We tell you the story worthy of a detective novel from the Zoo in Nice

On November 20, 1906, the Cap-de-Croix district of Nice was in revolt! Not only is the Cimiez Zoo bankrupt, but the Countess of Lagrange, founder and owner of the zoo, has just been found dead, a bullet in the heart.

The event will feed the local chronicle for many weeks. It must be said that the career of Émilie Victorine Girard, alias Léa d’Ascot, alias Comtesse de Lagrange, is not trivial and has left its mark on Nice’s history.

From unknown in Paris to Countess of Nice

Émilie Victorine Girard was born on December 14, 1852, Faubourg Saint-Martin in Paris, by an unknown father. As a teenager, this girl has only one thing on her mind, namely to succeed in a theater career.

As an 18-year-old, she set out to conquer the entertainment world under the pseudonym Léa d’Ascot. She plays on the big Parisian boulevards, but she wants more.

To be noticed, she wears bubbly outfits, rides a balloon, smokes a cigar, walks surrounded by a procession of mixed women. She does everything to get people to talk about her and she does it very well.

In the late 19th century, Nice opened, frequented by winter visitors, traders and a panel of adventurers, theaters and casinos.

In general, they call on Parisian actors and dancers, who often only come to spend the season. But not Léa d’Ascot, who with her cigars, provocative clothes and her exotic procession aroused sensation as soon as she arrived in 1886. She quickly became the star of the Théâtre Français in Nice.

It was there that she met Count Trippier de Lagrange. Son of a large Mayenne family, after inheriting a rapidly wasted fortune, the man resembles a count of operettas.

They fell in love and married on May 31, 1889. They settled in the farm Maître Desforges in the Cap-de-Croix district of Cimiez, then in full expansion.

From the Breton farm to the zoo

The two eccentrics quickly understood the potential of this “Breton farm”. They open it to the public, as if on Sunday, come with their families to drink milk and eat cream cheese.

Considering the success, they created a few attractions: sheep shooting, slides, land balls. But everything will change the day the count, when he returns from a business trip, brings his wife a strange gift: an amazing lioness.

Seduced by the feline, the Countess then decides to turn her farm into a zoo. To find capital, she teamed up with a Parisian merchant, Albert Sénéchal (who later set up the Compagnie anonyme des tramways de Nice-Cimiez).

As for the count, he is responsible for traveling the world to bring back various exotic animals. It was during a stay in Singapore that he died in 1893. The Countess then had him erect a giant statue in the center of the park.

Happy with the idea of ​​having a zoo in Cimiez, individuals enrich the collections of unknown animals in France and even fund an artificial lake where swans evolve. Cimiez Zoo is also the first in Europe to receive a gorilla.

From success to failure

Besides being attractive, the park is beautifully flowered and fragrant. An outdoor theater and a concert hall contribute to the attraction of the place.

In 1897, the Countess made full use of the property, one of the most beautiful on the Côte d’Azur. She provided the park with a casino, a restaurant and even created a press organ dedicated to her own megalomania, The awakening of Cimiez.

At the beginning of the 20th century, after the “unexpected” fire in the casino, the insurance paid him the handsome sum of one hundred thousand francs. Then follows a true madness of labor and expense.

In March 1904, she remarried Alfred de Lestapis, a Bordeaux merchant. But the couple is a little too interested in questionable real estate deals.

We also do not know if there is cause and effect, but in April 1905, Léa d’Ascot fell victim to a gun attack. She gets away with it, but decides to acquire a weapon.

Then the trouble begins. She is accused by some shareholders of forgery, use of forgery and extortion. Everyone leaves her, even the municipality refuses her help.

Destroyed and abandoned by her husband, she has to mortgage everything: jewelry, artwork, gaming privileges, doorsteps and even live animals. On April 2, 1906, the zoo was declared bankrupt.

The end of an adventurer

The sale of the park was scheduled for November 22, 1906. But to everyone’s surprise on the morning of the 19th, Léa d’Ascot rounded out her creditors and showed off a pile of 500-franc notes.

So the Countess would have found the money? A few purchases and she returns to the zoo to celebrate the end of her troubles. The next morning a shot erupted followed by a scream from his room. Her employees find her dying. Time to seek help, she breathes.

The superintendent and forensic pathologist decreed after various observations that after a fall the shot would have left the revolver, which she always wore, and would have crossed her chest.

Accident? Suicide? But where did the ball and especially the money go? The rumors swell. And why not a crime? Investigations are conducted and bring testimony from workers who arrived quickly at the scene.

They are formal: “the location of the revolver a few inches from the Countess’s head cannot be the result of an accident”. Possibly a suicide that she would have disguised as a crime to receive the last rituals and be buried in Christian soil …

Could it be a perfectly executed comedy by a former actress? But the possibility of a crime has never really been ruled out. Émilie Victorine de Lagrange will be buried on November 21 in the Cimiez Monastery, while the mystery remains intact.


Sources: Nice County and its history and the magazine Mesclun No. 4 (1984).

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