By Laurie Fisher
AUTHOR TOM SANCTON UNPACKS ONE OF THE GREATEST SCANDALS IN MODERN MEMORY
THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR is a multi-generational family saga thatl has unfolded piecemeal in international newspapers and magazines over the past decade. The story revolves around a mother, the late French billionaire heiress lo the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune Liliane Bellencourt; the mother’s much younger male companion, artist François-Marie Banier; and Bttlencourt’s disgruntled daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, who set the drama in motion with a lawsuit contending that Banier had sweet-talked his way into huge chunks of the family fortune. It’s a complex, winding scandal involving Nazi collaborators, snooping butlers, corrupt politicians, at least three suicides, and tons of money. Thankfully Tom Sancton, New Orleans native, naturalized French citizen, and former Paris Bureau Chief for TIME, has firmed up this soapy saga with extensive research and interviews in his terrific new book, THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR: THE WORLD’S RICHEST WOMAN AND THE SCANDAL THAT ROCKED PARIS (DUTTON). Here, we ask Sancton about the particulars.
LAURIE FISHER: You include an excerpt from F Scott Fitzgerald at the beginning of your book: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." How do you think the conflicts between Bettencourt, Banier, and Bettencourt-Meyers would have played out if such a vast amount of money were not involved?
TOM SANCTON: It's hard to imagine a scenario involving these characters that does not revolve around the immense Bettencourt fortune. Without it, I don't think Liliane would have had an important position in society—she had no particular talents or skills. I doubt that Banier would have been attracted to her because the thing that jump started their friendship was her decision to finance his artistic career. As for Françoise, she seems not to have been comfortable growing up in an ultra-wealthy milieu. As a mature woman Françoise became obsessed with protecting the family fortune when she felt it was threatened by Banier. That's what triggered her suit and gave birth to the whole Bettencourt affair.
IF: Regardless of wealth or status, we all experience the inherent stress of complex relationships. What do you think the average person could learn from how the wealthy and influential handle this common human experience?
TS: Wealth was a complicating factor in these relationships, but I think the fundamental problems were not limited to the rich. The main thing the average person can take away from all this is that honesty and frankness are essential in all successful relationships. Liliane's problems with her daughter, going back to Françoise's teen years, could have been eased with some straight talk between them. As for Liliane and Banier, they talked constantly and exchanged thousands of letters over the years. I'm not sure how much frankness was involved—based on the correspondence there was a lot of coquetry. Still they managed to keep their intense relationship going for a quarter-century That says something about the value of communication.
LF: You have described it as"Dallas Downton Abbey, and House of Cards rolled into one." Would you please consider a screenplay for The Bettencourt Affair? It would be the next big thing everyone is binge-watching!
TS: Funny you should mention that. I wouldn't attempt a screenplay myself because I'm not a screenwriter. But my agent is shopping around the idea of a movie or TV series and there are actually a couple of nibbles Stay tuned…