Money seemingly can buy everything, and Florence Gould (1895-1983) knew from a young age that “money doesn’t care who owns it.”
This dangerous American beauty, noted philanthropist, and Nazi collaborator during the occupation of France (1940-1944) understood that money and beauty meant power. And, boy, did she have both once she married hubby number two—an American millionaire. Aside from the descriptives above, Florence was also a sexual predator, a grande horizontale (she slept and traded with the enemy), natural-born gambler, gold-digger (even after she married her fortune), a knowing buyer of looted art, racketeer (introducing the Mafia to the French Riviera), adroit business woman (not adverse to paying bribes), owner of hotels and casinos, a banker to Göring’s personal bank; and, importantly, a talented airbrusher of her nefarious past.
This American nymphomaniac millionairess batted her bedroom eyes as needed, was drop-dead beautiful, oozed sex appeal and power, had a brilliant brain (that few men admired), was athletic, and never gave either her humble origins or the glass ceiling a second thought. Like Lord Byron, she was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but once you did, you had to fall in with whatever sexual favors she demanded of you—male or female—or be hounded out of your own personal space by her greater influence and power. When she talked to you, it was most often with the purpose to seduce, to invade your personal psychological space and dominate. She was richer than Croesus, a procuress of high-class prostitutes for the occupying Nazi officers of Paris, a collaborationist literary salonnière, the holder over life and death for starving artists during the occupation, and a “clean skin” laundering high-ranking Nazis’ money through Hermann Göring’s Aerobank at the end of World War II. Florence even ducked J. Edgar Hoover’s 15-year-long fervent desire to charge her with treason. She dominated everyone who strayed into her orbit.
Most of you will say, “Florence Who?” Others may have been to Manhattan’s Florence Gould Hall, or San Francisco’s Florence Gould Theater. Well, yes, she’s that Florence Gould. An American by birth, French by parentage, this blonde bombshell used her body with great aplomb, but never let it rule her head. Determined to marry into the rich and famous of international society, this little gold-digger had a sting to her tail: nothing but being super-rich would do. So, au revoir hubby number 1. But how could she meet the kind of wealthy guy she craved to control? Ah, the youngest son of Jay Gould, that famed Vampire of Wall Street whose first two business partners killed themselves and went bust…. Frank Jay Gould, Florence’s target, hung out at the Folies Bergère, vowing never to pay U.S. federal income tax by decamping to Paris in 1913. (Yeah, right.) So, Florence showed her wares on its stage as a chorus girl behind the young stars Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett. Frank was a goner, but just so happened he was still married to the second Mrs. Gould—also a chorus girl he called “Edie,” said to have the highest kick in the world. After four years of litigation with his brothers to keep his share of the family trust for marrying Edie without the trust’s approval; and with Edie (who didn’t get a penny), Florence became Mrs. Frank Jay Gould number three, a position she never relinquished—even over Frank’s dead body. She gave Frank sound advice in both lawsuits, honing her business skills on Frank’s family. But all that was chickenfeed.
After their marriage, to be Florence’s lover was a means to an end. She and Frank shared their nightly escapades over breakfast in bed each morning. More often than not, her lovers were one-night-stands, ending badly. Some longer-term lovers came out just fine, like Maurice Chevalier, Joseph Kennedy, and Charlie Chaplin. Others, like actor Henri Garat, became has-beens before they were famous.
If you were an author—and how Florence loved her authors—you fared better. Her Paris salon was an infamous den of collaboration during the occupation of France, favoring Germany’s beloved writing son, Ernst Jünger, World War I Blue Max hero and author of Storm of Steel. But in reality, her salon was small beer next to her high-class prostitution ring for Nazis run with Harper’s Bazaar’s editor, Marie-Louise Bousquet... Florence’s influence literally bought the seat of Jean Paulhan as an Immortal at the Académie Française. She knowingly bought looted art, too, during the occupation—called “ownerless” back then—and acted as banker to Nazis seeking to save their money (and skins) at the end of the war. Even Nobel Laureate Colette frequented her salon, so long as champagne and Camembert were served.
Florence lived for personal gratification. Consequences were for other people. She was a launderer of money par excellence through the Gould casinos and hotels and collector of people at the heart of international society—did I mention her ex-lover Joseph Kennedy helped her out at a tricky time with a sympathetic article after France’s liberation? She was lucky that her niece married Gaston Palewski, aide de camp of Charles de Gaulle, otherwise Florence just might have been guillotined. Actually, deported. But Florence had the proverbial keys to the closets where most skeletons were laying in wait… poised to pounce.
You might think there are more worthy candidates for “a dangerous woman;” that there are tons of other women who were (and are) more predatory or dangerous, threatening men, and perhaps other women… But think of this: Did Florence possess the power to bring down De Gaulle’s fledgling provisional government (1944-1946)—America’s antidote to Communism in Western Europe? We shall probably never know. While deportation papers were drawn up for the next French government to sign, a Communist one, no signature was ever affixed to the documents. Was it because of all those skeletons she so jealously guarded? And all those secrets held by her occupying Nazi lovers—some of whom were saved from death sentences? Undoubtedly. And what about her husband, Frank? Did he suffer? Yes. Could she have done more to save her starving friends? Yes. Most significantly, did she ever voice remorse for her actions? No. Never. And that’s what makes her story so compelling. On one hand, women and men may admire her. On the other, they recognize that it could well have been terrible to be called her “friend.” At the end of the day, Florence beat the system and nailed her philanthropist legacy to the mast of her charitable foundation, which has done great work for Franco-American amity. So, it seems Florence was right: money doesn’t care who owns it.
Susan Ronald is the author of A Dangerous Woman—American Beauty, Noted Philanthropist, Nazi Collaborator: The Life of Florence Gould.