This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.
Contact: tomsancton@yahoo.com

Saturday, August 12, 2017

NPR REVIEW OF THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR



One of my favorite reviews so far! NPR's Nina Martyris really did her homework and really "got" it. 



A former Time Paris bureau chief, Tom Sancton is perfectly placed to document this extraordinary story and the haute Parisian power milieu in which it is embedded. 









By Nina Martyris
August 12, 2017


Liliane Bettencourt, the beautiful heiress to the L'Oréal cosmetics empire and richest

woman in the world, had everything. But she was also bored stiff. Enter François- Marie Banier, a handsome, talented, brazen, witty, gay novelist and photographer, an aesthete known to have a way with older women.

Emotionally and fiscally, their interests dovetailed: Banier opened up the stimulating art world to Bettencourt by escorting her to galleries, introducing her to his bohemian friends, reading aloud to her from Stendhal's Charterhouse, and being thrillingly irreverent in denouncing the giant Monet in her mansion as "hideous." Entranced, she lavished him with money and gifts, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, apartments, and millions in life-insurance policies. For 25 years, Bettencourt played the generous Galatea to Banier's Pygmalion, with the total of her largesse teetering to an incredible one billion euros.

In 2007, Bettencourt's only child, her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, filed a criminal suit against Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness), claiming that this "Rasputin" had ruthlessly exploited her then 84-year-old mother's oncoming dementia. Meyers, a quiet woman described by a friend as "an austere Carmelite nun," says her hand was forced when an eavesdropping chambermaid told her she had heard Banier asking to be adopted by Bettencourt.

The scandal, which electrified France for a decade, came to be known as the Bettencourt Affair.

The Bettencourt Affair is also the title of Tom Sancton's riveting page-turner chronicling this sweeping Tolstoyan saga. What started as a deeply personal mother- daughter drama spiraled into a colossal political scandal — L'Oréal is, after all, one of France's corporate crown jewels — that consumed and destroyed the presidency of "bling bling" Nicolas Sarkozy. In an unforeseen twist, secret tape recordings made by the Bettencourt butler – who hated Banier – revealed damaging conversations about illegal donations in the tens of thousands made by the Bettencourts to Sarkozy's campaign. As the scandal billowed and the Bettencourts' secret Swiss bank accounts and influence peddling came to light, detractors dug up the company's ugly past: how its founder, Bettencourt's father, had prospered under Nazi occupation, and how Bettencourt's husband André had authored several virulent anti-Semitic articles during the war.
 As Sancton dryly observes, "There was no dye that could hide the family's dark roots."

A former Time Paris bureau chief, Sancton is perfectly placed to document this extraordinary story and the haute Parisian power milieu in which it is embedded. In gripping but unsensational prose, he brings the debacle alive in its many dimensions, recreating not merely the lurid courtroom drama, but capturing "the ineffable sadness at its heart." He has an unerring journalistic eye for the telling vignette, evident in moments like Bettencourt happily showing off her tango footwork at a pastry salon in Buenos Aires, where she had travelled to visit an exhibition of Banier's work. Yes, she had bankrolled the exhibition, but in that carefree tango moment, she was a long way from the airless corporate world of L'Oreal. "I don't like blandness," she said in a rare interview. "I like salt." Banier was that salt.

Judiciously, Sancton doesn't take sides, restricting himself to perceptive observations about the Freudian motivations driving the dramatis personae of this family battle. Bettencourt comes across as a willful and lonely billionaire, but Sancton takes care to point out that profligate though her gift-giving might seem, she was, at least in the initial years of the friendship, hardly a batty old woman being preyed on by a sophisticated wolf. She had taken care to guard the family legacy by setting up a trust whereby her daughter and grandsons would receive almost all her L'Oréal stock upon her death. The rest of her money, she said fiercely, was hers to do with as she pleased.

Sancton describes Meyers as the awkward, studious, homebody daughter (she has written books on the Bible and Greek mythology) who has a frosty relationship with her mother and resents the dynamic interloper Banier. Of the three, she is the most inscrutable. Banier, whom Sancton interviews at length, is as brash and magnetic as "a character out of a Balzac novel." The child of an abusive father and utterly indifferent mother, he has spent his whole adult life forming deep and needy relationships with famous people like Salvador Dali, Vladimir Horowitz and Johnny Depp.

Today, Bettencourt, 94, is in the grips of Alzheimer's. Banier, found guilty, continues to work but is a "broken and wounded man." Meyers emerged victorious but faces serious charges of bribing a witness. In any case, as Sancton points out, years of mud-slinging, bitterness and airing of tawdry political secrets has ensured there are no winners. The Bettencourt affair has effectively made nonsense of the family's cherished motto, "live happy, live hidden." 

Friday, August 11, 2017

INTERVIEW ON PARIS-EXPAT.COM

Paris maven Terrance Gelenter recently interviewed me for his popular literary/cultural blog paris-expat.com:



 


TG: Discuss the origins of L’Orèal and Eugene Schueller

Eugène Schueller at the helm of his yacht
TS: Eugène Schueller, son of a baker and a domestic servant, was kind of a Horatio Alger figure who transcended his humble roots to attain a position of enormous wealth and power in France. Armed with a degree in chemistry, in invented a synthetic hair dye that gave birth to L’Oréal in 1909. The company prospered, expanded overseas, and eventually became the world’s number one cosmetics group. In addition to his brilliance as a chemist and entrepreneur, though, Schueller nursed far-right political views and financed one of the most notorious pro-fascist movements, La Cagoule, in the 1930s. He continued to support pro-German groups during Word War II, and actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. His wealth and connections allowed him to escape conviction in the post-war “épuration” trials, but as I document in my book, Schueller was not just an economic collaborator but a political supporter and informant of German security officials. After the war, he recruited a number of French collaborators and Nazi sympathizers into the ranks of L’Oréal, a fact that caused the company great embarrassment with it was revealed in the 1990s.

TG: What is the significance of L’Orèal and other marquee brands to France’s image and economy?

TS: L’Oréal is considered a “fleuron” of French industry—that is, a kind of flagship company that is important not just economically but also in terms of national prestige. L’Oréal is not only a major employer and tax contributor, but an emblem of France’s image as a fount of luxury, elegance, refinement, and glamour. This is also true of the big couture houses—YSL, Chanel, Dior, Cardin—and purveyors of luxury goods like LVMH. But L’Oréal’s position as the world’s number one cosmetics firm gives it an especially lofty status as a symbol of French prestige.


TG: You explore several issues in your book that need to be explained to American audiences.
• French political campaign financing and the way that politicians circumvent it

• French inheritance laws and the legal system that applies-no trial by jury

TS: French laws governing political financing are much more restrictive than U.S. laws. In the U.S, the existence of PACs and the Citizens United decision means, in effect, that there are no real limits on political funding. This is why the U.S. has the most expensive political campaigns in the world, and why major donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have an obscenely disproportionate weight in our electoral system. In France, individual contributions to political campaigns are currently limited to €7,500 ($8,800) per candidate per election, and companies are forbidden to make political donations. To circumvent these limits, French parties and politicians have historically resorted to a variety of illegal methods, including kickbacks on public works contracts, channeling money through cutout companies, and undeclared cash payments by donors like André Bettencourt. Bettencourt was a well-known and much solicited source of illegal political financing, which explains why he was given numerous cabinet positions over the years.

As for the French inheritance laws, they are still rooted in the Napoleonic Code. French law requires parents to leave an incompressible proportion of their estate to their children. In the case of an only child like Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, that portion is 50%. The remainder of the estate, known as the quotité disponible, may be left to anyone. In fact, Liliane Bettencourt had already bequeathed 92% of her estate to her daughter in 1992, so there was no legal barrier to her giving the rest to François-Marie Banier if she so chose. The daughter’s legal challenge was not based on inheritance laws but on her claim that Banier had taken advantage of Liliane’s declining mental powers. The suit was tried before a panel of three judges, since jury trials are only used in the case of violent crimes in France.


TG: Discuss the young Liliane, her marriage to André Bettencourt, her relationship with her daughter Françoise Bettencourt Myers and ultimately her relationship with François-Marie Banier.

Liliane, André, Françoise, 1988
TS: Liliane’s mother died when she was five. She was raised by her father, Eugène Schueller, whom she idolized almost to the point of obsession. In 1950, she married André Bettencourt, scion of a respected family from Normandy. Schueller had actively encouraged the marriage, but it was far from a perfect match for Liliane. A closet homosexual, and a mediocre man with no diplomas of any kind, André busied himself with a political career funded by his wife’s money. Meanwhile, Liliane had a difficult relationship with her introverted daughter, Françoise, more interested in her books and her piano than the active social life Liliane wanted her to lead. For all her wealth, Liliane was bored, lonely, and depressed. When Banier entered her life in 1987, he opened the doors to a whole new, exciting world of art exhibits, theater, museums, witty conversation, glittering company. She fell in love with him—though it was a platonic affair given Banier’s sexual orientation and the 25-year age gap between them. As their relationship developed, she began to shower him with artworks, cash, real estate, life insurance policies totaling, on paper at least, nearly a billion euros. She justified all this as patronage meant to fund Banier’s artistic career as a photographer, writer, and painter.


François-Marie Banier and Liliane Bettencourt 
Banier encouraged and accepted her extraordinary largesse, but he also had a genuine affection for her. Theirs was a complex relationship, but it would be mistake to reduce the whole thing to a cynical manipulation by a self-serving gigolo. Did Banier take advantage of their relationship for material gain? Undoubtedly. But I’m convinced that Liliane was a willing and knowing benefactor. The amounts involved seem mind-boggling to ordinary folk—myself included. But bear in mind that what she gave Banier was a tiny fraction of her overall fortune, and a fraction of the company stock she has already willed to her daughter.

TG: At the end of the day, although the alleged witness tampering by Françoise is yet to be adjudicated, what is the impact of L’Affaire Bettencourt?

TS: The scandal has definitely tarnished the image of the Bettencourt family in public opinion. Before it erupted, the Bettencourts lived discreetly, scrupulously avoiding the media spotlight. The suit launched by Liliane’s daughter in 2007 suddenly exposed the whole family to the harsh glare of public scrutiny. All the dirty laundry came out in the press—Liliane’s father’s murky past as a suspected Nazi collaborator, L’Oréal’s postwar infiltration by ex-Nazi sympathizers, André Bettencourt’s anti-Semitic wartime articles, Liliane’s health problems and creeping dementia, Françoise’s jealousy of Banier and resentment of her mother, secret Swiss bank accounts and tax evasion schemes, and of course the torrent of L’Oréal dividends that Liliane showered on Banier. Today, André is dead, Liliane lives in the fog of senility, and Françoise is under investigation for allegedly bribing a witness. Not much glory in all that for the once proud Bettencourts.

As for Banier, it is true that he will face no prison time and, on appeal, managed to avoid a ruinous fine. But he must live with the fact that he was found guilty in court of abusing the weakness of Liliane Bettencourt—he is a convicted felon. The case poisoned ten years of his life, cost him millions in legal fees, and gravely damaged his reputation. Today, 70 years old, he continues to work and enjoy a comfortable material life, thanks to Liliane’s millions. But he is in many ways a wounded, disgraced, and broken man.

Ex-Presdent Nicolas Sarkozy
Another victim of the Bettencourt Affair, at least indirectly, is Nicolas Sarkozy. At one point, he was put under formal investigation for allegedly accepting illegal campaign funds from the Bettencourts. Though those charges were dropped, the former president remains under investigation in a related case. Along with numerous other legal and political embroilments, the Bettencourt Affair contributed to his failed re-election bid in 2012 and his unsuccessful comeback attempt this year.


If there is a lesson in all this, perhaps it’s that we should not envy the super-wealthy. Their riches often bring more problems than they solve. This affair always reminds me of the opening line to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

To buy the book:

Amazon

Octavia Books






Thursday, August 10, 2017

AMAZON NAMES BETTENCOURT AFFAIR #1 HISTORY PICK FOR AUGUST!


I never thought of myself as a historian, but I'll take it!

The Best History Books of August


Chris Schluep
August 9, 2017

NUMBER 1
Shop on Amazon
Print Book | Kindle Book
The Bettencourt Affair could stand as fiction. But it's real. And this is not some faraway scandal from another time--it's a story and a trial that has kept the French public rapt. The affair involves 94-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the nearly forty-billion-dollar L’Oréal fortune. She's the world’s richest woman and the fourteenth wealthiest person. And she has a past that involves an expensive infatuation with a man who is not her husband, a tangled web of hidden secrets, divided loyalties, frayed relationships, and fractured families. All set in Paris.


http://www.omnivoracious.com/2017/08/the-best-history-books-august-amazon-book-review.html?linkId=40783293


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

PRINCESS MEETS HEIRESS IN THIS PARADE.COM INTERVIEW






In Princess Diana's Death and the Bettencourt Affair, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction 

By Becky Hughes

August 8, 2017




The Bettencourt affair may be one of the wildest high-society scandals of all time, but few Americans know it by name. Tom Sancton, author of new page-turner The Bettencourt Affair (Dutton), first broke the story in the U.S. for Vanity Fair in 2010, uncovering this Parisian intrigue involving Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman and heiress to the enormous L’Oréal fortune, and François-Marie Banier, a charismatic artist, and the legal battle that ensued after Banier received hundreds of millions of dollars in gifts from the aging heiress.

The Bettencourt Affair is not Sancton’s first foray into the world of celebrity scandal. After Princess Diana‘s tragic death in 1997, Sancton co-authored Death of a Princess, a deep journalistic dive to find the true story behind the circumstances of Diana’s death. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fatal crash, Sancton and co-author Scott MacLeod have updated Death of a Princess with all the latest information on the tragedy and its effects on the royal family today.

Parade caught up with Sancton to discuss the devastating loss of Princess Diana and the sensational story of the Bettencourt affair.

Twenty years after her death, what is Princess Diana’s legacy?

She’s kept this amazing aura she had—the queen of hearts, this very special person who was beautiful and photogenic and cultivated the press, when it suited her, and was fascinating for a number of reasons. I think the fact that she died young under those circumstances has projected her into some kind of special status. People who die young, like John F. Kennedy and James Dean, we’ll always think of them as the exceptional, young, charismatic people that they were when they left us.

How has Diana’s death affected the royal family today?

It was a terribly traumatic event. And the way that the royal family handled it, especially the queen, was very much criticized at the time. [The queen] didn’t really show, publicly anyway, the kind of grief and emotion and respect that people expected her to at the time, and I think she tried to make up for that, but it was an event that the royal family had a lot of trouble dealing with on many levels. It was certainly traumatic for the young princes, and for Prince Charles as well.

It was an unexpected and devastating human event that exploded in the middle of this family. They’re human beings, but they’re much more than that. They’re symbols, they’re monarchs, they represent the state. But on the human level, they were very much affected, and to some extent destabilized by it.

There are so many rumors and conspiracy theories still out there today. What do you think really happened that night?

Scott MacLeod and I examined every possible conspiracy theory that was written about or circulating on the internet or in any number of published books and articles. We came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a conspiracy. I think you can very easily explain, if you look at the circumstances, that a drugged and drunk driver, driving too fast to escape the pursuing paparazzi, just lost control of the car in the tunnel.

It’s a traffic accident that took place under unusual circumstances—but, nonetheless, a traffic accident. You don’t have to look too far for an explanation when you look at the state the driver was in. In our book, we laid out many other scenarios, conspiracy scenarios, and analyzed them and pursued them as far as we could. Basically, at the end of the day, we didn’t really buy into any of them.

Has any new information come out since you first wrote the book?

A lot has happened, because the book came out very quickly, just a few months after the accident. At that point the French investigation was still going on. And then it was followed by a very thorough British inquest. Both the French and the English concluded that there was no conspiracy. As far as the paparazzi goes, they were a contributing factor in the accident—but they were not held criminally responsible. In legal terms, the person held responsible was the driver who, unfortunately, was killed instantly in the accident.

And then there were other things that came out in subsequent years. It appears from forensic evidence that there was a second car, presumed to be a Fiat Uno, considered by many to have collided with the Mercedes that was used to drive Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana. The French investigators looked at thousands and thousands of cars, and there was one Fiat Uno that appeared to have been in an accident, to have been repainted, that matched descriptions by certain eyewitnesses.

And there were a number of different findings concerning different paparazzi who were in the tunnel or who were considered to have been part of that pursuit who were never actually apprehended or investigated, and so there was some speculation that some of them could have been involved in a conspiracy.


Your new book, The Bettencourt Affair, is about a more recent French scandal involving the family behind L’Oréal. Can you explain it for people who are unfamiliar with the story?

This legal case was an absolute obsession in France for years. What really got people’s attention was the characters involved—Liliane Bettencourt, the world’s richest woman, and this much younger, gay, kind of flamboyant, charming, boyish artist, François-Marie Banier, who received hundreds of millions of dollars from her over the years in gifts.

Then Bettencourt’s daughter [Françoise] sued Banier for elder abuse. Françoise and her mother, Liliane, had a terrible relationship, and Francoise decided in 2007, after her father died, to launch this suit against Banier.

Banier was not a household name by any means, but he had written three best-selling novels by the time he was 25. He was somebody who had had very close relationships with some very famous and accomplished, wealthy people, ranging from Salvador Dali to Vladimir Horowitz, Johnny Depp, dozens and dozens of very influential people. One of the intriguing things about the book and about his story is, who is this guy? How did he manage to charm and manipulate and fascinate so many important people?

You interviewed Banier in person. What did you learn about him?

He’s self-interested, he’s very self-centered, he’s materialistic—there are sides of him that are not necessarily that admirable. But on the other hand, he is a fascinating conversationalist. He’s a workaholic, he goes out and does street photography every morning. In the afternoons, he works on his novels. He works 16, 18 hours a day.

The thing that struck me most was how aggrieved he was at this whole thing. His take on it is, look, Liliane Bettencourt was lonely, she was bored, she was depressed, and I came along and opened the doors to this exciting worl

d of art galleries and auctions and travel and theater, and I introduced her to some fascinating people and saved her life.

And she actually said this many times in writing, in letters to her lawyers. So Banier considers that his role was a very positive, almost altruistic role, and that it was normal that she gave him what she felt like giving him. If you total up what he got, it was just a tiny, tiny fraction of her fortune. She was in love with him, in a platonic way.

But Liliane and Banier are no longer in contact?

In 2010, her lawyers and her family almost sequestered her away from him. Every time he tried to call her house or contact her, he’d be told by domestic servants that she wasn’t available, and finally he realized that he wouldn’t be able to see her anymore.

And now Liliane’s daughter is under investigation for witness tampering.

It would be a horrible irony, really, if the person who launched this whole legal battle wound up the final victim. This is the final act of this very complicated legal battle. What Françoise did, basically, was give 700,000 euros to her star witness, former accountant of the Bettencourt family.

I think it’s very unlikely that she would be sent to jail, though that particular crime has a maximum three-year prison sentence and a 45,000-euro fine. The fine she could pay out of her pocket change, that’s no problem.

What do you want readers to take away from The Bettencourt Affair?

The book is really a saga; it’s not just a legal battle. It’s about three generations of this very wealthy family and what’s become of them today. The lesson I come back to is very simple: Money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s not a guarantee of happiness, of personal success, or even invulnerability to things like this suit.






Tuesday, August 8, 2017

DAY-ONE FOR THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR


Today is the launch-date for The Bettencourt Affair, an exciting moment for me after two and a half years' work on the project. Pre-publication reviews have been positive, even enthusiastic, so I am optimistic about the book's life after birth. I am now in France casting about for a new book topic. I have a few ideas but have not settled on anything yet. It is not a choice to be taken lightly: researching and writing a book is a multi-year commitment. Erik Larson, one of my favorite nonfiction writers, says he spends two years on research and two years writing. That sounds about right, though I did Bettencourt in half that time and finished Death of a Princess in about eight weeks (granted I had a co-author, Scott MacLeod, but still). By those standards, four years sounds like a welcome luxury. Stay tuned...

Meanwhile, I have been gratified by the attention a number of literary bloggers have given to my new book. One of them, Deborah Kalb, just published this Q&A today to mark the launch date. Enjoy:




Photo © Sylvaine Sancton
Tom Sancton is the author of the new book The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris. His other books include Death of a Princess and Song for My Fathers. A longtime Paris bureau chief for Time magazine, he also has written for publications including Fortune and Reader's Digest. He is a research professor at Tulane University.

Q: You note that you've been intrigued by this story since 2010. What first interested you about it, and at what point did you realize you'd be writing a book about it?

A: I spent the summer of 2010 in France, at a time when the Bettencourt Affair exploded into the headlines. I became fascinated by this story of the L’Oréal heiress and the fortune she gave to this photographer and writer, Banier, whom I had never heard of at the time.

The daughter’s elder-abuse suit against Banier had triggered a major legal battle whose repercussions went far beyond her original intent, and eventually ensnared the then President Nicolas Sarkozy in what the press was calling a “French Watergate.”

When Liliane Bettencourt’s butler taped her secret conversations with her financial advisers, the leaked recordings revealed a Pandora’s box of secrets—illegal Swiss bank accounts, tax evasion schemes, influence peddling by a French minister, the threat of a takeover of L’Oréal by its Swiss minority shareholder Nestlé, and on and on.

Then there was the fascinating character of Banier, this charming rogue of an artist who had written bestselling novels and befriended the likes of Salvador Dalì, Johnny Depp, and Yves Saint Laurent before linking up with Liliane.

I just said to myself, what a great yarn this is. I proposed an article to Vanity Fair, which was published in the fall of 2010. After that, I followed the mother-daughter legal battle from afar as it wended its way through the courts.

When it finally went to trial in early 2015, my agent, Katherine Flynn, suggested that I propose a book for the U.S. market. I thought the subject might be too “French” for American readers, but Katherine’s instincts were right on the money: she eventually had six publishers bidding on it.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: The research was extensive and varied. There were thousands of articles in the French press, and as of 2010 a half dozen French books on the subject.

I delved into the French national archives for documents on Eugène Schueller, Liliane’s father, and the founder of L’Oréal, who had been investigated as a Nazi collaborator after World War II.

Thanks to his money and influence, Schueller escaped conviction, but I found compromising documents showing he had actively collaborated as an informant for the German security services.

I did more than 60 interviews with principals in the case, their friends and associates, lawyers and judges, and fellow journalists who covered the story.

One of my greatest coups was getting my hands on the entire investigative file, not a public source by any means, and thus gaining access to literally thousands of depositions, documents, medical reports and legal briefs related to the case.

Included in that trove was an extensive correspondence between Liliane Bettencourt and François-Marie Banier, which gave me a privileged insight into their unusual friendship.

Finally, I was able to do extensive interviews with Banier and his close friends, which allowed me to see the “human face,” so to speak, of the multi-faceted character that many simply dismissed as a blood-sucking exploiter. There were many surprises along the way, but I was particularly struck by the complexity of Liliane’s relationship with Banier.

Q: How would you describe Liliane Bettencourt, and how would you characterize her relationships with her protege, Banier, and her daughter, Francoise?

A: Liliane was a woman whose childhood was shaped by her mother’s death when she was five, and by the domination of her father, whom she adored and admired to the point of obsession.

At her father’s urging, she married a man she didn’t love, André Bettencourt, a closet homosexual who devoted himself to a political career funded by Liliane’s money.

She had a fraught relationship with her only child, Françoise, a timid introvert more interested in her books and her piano than in the active social life Liliane wanted her to pursue.

As Liliane advanced in age, she was increasingly lonely, unfulfilled, and depressed—until she met François-Marie Banier.

This exuberant and seductive artist opened the doors onto a whole new life, charming her with his witty conversation, taking her to art galleries, museums, the theater, introducing her to all kinds of interesting people she never encountered in her conventional bourgeois world.

Liliane was smitten by him and by the exciting life he offered her. She showed her gratitude by showering money on him—always presented in terms of patronage to further his artistic career. There was apparently no physical intimacy between them—given Banier’s homosexuality and the 25-year age gap between them—but I would call their relationship a platonic love affair.

Those who imagined that Banier was just a cynical gigolo pumping money out of a batty old dame understand nothing about the relationship. He was hardly devoid of greed and self-interest, but he also had a genuine affection for Liliane.

To some extent she was a replacement for his own mother, who had neglected and mistreated him as a child. As I said, it was a complicated relationship—but fascinating.

Q: What impact has this saga had on France?

A: It certainly tarnished the image of the Bettencourts. Before the affair erupted, they lived discreetly and avoided publicity. The lawsuit exposed all their dirty laundry to the harsh glare of public opinion—Schueller’s collaboration, André’s wartime anti-Semitic articles, the family’s tax-evasion schemes, the illegal political payments, Liliane’s declining physical and mental health, Françoise’s blind jealousy of her mother.

And let’s not forget that Françoise herself is now under investigation for witness tampering. Not much glory in that for the once-proud Bettencourts.

The case also affected the political fortunes of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose 2012 re-election bid was compromised by the Bettencourt Affair and other legal embroilments.

Interestingly, though, the affair had no effect on L’Oréal’s fortunes, despite the negative publicity and the fears of a Swiss takeover. The company continued to post double-digit growth in spite of the 10-year legal battle that threatened to tear apart the founding family.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still casting around for the subject of my next book. I suspect it will be based on another scandalous French “affair.” French, because I live in France now and have spend most of my adult life here—including more than 10 years as a TIME correspondent. And the French are so good at producing scandals.

 I am currently delving into a long-unsolved murder case, but I’d rather not say too much about the subject until I decide whether or not to pursue it. Stay tuned…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. I’m also a jazz clarinetist. But doing this book was so much fun that I plan to spend more time writing than playing music in the foreseeable future. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Posted by Deborah Kalb at 8:37 AM