Monday, June 21, 2010

MAGPIE TALES: The Sad Fate of Claudette Opinel

(Magpie Tale 19. The others are here.)

Just as Mrs. Remington, wife of the inventor of the rifle, was accused of shifting from eccentric to outright batty in her dotage, similar stories have circulated about Claudette Opinel. And just as the Remington rifle was invented for hunting and self defense, it and the practical Opinel knife would also fall into many a criminal hand that would lead poor Madame Opinel into her final state of madness.

Of course, much of this has long been circulating as myth, rumor and legend in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne where the handsome and efficient knives have long been manufactured in the shadows of the French Alps. Stories started emerging in the late 1890s as people speculated about the logo, designed by Henri Louis Vourbrant, long rumored to be Claudette's love toy who began as an office apprentice to her husband, Joseph, but soon became a member of the household. The crown on the knife is the crest of Savoie, and the hand is said to represent the hand of John the Baptist, three fingers of which were brought back in the Fifth century crusades by Saint Tecla as holy relics. This seemed a fitting emblem on the knife, since it is said that Joseph cut off two of Henri's right hand fingers when he caught Claudette in his embrace in the summer kitchen. "J'accuse, Henri! Now your hand shall never bear a wedding ring nor steal the embrace of another married woman."

Relations between Joseph and Claudette slowly chilled while their fortunes increased. Claudette became despondent, retreating to the tower room of the north wing of their mansion, supposedly reading love letters from Henri who had long since retreated to Cherbourg where he opened up a profitable chain of pastry shops and wed a Latvian woman who showed no disdain for his missing digits.

When Joseph died in the early teens on the eve of the great war, Claudette assumed leadership of the now massive knife firm that had sold millions of those sharp tools. Yet she became obsessed with reading obituaries and once was said to have subscribed to 3,200 newspapers from around the world, hiring Aymaran and Cantonese translators, scrounging for obituaries and murder reports in which the weapon was a knife. Even if the Opinel name was not mentioned, she would send a small stipend, eventually bankrupting the firm that would go into receivership by the mid-1920s. Claudette was sequestered to a sanatorium on the shores of Lake Como where she was secluded in a distant cottage and never allowed to read anything but old volumes of Plato, Dickens and Grimm's tales for tots. In her late 80s when the Second World War broke out, she was oblivious to the meaning of German bombers flying above the lake. She peered from her window at the massive machines of steel in the sky, crying, "The knives have taken to the sky! The knives have taken to the sky to claim their latest victims!"



At 7:25 AM, Blogger Karin på FOX said...

Thanks for sharing this extraordinary story about the persons behind my favourite knife!

At 7:59 AM, Blogger RA said...

I love what you did with this. A great Magpie! :)

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Tumblewords: said...

A strange life, well told.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger willow said...

Claudette Opinel! Your tales are the best. I love how her reading material was restricted.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Karin - Well, it is primarily fiction, though that is the town where they are made.

RA - Thanks and we appreciate you visiting.

Tumblewords - Aren't the best lives usually just a bit on the strange side?

Willow - Dur, dur d'être Claudette.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Berowne said...

Fascinating story.


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