'The Bettencourt Affair': Extravagant Friendship Or Cruel Swindle?

Aug 12, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 1:21 am

Great scandals often begin in passion or ambition. But how do you explain France's l'affaire Bettencourt?

Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world, is now locked off from the world by Alzheimer's disease. She is heir to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune of nearly $40 billion. Why would she have given perhaps as much as a billion dollars in cash, real estate, and art to François-Marie Banier, an artist and photographer who is a quarter of a century younger and openly gay? Was it extravagant support for a friend — or the cruel swindle of a senior citizen?

Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, Liliane's daughter, filed a criminal case alleging the latter, sparking a scandal that fascinated France for a decade. Now, Tom Sancton — former Paris bureau chief for Time — has written a book about it, called The Bettencourt Affair.

He says Banier met Bettencourt when he came to shoot a portrait of her. "They just kind of hit it off. He's very, how shall I say, up-front, sometimes flippant, he's socially unpredictable, let's say. I think he kind of destabilized her," by ordering her to change her clothes and her poses. "She was used to being kowtowed to, and this was a breath of fresh air," Sancton says. "It wasn't, I don't think, by any means a physical relationship, but it developed into what I describe as a platonic love affair."


Interview Highlights

On Bettencourt's life before Banier

Although she was a very, very wealthy woman, at the time that she met him she was depressed, she was bored, she was living a very constrained, confined, codified, bourgeois life, and she was very unhappy. She had a terrible relationship with her daughter Francoise, who was very introverted and more interested in her books and her piano than the kind of lifestyle ... her parents led. Her husband was a closeted homosexual himself, and really obsessed with his own political career, which he funded with Liliane's money. So there she was in a gilded cage, and very lonely. And Banier showed up that day ... in 1987, and he just opened doors to a life she couldn't imagine before.

On the dark history of the Bettencourt family

The book is not about the legal battle. I mean, that's the central theme, but Eugène Schueller, who was Liliane's father, was a brilliant chemist, and actually invented synthetic hair dye, and on that basis founded L'Oreal, which is ... now the world's biggest cosmetic firm, and the basis for his fabulous fortune and Liliane's fabulous fortune. Brilliant man, brilliant businessman, brilliant chemist, but he had a flaw, he had a weakness for fascist ideology. Incredibly, L'Oreal's sales quadrupled during the war years — you couldn't do that without the blessing of the occupying forces. So that's the kind of dark cloud hanging over the family and hanging over L'Oreal.

On whether he believes Bettencourt was swindled

No, I don't. Personally, I don't. Bear in mind that Banier was ultimately convicted of abusing her, but I personally think that she knew what she was doing. She knew that she was giving a large, maybe extravagant amount of money to Banier, but she said she was doing it of her own free will, in order to support his artistic endeavors. I think she made it clear from the beginning that yeah, that's a lot of money, but she said, in proportion to my fortune, it's minuscule. Which is true. But he didn't put a gun to her head, and every statement she made about her motivations and her intentions make it clear that in her own mind, this is what she wanted to do.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Great scandals often begin in passion or ambition, but how do you explain the Bettencourt affair in France? Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in the world, is now locked off from the world by Alzheimer's. She's heir to the L'Oreal cosmetics fortune of nearly $40 billion. Why would she give maybe as much as a billion dollars in cash, real estate and art to Francois-Marie Banier, an artist and photographer who's a quarter of a century younger and openly gay. Was it extravagant support for a friend or the cruel swindle of a senior citizen? Liliane's daughter filed a criminal case, and the resulting scandal has been followed in France revelation by revelation for a decade.

Tom Sancton has written "The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman And The Scandal That Rocked Paris." He is the former longtime Paris bureau chief for Time and a bestselling author. He joins us from the BBC in Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM SANCTON: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: At the heart seems to be the spark of whatever passed between Liliane Bettencourt and Francois-Marie Banier, what he called an extraordinary encounter when he came to shoot her portrait in 1987. Tell us about that day.

SANCTON: Well, he was at that time a photographer and known for celebrity portraits. He'd also written successful novels. He was actually a rather multi-talented artist, but he was assigned as a photographer to go take her portrait. And they just kind of hit it off. He's very, how shall I say, upfront, sometimes flippant. He's socially unpredictable, let's say. So he - I think he kind of destabilized her by the way he talked to her, you know, saying, you know, pose here, do this, do that. He made her change her pants. He made her - he changed her hair style. And I think...

SIMON: People don't talk to someone with $40 billion that way.

SANCTON: Exactly. And she was used to being kowtowed to. And this was a breath of fresh air. And so they - she began to invite him over. In the afternoons, they'd have tea together. And eventually, it developed into a very close friendship, although he's 25 years younger and he's openly homosexual. It wasn't I don't think by any means a physical relationship, but it developed into what I describe as a platonic love affair.

SIMON: And I made a note of a quote, 2008 letter that she wrote him. Let me read it. It says, with you, I am like a mother, a lover. All the feelings pass through me. It makes me tremble.

SANCTON: Yes, that's a remarkable quote. Although she was a very, very wealthy woman, at the time that she met him, she was depressed. She was bored. She was living a very constrained, confined, codified bourgeois life. And she was very unhappy. She had a terrible relationship with her daughter, Francoise, who was very introverted and more interested in her books and her piano than the kind of lifestyle or the dinner parties and the sort of lifestyle that her parents led. Her husband was a closet homosexual himself and really obsessed with his own political career, which he funded with Liliane's money.

So there she was in a gilded cage and very lonely. And Banier showed up that day we've just described, that day that he had the photo session in 1987. And he just opened doors to a life she couldn't imagine before. He introduced her to artists and writers and actors and took her to art galleries and art auctions and theater. And it was just a breath of fresh air. And she just rushed to embrace it.

SIMON: During the 10 years that this story has played out too, so many other factors got dragged in. I mean, it's not a good scandal in France without a Nazi.

SANCTON: (Laughter) Well, this - it's really a saga. You know, it's not just - the book is not just about the legal battle. I mean, that's the central theme. But Eugene Schueller, who was Liliane's father, was a brilliant chemist and actually invented synthetic hair dye and on that basis founded L'Oreal, which is the world's - now the world's biggest cosmetics firm. And that was the basis for his fabulous fortune and Liliane's fabulous fortune.

Brilliant man, brilliant businessman, brilliant chemist, but he had a major flaw, which he was - he had a weakness for fascist ideology. Incredibly, L'Oreal's sales quadrupled during the war years. You couldn't do that without the blessing of the occupying forces. So that's the kind of dark cloud hanging over the family and hanging over L'Oreal.

SIMON: Do you believe she was swindled?

SANCTON: No, I don't personally. I don't. Bear in mind that Banier was ultimately convicted of abusing her. But I personally think that she knew what she was doing. She knew she was giving a large or maybe extravagant amount of money to Banier, but she said she was doing it of her own free will in order to support his artistic endeavors. I think she made it clear from the beginning that, yeah, it's a lot of money. But as she said, in proportion to my fortune, it's miniscule, which is true. But he didn't put a gun to her head. And every statement she made about her motivations and her intentions make it clear that in her own mind, this is what she wanted to do.

SIMON: You, I gather from the book, rather liked him.

SANCTON: Oh, Banier?

SIMON: Yeah.

SANCTON: I thought he was a fascinating character. He's charming. He's seductive.

SIMON: And writers like fascinating characters.

SANCTON: Yes, absolutely. You know, if I were writing a novel and invented a character like that, I'd be very, very proud of myself. But he certainly has his flaws. I mean, he's a - he is self-interested. He's very materialistic, also very cultivated and a talented artist. Once Liliane's mental faculties started to slip and her memory got foggy and, you know, she - it became clear over the years that she was not entirely with it.

Personally, I think he should have at that point said, OK, I'm not going to accept anymore. Thank you very much. But he - as he said, it would have - it gave her so much pleasure to give him things, give him money, that it would have hurt her feelings and he didn't want to do that, so he accepted.

SIMON: Oh, he was just worried about her feelings.

SANCTON: Well, as I say, he's a complex character, but I did find him fascinating.

SIMON: A French scandal and there's no sex. I've got to tell you, I loved the book, but I was a little disappointed.

SANCTON: I was a little disappointed too when I began to investigate this. I thought, OK, it's got everything. It's got seduction. It's got lots of money. It's got political intrigue. It's got Nazi collaborators. It's got beautiful women. But I didn't dwell on that.

SIMON: Oh, it's plenty spicy. Tom Sancton. His book, "The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman And The Scandal That Rocked Paris." Thanks so much for being with us.

SANCTON: Thank you. I've enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.