A chauffeur-driven Peugeot sedan was following a man on a scooter down Avenue Foch in Paris one day in 1978. The scooter started zigzagging before tipping over. “He’s completely crazy, this idiot,” the chauffeur muttered. And then four men with automatic weapons emerged from a nearby parked car, placed the Peugeot’s passenger in handcuffs, put a black hood over his head and injected a sedative into his arm. He ended up a prisoner in one of the abandoned quarries outside Paris where the Wehrmacht stored its arsenal of V-2 rockets during World War II.
“Do what we tell you,” one of them warned, “or we’ll blow your brains out.”
“The Last Baron: The Paris Kidnapping That Brought Down an Empire” by Tom Sancton may begin like a James Bond movie, but the book is a multi-generational history rather than a true-crime story. Sancton, a research professor at Tulane University and a veteran Paris bureau chief for Time, is the author of five previous works of nonfiction, including “The Bettencourt Affair.” As it happens, the author succeeds in telling his tale without artifice or invention because even the most exotic and breathtaking details are supplied in abundance by the case itself.
Thus, for example, after the kidnappers sent a ransom note with a threat to cut off one of the victim’s fingers, they drew lots to determine who would perform the surgery. All of the necessary equipment was at hand: “a guillotine-style paper cutter, a heavy mallet, cotton, bandages, alcohol and a small bottle.” Apropos of the locale, they provided the victim, 40-year-old Baron Édouard-Jean Empain, with a bowl of red wine and Valium before the procedure and a pátê sandwich when the amputation was completed.
The saga that Sancton tells with such panache harks back to a family dynasty that began with the making of money. Its founder was a Belgian entrepreneur who “built railroads, created banks, fathered the Paris Métro, dug mines in Africa, and raised a fantastic city on the sands of Egypt.” Thanks to his accumulation of new wealth, Édouard Louis Joseph Empain was raised to a barony by the Belgian king in 1907.
By 1978, however, the title belonged to his grandson, Édouard-Jean, known as Wado to his friends. As we discover in “The Last Baron,” Wado was a paradoxical figure who indulged in “fast cars, beautiful women, and gaming tables” and yet “bought his suits off the rack and cut his own hair.” He proudly wore the family crest on a signet ring, but he was also mindful that his father had been accused of collaboration with the Nazis and his mother was “a former American exotic dancer.” He was entitled to be addressed as Monsieur le Baron, but he was dubbed “Monsieur Nucléaire” after the French government granted him a lucrative monopoly to build 16 new atomic power plants.
Money and politics, in fact, both figure crucially throughout the “The Last Baron.” The kidnappers demanded 80 million francs as the price for Wado’s release, but they signed the ransom note as the “Red Liberation Army” to create the impression that their motives were ideological rather than mercenary. Mindful of other oligarchs who had been kidnapped in recent years, Wado had forbidden his wife to pay a ransom if he suffered the same fate: “We must set an example,” he told her. Yet the kidnappers warned the family that any failure to pay the price in full would result in the delivery of not another severed body part but a corpse.
“Shoot him in the head, take his picture, and leave him in the trunk of a car. The next time we kidnap someone, we show the picture, and they pay up immediately,” reasoned the kidnappers, when the police got involved and they thought they would not get the ransom.
Precisely because Empain’s business enterprises were so far-flung, crowned heads and heads of state across Europe were monitoring the work of the Judiciary Police, the French law enforcement agency charged with finding the kidnappers and their victim. Perhaps to underscore the filmic quality of the book he has authored — as if the point needed to be made at all — Sancton pauses to point out that its headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfévres “provided the setting for countless French films and crime stories,” including the 25 novels by Georges Simenon that feature the intrepid detective Jules Maigret.
Then, too, the kidnapping ignited a long-simmering crisis within Empain’s family. His own fortune, it turns out, was not sufficient to fund the ransom. His wife offered to sell her jewelry to raise money, but his mother refused to chip in. She did, however, make a provocative suggestion — why not ask Wado’s wealthy Iranian mistress to pay the ransom? “If she loves Wado, and she has money, let’s see what she can do,” said his mother. And the skulduggery soon spread beyond the family circle — Empain’s second-in-command in his business empire “suddenly saw his chance to seize the crown.”
No less fascinating is the parallel account of the gang that carried out the crime. Alan Caillol, for example, started out by stealing Vespas and escalated to valuable antiques and even a painting by Utrillo. Robbery of armored cars at gunpoint was the next step. Eventually, Caillol and his “brothers-in-crime” turned to kidnapping. “Instead of going after the money,” they decided, “why don’t we make the money come to us?” At first they considered kidnapping the banker Guy de Rothschild or the aviation mogul Marcel Dassault. Since Rothschild had escaped from France ahead of the Nazi invasion and Dassault was sent to Buchenwald, however, Caillol “recoiled at the idea of targeting two elderly men who had been persecuted by the Nazis.” They turned instead to Empain, “the rising star of French capitalism.”
“The Last Baron” is a book about the flash points in family, business, politics and diplomacy. At the same time, much of the narrative amounts to an expertly told and richly detailed police procedural. Above all, it is a wholly authentic thriller. For that reason, and out of deference to the author and his readers, the denouement cannot be revealed here.
Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing lawyer and book reviewer, is the author of “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”
The Last Baron
The Paris Kidnapping That Brought Down an Empire
By Tom Sancton
Dutton. 368 pp. $28.