The Red Thief in the White Gloves

Phil Casoar, journalist, author and illustrator is working on a book abook about Raoul Saccorotti, an Italian known as the “Grenoble Arsene Lupin” in the 1930s. A big-hearted thief bound by friendship to Modane’s own Jean Fenati.

Phil Casoar: “I’ve been on the trail of Raoul Saccorotti for over 4 years now and the more I find out about him the more questions I have. I first heard his name mentioned back in the 1980s in the home of an elderly anarchist friend of mine. He told me that back in 1938 he had hidden a fugitive, the celebrated Raoul, in his box room in Paris. An extraordinary fellow, refined and funny, with the gift of the gab and, of course, somewhat given to fibbing. He was a rogue but a very likable rogue. My friend told me that Raoul had been front page news at the time and was nick-named ‘the Grenoble Arsène Lupin’.”

Raoul was a thief. They reckon that between 1931 and 1938 he burgled 300 barns, attics and sheds in Grenoble. For a long time the Surete in Grenoble failed to connect these thefts. But in the end the police woke up to their having all the same modus operandi: the thief left no traces, no fingerprints. After rifling through everything, he would replace it as it had been before scarpering with his swag. It was sometimes several months before his victims even noticed that something was missing from their barn. Softly-softly burglaries by a white-gloved thief.

He would steal just about anything: expensive furniture, silverware, furs … but the fact of the matter is that never grew rich on it. And there is another enduring puzzle: what became of the money? What we know is that he redistributed part of the proceeds in cash or in kind to working class Italian families. Doling out cash right and left … He found huge stocks of clothing in storehouses and set up a depot in the home of his landlady in Domène near Grenoble. Italian workers were able to turn up and help themselves. Raoul was part Arsène Lupin, part Mandrin and part Robin Hood.

Raoul Saccorotti was the third born son of a family from the Genoese petite bourgeoisie. His father passed away suddenly from pneumonia. And with 9 children, his mother was forced to manage as best she could. During the First World War, his two older brothers left for the front and Raoul must have been left to his own devices in the backstreets of Genoa. In 1916, he was arrested for the first time, for stealing door-knockers. Shortly after that, he was caught for stealing lead flashing from a roof. This was metal that could be sold on by weight. In the end he served several years in prison in Italy and did not arrive in France until 1930. For a long time he kept below the radar and led a double life. He was respectably married to the daughter of a stylish Grenoble tailor. In the mornings, he worked for his father-in-law, delivering suits to upper class areas. And was casing joints at the same time! He had been given the afternoons off because he had told his father-in-law that he was dabbling in antiques and needed the time off for antique-hunting and visiting sales rooms. Actually, he was out robbing attics. Basically his thieving was not driven by need. I reckon he was a compulsive kleptomaniac.

His in-laws knew nothing of what he was up to. And once he was exposed in 1938 his wife Raymonde had her eyes opened. She immediately sought a divorce and did all she could to see that he was caught.

As to his links to Modane, they were through Jean Fenati, an antifascist of the first wave. Arrested by the carabinieri in 1923, he managed to escape. And Fenati crossed the border disguised as a priest under cover of being on a pilgrimage to Charmaix!

Jean Fenati tried his hand at 36 trades but eventually bought a hairdressing salon in Fourneaux which came to be the HQ for local antifascists. Fenati looked after the smuggling of fugitives out of Italy, distributed the antifascist press, brought in speakers … and is supposed even to have devised a plan to assassinate Mussolini: a plane was to have been assembled in Aussois before flying to Rome to bomb the Duce!

By all appearances, Jean Fenati was in touch with other Italian antifascists in the region. And it was in such circles that he bumped into Raoul … When Saccorotti arrived in France in 1930, he joined the Socialist Party. This was doubtless a way of making a fresh start after his troubled times in Italy, but he also had some authentic social beliefs. For a long time I thought Raoul was an anarchist-turned-thief. In the end I realised that he was first and foremost a thief and only then became a fellow-traveller with the reds and the anarchists for a bit.

At this point he struck up a firm friendship with Jean Fenati. He visited Modane regularly, carrying in his suitcases watches and small gold objets d’art wrapped in cloth. Swag that he used to give away or fence cheaply.

But what with standing this one a drink and that one a meal and doling out money or clothing, Saccorotti eventually attracted attention. Socialist Party members told themselves that this big shot was an agent provocateur, a fascist plant. Raoul got nowhere with his explanation that the money had been left to him by his mother. As a token of good faith he even proposed that he slip inside the Italian consulate to steal papers and rubber-stamps that might be of use to the cause and then blow the place up! In the end, Raoul was thrown out of the party. There was only one person who still rusted him: Jean Fenati.

When they came to arrest him in Grenoble in 1938, Raoul took refuge in his own attic. And threatened the detectives that he would blow the whole place apart. While the authorities negotiated and made up their minds to act … Raoul vanished over the rooftops. Now on the run, he initially went to ground near Grenoble and then moved to Paris, moving in with an anarchist friend.

His trail runs cold for a while and then he turns up in Barcelona just as the region was being cut off from the rest of republican Spain: Raoul had been mixed up in the massive arms-trafficking during the Spanish war. Not only had he sent republicans some old rifles stolen from attics but he had also supplied the very latest machine-pistols.

Finally, Raoul popped up again in Marseille at the end of June 1938. There he was caught in the silliest conceivable way: he was recognised by a Garde Mobile from Domene who had just been posted to Marseilles. On the very day when Italy declared war on France, he was sentenced for receiving stolen goods. He was to serve 4 years in Grenoble before being sent to the Vernet d’Ariège camp for 6 months as an “undesirable”

He then applied for repatriation to Italy. But Italian Security were waiting in Menton to question him. Raoul explained to them that in fact although he had been a member of the Socialist Party and the Italian League for Human Rights (LIDU), he had joined them at the behest of the fascist authorities. In fact, he tried one final poker trick by passing himself off as a double agent. But this failed, because Rome had built up a very comprehensive dossier on him. All or almost all his activities were on record for agents planted in the ranks of socialists and anarchists in France had been monitoring him. Sentence to 5 years in a camp in the Tremiti islands as a dangerous subversive, Raoul was eventually quickly freed after the downfall of the Duce.

As for Jean Fenati, he had lost touch with Saccorotti during the Second World War. Fenati had been ‘lifted’ himself when Modane was occupied and spent a year in Italian camps. By the time he returned, Saccorotti was long gone. The belief in Modane was that he had been shot ….

After all these things, the pair kept in touch but it must have come as a shock for Fenati to find out that his friend was a thief. And his wife immediately forwarded to the clerk of the court in Grenoble an expensive violin that Saccorotti had offered their daughter.

After the war, Raoul Saccorotti set up home with a Russian heiress, a princess from the Ersistoff family, a family that lived comfortably off the revenue from its vodka brand … Raoul Saccorotti was like someone out of a novel, continually reinventing himself. And actually he really did turn into a character from a novel, turning up in Salvatore Gotta’s novel, Ruins in Portofino.

From: From Terra Modana, No 104, October 2011. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.