Chiffon is wearing a bright-red blouse and a multicolored scarf and carries a leather pouch stuffed with papers. It's easy to see why so many people have fallen for her stories--she is tolerably brash, quick-witted and, despite the fact that her French accent is hanging on for dear life, eloquent. She also is adept at retaining just enough of the truth to be believable. "This is all that I have left," she says, patting the pouch. "I've been reduced to this." Just prior to being arrested, she had been staying at the Cascade Hills Motel in Cascade; a motel spokesman says she left all her belongings behind and owes them $350. "I am no stranger to hard times," Chiffon says. "I have been homeless before. When I was first divorced and I had my children, we slept on the floor."
That was a long way from her childhood. Chiffon's father was a wealthy businessman and the American vice-consul to Martinique from 1926 to 1937--or at least, some man named Schausten was; her mother is a French marquise who lives in Versailles. A former close friend of Chiffon's who asks to remain nameless--she's one of several people who say they fear retaliation from Chiffon if they are identified in this story--suggests that while Chiffon's childhood was rife with material rewards, it was lacking in love. Chiffon, however, paints a happier picture. "As a child, I grew up with the best. I had the best and I'm used to the best," she says. "I was driven to school by a chauffeur. I had everything I wanted. I was very fortunate that, because my parents were in this wonderful position, I had the education that I had."
The family traveled extensively because of her father's work, and they threw frequent parties. "My parents would entertain four, five, six hundred people every night," Chiffon says. "And because of his position, he was entertaining the world. That is where I learned the food business." As a youngster she spent her evenings darting in and out of the kitchen watching the preparations, her curiosity pushing her to pester the cooks and beg them to let her help.
"I became a good chef, too," she says. "And I can make a lot of money doing that. I learned to cook in many countries. I've lived in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, North Africa. My father passed away in 1943, my mother remarried, and my stepfather ended up being a vice-admiral in the French navy. So we traveled the world.
"I was very, very fortunate. Very fortunate."
Just when things changed for her is unclear. Chiffon moved to the United States, to Chicago, in 1958, married and bore four children. That first marriage ended in divorce; she then married Prager, who would not allow his first name to be used in this story. He says they divorced "fifteen or sixteen years ago" and adds that they were married and divorced twice. "When I met her, she could charm the bird off a tree. My, she was charming. Of course, you don't know about a person until you live with them," Prager adds.
He's since spent a lot of time thinking about Chiffon and wondering why she turned out the way she did. "I believe her problems started because she wanted her children to have it all," he says. "Our years together weren't easy. I helped her raise those four children, and it's sad, because I know two of them won't talk to her anymore. Really, she's a hell of a woman, and she loves her children. She was as good a mother as I've ever heard of.
"She had a good life as a youngster," he adds, "and then kind of fell on hard times after her first marriage. The thing is that when most people are in that kind of situation, they tighten their belts and eat beans until it passes.
"Chiffon would never eat beans."
Prager thinks that writing bad checks became a hard habit for Chiffon to break, and he says many people who loved her--including himself--tried to get her to seek psychiatric help. But she never did, even though she admits she has a problem. "I blame the system," she says. "You have your Alcoholics Anonymous, you have your drugs anonymous, even rapists get rehab in jail. But there is nothing, nothing for bad-check writers.