sometime in 1950, son Mathieu developed an illness that lingered for several weeks. Yvonne moved the boy into the couple’s bedroom in case an emergency developed overnight.
Pierre began sleeping in the study during the illness, and he stayed there when Mathieu recovered.
Yvonne tried to win back her husband’s affection. She read about art and literature and tried to stay abreast of politics. She made appointments at fashionable beauty salons and bought more flattering clothes.
She did her best to entice Pierre with romantic blandishments on the nights that he spent at home. But he made it resoundingly clear that he had lost all interest in intimacy with his wife.
He told her, “You disgust me.”
His coolness had become contempt.
As they grew up, the Chevallier boys began spending playtime with the three children of a wealthy neighbor couple, Jeanne and Leon Perreau.
Like Pierre and Yvonne, they seemed a mismatched pair.
Mr. Perreau was middle-aged, bald, short and rotund. Owner of one of Orleans’ most prestigious and profitable department stores, Leon ran the business with a heavy hand that kept him away from home from sunrise until well after sundown six days a week.
His wife, 15 years younger, was a redheaded siren who could set men’s teeth chattering with a withering come-hither look.
An independent spirit, she traveled in intellectual and literary circles. She dressed stylishly and comported herself with confidence.
The couples began socializing, and dinner parties with the Perreaus were the only social events that would consistently draw Pierre Chevallier back home from Paris.
Yvonne soon heard gossip about Jeanne Perreau: Women whispered about her romantic affairs—a string of lovers that could stretch across the Loire.
In the meantime, Yvonne had grown increasingly anxious about her standing with Pierre.
She developed a case of nerves that led to doctor’s visits, prescription drugs and addiction to Maxiton, an amphetamine, and Veronal, a barbiturate.
When she wasn’t popping pills, she was chain-smoking cigarettes and slugging down coffee. Her sleep became sporadic, and she developed hooded eyes.
In the spring of 1951, Mrs. Chevallier received an anonymous letter suggesting that her husband had become Jeanne Perreau’s latest triumph.
She searched Dr. Chevallier’s closet and, in a jacket, found a crumpled “Dear Pierre” love letter. It read, “Without you life would have no beauty or meaning for me.” The letter was signed “Jeannette.”
The French rules of marital manners demanded discretion, if not fidelity. Yvonne made inquiries and learned that the affair was an open secret in Paris and Orleans.
She left her sons with a maid and took a train to Paris to confront the philanderer.
But the trip became a series of humiliating indignities.
National Assembly building in Paris
First, she was turned away at the National Assembly by an usher who had been warned by Chevallier that his wife was not welcome there.
In tears, she retreated to his Paris pied-a-terre. She waited all night, but he did not come home. This she took as confirmation of the affair.
Yvonne retreated to Orleans, where she paid a visit to Jeanne Perreau. The women accused one another of various moral and marital gaffes, and the meeting ended acrimoniously and without resolution.
She next confronted Leon Perreau, her counterpart cuckold. Yes, he said he understood that his wife was Dr. Chevallier’s lover. But he had no intention of interceding.
Pierre finally traveled to Orleans to hear out his wife.
She pleaded, argued and cajoled, but it was of little use. He took the aloof position that his affair was his private business.
That same week, Chevallier had been nominated to a cabinet position as government minister for education, youth and athletics. He apparently believed that a divorce would end his political career. France, a Catholic nation, tolerated affairs but would not brook a failed marriage.
Yvonne took the boys to the coast for a two-week holiday, hoping the time and distance apart from his children would bring Pierre back to his family.
But when they returned, Chevallier continued to display contempt, not affection.
Yvonne swallowed a handful of her medications in a wishy-washy suicide try. She recovered, then marched to a police station near her home to apply for a handgun license, explaining that she needed protection since her husband was about to assume a lofty government position.
Mab 7.65mm handgun
She obtained the permit and visited a gun shop, asking the owner to show her a pistol “that kills without any doubt.” The owner directed Yvonne toward a Mab 7.65mm, a French-made semiautomatic with a nine-round magazine.
She returned the next day and bought the Mab and 25 rounds of ammunition.
Orleans from the air
On August 11, 1951, Dr. Chevallier was sworn in to his ministry post in Paris. The next day, he had an appointment for his first public appearance, at a country fair not far from Orleans.
He asked his chauffeur to stop in Orleans so he could change clothes.
Yvonne followed Pierre upstairs to his dressing room. The couple had not been together in some days, and Yvonne used the opportunity to once again plead her case to save their marriage.
First she threatened, saying she would send the boys to boarding school and deny him visits.
Then she pleaded, saying she could not possibly love another man, and she could not fathom her Pierre in the arms of another woman. She said she could change—that she would work hard to make herself a more worthy companion.
Finally, as Pierre disrobed, Yvonne fell to her knees and begged him to love her.
Chevallier was brutally dismissive of her entreaty. For the first time, he brought up the possibility of divorce, explaining through gritted teeth that he no longer loved Yvonne and would be happier with Jeanne Perreau.
Yvonne fled from the room, went to an armoire and fished out her Mab pistol. She returned to confront Pierre, threatening suicide.
Chevallier again was pitiless.
He taunted Yvonne, saying she should go ahead and kill herself—but to wait until he had left the room.
Downstairs, a maid was watching after the two boys, by then 10 and 6. The maid eavesdropped as the couple argued. Suddenly, she and the boys were startled by a gunshot–then a second, a third, and a fourth.
Mathieu Chevallier ran upstairs and saw his father slumped on the floor. Yvonne calmly took the boy by the hand and led him back downstairs, asking the maid to look after him.
The maid asked, “What is happening?”
Yvonne Chevallier replied, “Nothing at all.”
She returned upstairs. After an interval, the maid heard a fifth and final shot. She huddled with the Chevallier boys, not daring to investigate.
A few minutes later, the phone jangled at Orleans police headquarters. Yvonne Chevallier told a police commander, “My husband needs you urgently.”
She was waiting in a black mourning dress when the gendarmes arrived.
Mrs. Chevallier had used her new pistol efficiently. The first four shots hit him in the chest, forearm, thigh and chin. The fifth hit him in the back as he lay dying.
A French Sensation
It is impossible to overstate the sensation the slaying caused.
The story was front-page news across France for months. British, Spanish and Italian newspapers also covered it with breathless prose. The case rated a story in the New York Times and a long epistle in the New Yorker magazine.
Initially, most Frenchmen were angry that their war hero had been taken from them. News accounts characterized Yvonne Chevallier as an uncouth hick who was outmatched culturally and intellectually by the young statesman. Who could blame Pierre for seeking more sophisticated companionship?
Yvonne had not mentioned the love triangle motive in her first interview with police. But she later confessed that she had been jealous of her husband’s affection for the redhead.
Gradually, public opinion began to shift as the details of Chevallier’s brazen affair and cold, cruel treatment of his wife began to leak out.
France-Soir newspaper logo
Jean Laborde, a reporter with France-Soir, cozied up to Yvonne’s family and was given access to her letters. Again and again, she had sworn eternal love for Pierre, even as she revealed her anxiety over his relationship with Jeanne Perreau.
Americans living in Paris in those days observed with slack jaws the gasping manner in which the French treated love triangle crimes. This phenomenon made its way into the memoirs of a number of Yankee writers who witnessed l’affair Chevallier.
“I never ceased to be intrigued by the way crimes passionnels spellbound the French,” wrote journalist Stanley Karnow in Paris in the Fifties. “They worshipped reason and cherished moderation as the traits that made humans superior to animals. But they would drool over the sight of wives, husbands, mistresses and loves enmeshed in sordid imbroglios, as though these tragedies were real-life theater.’
The American journalist Ben Bradlee, longtime editor of the Washington Post, observed the Chevallier theater while working as a young reporter in Paris.
In his memoir, A Good Life, Bradlee described the Chevallier case as “one of the great French cultural events, a crime passionel.”
Crimes of Passion
Bradley wrote, “The French press went crazy, throwing caution to the wind with police reporters, court reporters, sob sisters, psychiatrists, novelists, the works. The French felt they invented the crime passionnel. They were determined to leave nothing unsaid and they left nothing unsaid. The whole country was either outraged, or outraged that anyone would be outraged.”
Yvonne Chevallier was accused of murder and confined to jail for more than a year while awaiting trial. The proceedings were moved to Reims, 150 miles northeast of Orleans, in a failed attempt to reduce the public spectacle.
By the time the trial began, on November 5, 1952, no detail—real or imagined–of the lives, relationships and affairs of the principals involved had gone unreported.
Karnow wrote, “As her trial approached, the French press plunged into a feeding frenzy. Reporters, psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and other commentators advanced an array of theses on the Chevalliers’ relationship. Characteristically, in class-conscious France, much was made of their divergent backgrounds: she a peasant’s daughter, he the scion on an illustrious dynasty…But most opinion blamed Chevallier for his misbehavior.”
The French penal code in those days included a love-triangle provision that was a vestige of the Napoleonic era. It absolved from punishment any man who committed homicide after finding his wife in bed with another man.
The Chevallier case was widely viewed as a clear-cut–albeit gender-reversed–example of the crime-of-passion provision.
The trial was a highly entertaining but brief-running show.
The jury of seven men listened to a total of just 16 hours of testimony.
The gallery tittered when Mrs. Chevallier, dressed in a stern gray suit, mounted the defendant’s dock.
Yvonne Chevallier at trial
Jail had left the woman thin and pale, evoking even more sympathy from spectators, reporters and the judge, Raymond Jadin.
The judge asked Mrs. Chevallier a series of questions about her marriage. She began to sob as she described her relationship with her husband’s bourgeois family.
“They regarded me as one of the mistakes of Pierre’s youth,” she said.
Judge Jadin questioned Mrs. Chevallier closely about the hostile meeting she had with Jeanne Perreau after the affair came to light. According to author David Rowan’s account in his book Famous European Crimes, the following exchange took place.
Jadin asked, “You told Madam Perreau that you were going to kill your husband?”
“No!” Mrs. Chevallier replied.
“You added that it would be a crime passionnel and you would be acquitted?”
“C’est faux!” (That’s not true!) she cried.
Jadin pressed her for her reaction when Pierre coldly informed her that he would divorce her in favor of Jeanne Perreau, who was sitting in the courtroom.
Mrs. Chevallier began to stammer an answer, then collapsed in faint.
After a 15-minute recess, Judge Jadin asked Mrs. Chevallier to explain the circumstances of the fifth shot, whose premeditation would seem to mitigate the crime passionnel defense.
She replied that she had intended to return to the bedroom and commit suicide beside her beloved Pierre. She explained that the gun fired accidentally, striking her husband in the back.
Again titters rippled through the gallery. But Jadin let the explanation stand without further interrogation.
The Cuckold and the Lover
Comic relief was provided by Leon Perreau, husband of the mistress. As Perreau gallivanted into court with head held high, some in the crowd made hand gestures indicating horns—the taunt of a cuckolded husband.
Perreau displayed a calm self-assurance.
He testified that he was quite fond of Pierre Chevallier, that he knew of the affair and deemed the war hero worthy of his wife’s affection. He went so far as to say that Chevallier was his favorite among his wife’s lovers. He bragged that he had run off her previous paramour, whom he dismissed as a Lothario.
“But Chevallier was different,” Perreau said.
To peals of laughter, the businessman added, “It may seem strange, but I found him more likable. I got on with him very well.”
His wife followed Leon Perreau on the stand.
Jeanne Perreau glided into court as though it were a movie set, her curled red tresses cascading from beneath a seductive black beret.
Mrs. Perreau, 34, was proud and unflappable, despite frequent hissing from the gallery.
She gave her basic biographical information—age, marital status, address. When Mrs. Chevallier’s lawyer asked about employment, Mrs. Perreau replied she was “of no profession,” an odd phrase that sent tongues clucking in the courtroom.
In response to questions, she said the affair had begun in May 1950 and had continued to the day of the slaying, 15 months later. Mrs. Perreau said the lovers rendezvoused in Paris two or three times a week.
When asked whether she was ashamed of her affair—a married mother of three young children, after all–the woman firmly replied, “Not at all.”
She said she felt pity for Mrs. Chevallier, but that she felt deep affection for Pierre and did not plan to end the affair, even after she was confronted by the woman.
The defense attorney thundered, “Your place is in the dock!” The audience whooped in agreement, and Judge Jadin threatened to clear the courtroom.
Like a Teenager
The trial continued the next day with miscellaneous testimony designed to impugn the characterization of Mrs. Chevallier as a hapless victim.
Relatives of Pierre said the wife was a virtual recluse who refused to attend Chevallier family functions and was suspicious of anyone who vied for her husband’s time and attention.
A police investigator testified that the accused had given a series of differing accounts of the fatal events in the bedroom.
Witness testifies in French court
But Yvonne regained sympathy with the final witnesses.
First, a confidante of Mrs. Chevallier testified that she ran to her in tears on the day that Pierre had told her, “You disgust me!”
The same woman said Yvonne vowed to kill herself after learning of the affair. The wife explained that she had no chance against Jeanne Perreau, who was younger, wealthier, prettier and better educated.
Finally, a psychiatrist revealed that the Chevalliers had had a sexless marriage for years, causing “physical depreciation” and desperation in the spurned wife. He added that Yvonne suffered from social, physical and intellectual inferiority complexes.
The doctor said Yvonne had “retained the mentality of a teenager in love with a student.”
By trial’s end, observers felt the judge and prosecutor were squarely on Yvonne Chevallier’s side.
The prosecutor read into evidence a love letter from Pierre to Jeanne Perreau that said he felt only pity, not love or compassion, for his wife. The prosecutor, sounding like a defense attorney, called the letter “cynical.”
Judge Jadin took a paternalistic tone with Yvonne, which no doubt influenced the jury. French judicial tradition deemed that crime suspects are referred to as “the accused.” But Jadin addressed the woman with the more polite and respectful “Madam.”
Before turning the case over to the jury, he mildly scolded Mrs. Chevallier for failing to overcome the “animal passion” she felt for the husband.
“You should have conquered it and have realized that you have no right to take the life of another person,” Jadin said. “This passion overwhelmed your whole way of life—without any attempt on your part to control it. I understand your cavalier action, but do not condone it.”
While Jadin lectured, Mrs. Chevallier again began bawling, muttering over and over, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”
As the jurors retired to begin deliberations, a throng gathered outside the Reims Palace of Justice, located on the city square. Jurors watched from a window as the crowd grew to thousands in just 30 minutes.
Palace of Justice
Shouts of support for Yvonne evolved into a unison chant: “Liberez-la!” (Free her!)
And so they did. The seven men voted to acquit after just 45 minutes of discussion. Mrs. Chevallier was cheered as she left the courthouse, and the Perreaus, walking arm in arm, were hooted.
France judged that justice had been done, although Le Parisien Libere wrote that the chanting crowd outside the jury room was “a bit excessive.” A number of women writers declared the verdict a victory for their sex.
Mrs. Chevallier rejoined her sons on her family’s farm. The Catholic Church granted Yvonne absolution for the killing–an important appendage of her criminal trial for the observant woman.
She tried to resume a normal life, but her reputation as France’s No. 1 criminelle passionelle would not allow it.
Gradually, she became overwhelmed by a combination of guilt, heartache and notoriety.
Finally, under advice from her priest, family and friends, she decided to move away and start life anew.
She devised a self-imposed penance by moving with her sons to French New Guinea, in West Africa. She spent years there working as a volunteer nurse at a hospital for the poor.
By and large, the French press left her alone in her work. In the country’s crime lore, she is regarded today as a victim of Cupid’s mistake—a mismatched love. She is believed to have died in obscurity in the 1970s.