Writer, Jazz Musician
by Jason Berry
|Greg Miles photograph © 2017|
Tom Sancton grew up in New Orleans in the 1960s, and in high school learned jazz clarinet from George Lewis and other musicians at Preservation Hall. In fall 1967 he entered Harvard as a freshman; four years later he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. He became a journalist, based for many years in Paris as Time’s bureau chief.
In 1997, Sancton covered the automobile accident in which Princess Diana was killed. He and a Time colleague, Scott MacLeod, wrote a best-seller, Death of a Princess. He left Time to write other books and work as a freelance.
Like many people changed by Hurricane Katrina, Sancton was pulled back to New Orleans to assist his aging parents; he ended up staying, revitalizing his jazz career, recording with Lars Edgran and others. In 2006 he published Song for my Fathers, a memoir of the complex relationship with his father, and his years of learning at Preservation Hall. “A newly minted classic,” wrote Susan Larson in the Times-Picayune, “filled with grace and gratitude.” For several years he taught writing at Tulane. His wife, Sylvaine Sancton, is an accomplished artist.
Sancton’s new book appears in August. The Bettencourt Affair follows the saga of Liliane Bettencourt, 94, heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune and he world’s wealthiest woman. Her daughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, sued to gain control of the wealth after Liliane showered huge sums on François-Marie Banier, a writer-photographer and much younger gay man whom she adored. The legal actions exposed a seamy world of money-grubbing French politicians.
How did you get into this story? In 2010 there was a media feeding frenzy in Paris over “the Bettencourt Affair.” It was such a rich story with family drama and this flamboyant character in Banier. Liliane gave him hundreds of millions of dollars. Her daughter got fed up and sued him for elder abuse.
In the French system, magistrates investigate and decide whether to send a case to trial. The media coverage had a political subplot. President Nicolas Sarkozy was accused of getting illegal campaign funds from the Bettencourt fortune, which prompted comparisons to Watergate. Sarkozy lost a reelection bid.
All this was bubbling up in 2010 when I wrote a piece on the case for Vanity Fair. It took five years to wend through the justice system. In 2015, my literary agent suggested a book. I stupidly said “eighteen months” when asked about a delivery date. Writing 100,000 words is one thing. I had to do an incredible amount of reading, archival research and more than 60 interviews.
After many years in France, did you learn anything new about the country? The lingering aftershocks of World War II still ripple through French society. Liliane’s father was a Nazi collaborator in the war and created a huge fortune building L’Oréal. A deep fault line in French society runs between collaborators and the Resistance. What I learned in doing the book re-enforced that. The family fortune financed the career of André Bettencourt, Liliane’s husband, a mediocre man who donated huge sums to candidates and parties over many decades. He was given cabinet positions in several conservative governments, decorated with the Legion of Honor, yet he wrote horrible anti-semitic diatribes for a pro-German paper during the war.
And finally, there was the extravagance of characters like Banier -- he was one of the beautiful people close to Salvador Dali, President François Mitterrand, and more recently Johny Depp. He collected people and they collected him. He’s like the character of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, Eugène de Rastignac, a quintessential social striver from the provinces, ruthlessly ambitious who decides he’s going to take over Paris, be the darling of society.
Banier had done three best selling novels by age 25. I don’t want to give away the ending, but he was very accessible to me. Liliane was very rich but unfulfilled and bored when he arrived in 1987 for a magazine photo shoot. She fell for him and he saw the advantage of a platonic affiar. He did have affection for her. He opened the world of arts, theatre, and auction houses to Liliane, introduced her to fascinating people, gave her a new lease on life when she was tremendously depressed. Under the guise of patronage, she gave him a collossal fortune.
Do you see parallels with Tom Benson, being sued by his adult children and grandchildren?
The Bettencourt Affair is an example of a common phonemenon in our societies. Elderly people who at some point seem to be losing discrenment, and questions revolve around the fortune and the companies they own, for their succession, and relationships with their family members. The court case was launched by the daughter, Françoise, who had a horrible relationship with her mother and was jealous of the affections Banier enjoyed. But questions about the competence of powerful, wealthy people are raised. In such cases, members of the family are trying to prove the incompetence of the matriarch or the patriarch, as one sees in Benson.