The Bettencourt Affair by Tom Sancton, review by Bruce Jacobs
In The Bettencourt Affair, former Paris bureau chief for Time magazine Tom Sancton (Death of a Princess) narrates the legal battle between 94-year-old L'Oréal heir Liliane Bettencourt and her daughter, Françoise Meyers, over Liliane's estate and late-in-life companion François-Marie Banier.
Liliane is the only child of a chemist who parlayed a nontoxic hair dye into a behemoth fashion conglomerate. When he died, she inherited the stock and actively participated on its board and subsidiary investments. A fashionable, assertive, powerful and wealthy woman, Liliane married André Bettencourt, who was more suited to the bureaucratic and political positions he held for 30 years than he was to managing a private empire--or entertaining Liliane's social and artistic whims. Their daughter, Françoise, grew up with a disinterested father and a strong mother disappointed in her child's introverted inclinations. She married the banker Jean-Pierre Meyers. In the interest of estate planning, Liliane set up an inheritance trust whereby Françoise and her two sons would receive her L'Oréal stock upon her death, but Liliane would get all the dividends during her lifetime. Everybody was plenty rich, but nobody was especially happy.
Banier was a gay photographer, artist and writer who insinuated himself into celebrity circles with humor and charm. Although only 40, he and 65-year-old Liliane hit it off, and she began to visit galleries and museums with him. She bought him art. She funded his studios and photography exhibits. Soon she was buying him apartments and vacation homes. Over 20 years, Banier received almost a billion euros worth of goodies from the captivated heiress. Françoise appeared miffed that Banier seemed to have become the child to her mother that she had never been.
When André died in 2007, Françoise hired a high-profile lawyer to seek criminal charges against Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness), and all hell broke loose in the Bettencourt kingdom. When the conflict leaked to the press, the public ate it up. Nothing like a good fight among the moneyed French royalty. The investigation uncovered secret payments to politicians (including then President Sarkozy), clandestine changes in life insurance beneficiaries, witness tampering, offshore bank accounts, a legacy of anti-Semitism and more. Françoise's position was that her mother was bilked by a crooked gigolo. She argued: "Has anyone ever seen an artist 'subsidized' on the level of a billion euros? With a billion, you can build the Louvre." Liliane dismissed the suit as the snit of a jealous, vengeful daughter. As a friend of hers put it: "When you have 20 billion euros, and your daughter is rich, what's a mere billion? It's her own fortune and she can do what she wants with it."
A longtime reporter on a foreign desk, Tom Sancton knows Paris and has done his homework. Françoise, her husband and sons now control L'Oréal, and Sarkozy's political career ended in controversy. Three involved in the case committed suicide, and Banier was convicted with a fine and suspended sentence. And Liliane now lives in lavish dementia care with a mind totally removed from worldly cares. The Bettencourt Affair is a devilishly engaging immersion into a world few of us can imagine.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.