‘The Bettencourt Affair,’ a Buffet for Scandal Aficionados
Books of The Times
By JANET MASLIN AUG. 23, 2017
By Tom Sancton
396 pages. Dutton. $28.
The labyrinthine mess known as the Bettencourt affair has been the stuff of scandal aficionado dreams. It has turned up repeatedly in Vanity Fair, which would have had to make it up if it hadn’t happened. Here is Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oréal cosmetics heiress and richest woman in Europe, surrounded by the onetime “Golden Boy of Paris,” eavesdropping servants, bilkers of every stripe, vicious family warfare, fabulous ostentation, alleged Nazis in the family tree and political corruption at France’s highest levels. Celebrities, artists, estates, jewels, sailboats and one private island dot the perimeter of her story.
The intrigue and implications that arose from Bettencourt’s relationship with a younger man created a publicity nightmare for nearly a decade. Coincidentally or not, L’Oréal’s business has improved during that period of time.
“The Bettencourt Affair” is a chronicle by the journalist Tom Sancton, who covered the story for Vanity Fair. Sancton is no Dominick Dunne, who would have found the beating heart of this thing, if there was one. (Questionable.) He’s more the type to call it “‘Dallas,’ ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘House of Cards’ rolled into one.”
So Sancton lacks a gift for dish. But he is an excellent straight-up reporter, and he has dug deeply into the many, many elements that complicate this story. One lawyer involved even needs a lawyer by the time it’s over. This book gives him the space to go beyond the Bettencourt-for-Beginners version, which is this: To the ultimate dismay of Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, her only child, Liliane Bettencourt became infatuated with François-Marie Banier, a man 25 years her junior. Banier had been a pretty, skilled charmer of older people since he was the teenage darling of Salvador Dalí.
Over time, Bettencourt expressed her affection by giving her platonic friend upward of a billion dollars’ worth of assets. She made him the beneficiary of four separate life insurance policies. Bettencourt-Meyers cried foul when she learned that her mother planned to adopt Banier and make him an heir. At that point, the once-discreet family lawyered up and went very public, with Bettencourt’s competence questioned and Banier accused of “abuse of weakness” in a 2007 lawsuit. The mother-daughter loathing, a long-held secret, came out in the open. “The mother massacred the daughter, then the daughter massacred the mother,” one of the many lawyers in this multidefendant story told Sancton.
From the butler who spent one year secretly taping how Bettencourt was manipulated to the daughter’s efforts to make witnesses her friends, there’s a lot to pursue here. One of the most interesting parts of Sancton’s book is its history of L’Oréal, which began as the first French company to produce hair dye that did not contain lead. The formula was invented by Bettencourt’s father, Eugène Schueller, who also had gifts for manufacturing and marketing. In 1909, he founded the French Company of Inoffensive Hair Dyes (the translations here can be wonderful), which he soon renamed L’Oréal.
Later came the buildup to World War II, and a part of the family’s history that lay buried for years. L’Oréal’s sales nearly quadrupled during the war, and Schueller was involved with a company that sold paint and varnish — which were more necessary in Germany than in occupied France. (“No tank rolls without paint,” Sancton writes.) Schueller’s Vichy-friendly politics and alleged collaboration would come back to bite L’Oréal decades later. Bettencourt’s husband, André, wrote expressly pro-Nazi articles before joining the resistance.
In Sancton’s telling, there are no sympathetic figures in this family. Bettencourt’s only appeal for others appears to be her money, and she seems to have been an ice-cold parent. As to how she could sound, here she is in a 1987 interview: “A rich woman, the term itself is disagreeable. It’s an ugly word. I prefer fortune.”
The book’s portrait of Banier is much more confusing. Nothing about his self-justifying has much credence. According to him, Bettencourt first began sponsoring him when she visited his apartment and said: “François-Marie, you need more space. You like fine things; me too. I have the means to suit your tastes.” She then bought him the first of assorted apartments that would be followed by a laundry list of other valuables, including an island in the Seychelles that he claimed to disdain — and that she forgot about as her mind grew foggier. He says he accepted all this only to make her happy.
For most of the book, Sancton makes Banier sound like a pure social climber. But suddenly, near the end, he begins to celebrate the man’s protean talents. Banier has appeared in films by Eric Rohmer and Robert Bresson. He has written a number of novels and published many photography books, though most were sponsored by L’Oréal. He was a skilled celebrity photographer who knew everybody who was anybody, and is certainly good at dropping their names. “Princess Caroline told me this is the most beautiful house in the South of France,” he told Sancton, when the author visited him in Provence.
Sancton’s account leaves Banier in 2016, through with his ordeal and not too much the worse for wear. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but got out of serving any time in a follow-up judgment. He likes fame, though he insists otherwise. This book may give him another shot at it.
A version of this review appears in print on August 24, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Scandal Buffet For Aficionados. © 2017 The New York Times Company
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