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

Sunday, April 12, 2020

THE BIRDS OF AUDUBON

Osprey taking flight

Our daily walks in Audubon Park are a welcome break in the lockdown routine. As we stroll along the lagoon, Sylvaine photographs the birds we encounter there. (Sometimes I sit on a bench and practice my clarinet while she shoots.) There are far fewer species in the park today than there were some years ago when Sylviane photographed dozens of different varieties for her book Some Birds...But we still get some surprises.
     The other day, we spotted a large bird perched atop the bare branches of a dead tree. It was on the other side of the lagoon at some distance from us. Looking through her telephoto lens, Sylvaine thought at first that it might be a bald eagle—a rarity in these parts—but the coloring was different. The bald eagle has a white head and a dark brown breast. This bird, which looked like an eagle with its curved beak and impressive talons, had a
Anhinga
white breast. After a check on the internet, we identified it as an Osprey, also a rarity. We spotted it a few more times, closer up, which allowed Sylvaine to get some nice pictures, including one of this impressive bird in full flight.
     Other recent spottings include an anhinga, formerly plentiful at Audubon but now almost vanished, and a couple of blue herons and snowy egrets. Not to mention blue jays and cardinals. Two days ago, we had a real treat: four baby mallard ducklings swimming around, fighting and playing on the water near the bank. Hadn't seen any babies for a few years: sad to say the turtles get them when they're that small. Yesterday, didn't see the ducklings anywhere. I hope they haven't become turtle food!
Mallard duckling

Monday, March 23, 2020

GET YOUR GUN!

In these times of confinement, I have been trying to work on various writing projects. While poring over my files, I stumbled on this piece I had drafted several months ago. It has no relevance to the present pandemic, which is perhaps a good reason to share it and take people's minds off our common obsession. 


It all started when the magpies invaded my garden. Not only was their metallic croak nerve-grating, but they soon homed in on my bird feeders and frightened away the much smaller chickadees, redbreasts, and sparrows that had gorged on the seeds throughout the winter. Then a flock of pigeons took up residence on the roof of my garage and started snooping and clucking around the feeders. Even though they were too big and clumsy to perch on them, they would waddle on the ground and peck at the spillings. Like the magpies, they made the neighborhood less attractive to the smaller birds. Whenever I saw these bullies through my kitchen window, I would rap on the pane or open the door and clap my hands to frighten them away. Sometimes it scared them off, but often as not they would flutter away briefly and return.  I tried throwing pebbles in their direction, but my aim was erratic and the feathered beasts were not impressed. 
     Then an idea took shape in my mind: I would solve the problem with an air rifle.  I had no intention of killing the intruders. I would just pop them in the tail feathers or wings. They would soon realize my garden was an inhospitable environment and move on to somebody else’s garden. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get my hands on a BB gun. This was just before Christmas. When my wife asked me what I wanted as a gift this year, I  said I wanted a pump-action air rifle. She thought I was joking. I explained that it was not really about the gun, it was about chasing away magpies and pigeons. She found the idea ridiculous, but I persisted. And the more I talked about it, the more I realized it was about the gun. I wanted that object—trigger, stock, barrel and all.
     It was a strange desire on the part of a staunch opponent of America’s gun culture. I have unfriended people on Facebook for posting photos of themselves posing with their arsenals. Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Brook, and all the other countless gun massacres sent chills up my spine and filled me with anger at the feckless politicians who do nothing to control the spread of deadly weapons. Yet here I was desiring, even craving, an object that had the size, shape, and feel of a real rifle. Was I wavering on the gun question?
     No. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my fixation was something whose deepest roots went back to my childhood. When I was about 10, my father bought me a pump-action Daisy air rifle. I don’t know why he chose that particular gift—he wasn’t a hunter or sportsman and, in fact, I never saw him shoot or even hold a gun. He hadn’t even been in the army, excluded from the draft by a heart murmur. Maybe I begged him for it, wanting to play cowboys and Indians or something. Or wanting to be like my Mississipi cousins who actually had .22 rifles and went hunting. Whatever the reason, I got the gun and I fell in love with it. I loved the smell of oil on metal, the feel of the imitation wood grain stock on my cheek, the adjustable crosshairs on the telescopic sight, the sound of BB’s rolling around in their chamber, and the thwunk when I squeezed the trigger. Most of all, I loved hitting targets—coke bottles propped up on driftwood logs along the levee, paper targets nailed to tree trunks, matchsticks glued to the sides of cardboard boxes. And I was good at it. I could actually split matchsticks at 20 feet. My father was impressed. “If we ever have a shooting war again,” he told me, “you’ll make a hell of an infantryman.” Those words made me proud. That gun was part of a father-son bond, and a source of paternal approbation. 
     Though I was never into hunting, I must confess there were times when I shot at  birds while wandering through the woods. I once killed a sparrow perched on a tree branch. It fell at my feet with its little head bleeding and its wings flapping helplessly. Then it lay still. I felt terrible and buried it in the sandy ground under a pile of leaves. Another time I shot at a pigeon on a neighbor’s rooftop. Hit in the head, it reeled over and fell down the chimney. The neighbor found it in her fireplace the next day and called an exterminator to remove it. I don’t think I actually intended to kill that pigeon, but I was remorseful—and fearful that my parents would suspect me of doing  the deed. (If they did, then never let on.) 
     Those are the only birds I remember killing. But I did do other dumb things with my air rifle, mainly egged on by friends. From the balcony of my parents’ home, a schoolmate and I traded potshots at a corner streetlight until we finally chipped through the glass globe and hit the lightbulb inside. It sparked briefly then went dark. Our momentary triumph was tinged with fear of being charged with destroying public property. We immediately hid the rifle under my bed and retired to the TV room to provide an alibi. Another night, we shot at the side of my father’s corrugated iron garage as someone was passing on the sidewalk. It made a loud whack and the pedestrian skeedaddled. Stupid kids. And lucky: what if the victim of our practical joke was packing a real gun and shot back at us? In a crime-ridden city like New Orleans, that was not a far-fetched scenario. 
     I eventually grew out of my gun infatuation as I grew older and my interest shifted to learning the clarinet and playing Beatle tunes on my guitar. By the time I went off to college, my Daisy pump-action was a distant memory. I have no idea what happened to that gun. There was no sign of it when I cleared out my parents’ home many decades later. In fact, I never even thought of it again—until the magpies and pigeons in my garden suddenly brought it back to mind. 
     For a time, I was dead bent on getting another BB gun. Seriously. I even visited the quaint old shop of an arms dealer in my town of Saint Germain-en-Lay, 10 miles west of Paris. I had observed it for years without ever going inside. It was a tiny storefront with a green wooden door and a window full of lethal-looking shotguns and enormous hunting knives with jagged blades. Inside the cramped interior, dusty display cases held row after row of rifles of various sizes and shapes. Behind the counter sat an elderly man who eyed me with suspicion, or perhaps contempt at my manifest ignorance of firearms. When I asked about BB guns, he exchanged amused glances with another white-haired man, apparently a customer. He pointed to a display case containing half a dozen guns. “Those are all air rifles,” he said. “They start at 250 euros”—close to $300. I said I was really looking for something in the 50 euro range. The two men laughed. “For 50 euros, cher monsieur, maybe you can get a cap gun, but not here!” 
     It turned out his air rifles shot lead pellets, not BBs, and they were used by competitive target shooters. “What do you want an air rifle for?” asked the man behind the counter. “Just to shoot at pigeons in my garden and scare them off,” I replied. He guffawed again and shook his head. “Monsieur, this is illegal—and dangerous. I will not sell you a rifle for such a use.” I left the shop enlightened, if somewhat humiliated. Back home, I found a whole line of Daisy air rifles on the Internet at prices starting around $35. I considered ordering one, but suddenly realized I didn’t want it any more. Had I finally grown up?

Sunday, March 22, 2020

SYLVAINE'S VIRTUAL ART SHOW

With the cancellation (or postponement) or Sylvaine Sancton's April show at New Orleans's Academy Gallery, we have decided to offer a virtual show on Facebook. We will post various works that would have been in the show, plus some videos of Sylvaine talking about her work. This will be available on my FB page, https://www.facebook.com/tom.sancton. Over the next few days, we will be posting selected works from the show. Hope you enjoy them, and feel free to comment.
The image featured on the poster is from a series called "Choices." They are acrylics and raw pigment on linen canvas. Here is a link to an interview in which Sylvaine talks about this series, how it came about, how it was executed, and what it means to her:
https://youtu.be/qFd8-TJ-G00

Saturday, March 21, 2020

IN SEARCH OF JEREMY GOOSE

Jeremy on the cover of Sylvaine's new book
In these times of confinement and social distancing, one source of recreation left to us is walking in the park. Fortunately, for Sylvaine and me, New Orleans's Audubon Park is nearby. The park is special to both of us. I am told I took my first steps there as a baby. As a lad, I climbed Monkey Hill and even rode my bike down it at the risk of breaking my neck. As a teenager, I enjoyed some steamy moments with girlfriends while parked by the lagoon (in those days you could still drive in the park.) But for Sylvaine, the park is maybe even more special because this is the place where she started photographing birds and wildlife, which provided the material for two books, Some Birds (Pelican, 2013) and The Adventures of Jeremy Goose (UL Press, 2020).
     These days, she brings her Canon along on our morning walks. She has focused particularly on a fascinating odd couple: a male swan and a female goose that are inseparable and even seem to dance waltzes together on the water. The other day she photographed a rare Osprey high up in a dead tree overlooking the lagoon. Maybe another book will emerge from these impromptu sessions. 
     But we have been struck by what is no longer present by the Audubon Park lagoon. Of the dozens of species Sylvaine photographed and described in Some Birds—egrets, herons, coots, wood ducks, gribes, anhingas, cormorants—only a few remain, mostly mallards, crows, and one pair of whistling ducks. The biggest shock, however, is the apparent departure of the flock of white geese that were the subject of her most recent book, Jeremy Goose. Where could they have gone? Had they died? Had they migrated? had they been taken somewhere else by the park authorities? For years, on our annual visits, we had seen them, with Jeremy immediately recognizable by the birthmark-like spots on his head and wings. We had watched him grow literally from the egg stage to young adulthood, which formed the "first person" narrative of the book. Now Jeremy and his extended family were gone. 
"Jeremy" in City Park, March 2020
     This morning, we decided to change our usual pattern and walked in City Park instead. On the banks of the lagoon, just across from the Peristyle, we spotted a flock of white geese lounging in the sun. Could that be Jeremy's family? Not likely, since they were not great flyers, and this was a long way from Audubon. But as we approached, we noticed one male, quite big, that had Jeremy's telltale markings on his head and wing. Could that actually be Jeremy? We're not 100% sure, but I would like to think so.

     One encouraging thing about out visit to City Park was that many of the bird species that have vanished from Audubon are to be found here, including egrets, coots, cormorants, pelicans and anhingas. Maybe they found this park more congenial. Who knows? The encouraging thing is that, contrary to one of my theories, they have not been chased from the region by global warming—at least not yet. In any case, Sylvaine and I will continue to visit City Park, with special attention to "Jeremy." Maybe he will remember Sylvaine and give her some sign. After all, she made him a star.

________________________________________________

Even in these times of lockdowns and store closings, Sylvaine's books can be ordered on line.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

SYLVAINE SANCTON'S NEW CHILDREN'S BOOK




Among the casualties of COVID-19 was my wife Sylvaine's reading/signing of her new children's photo book, "The Adventures of Jeremy Goose." The event was scheduled for March 28 at Octavia Books in New Orleans, but the store managers and the author agreed that this was not the time for a public gathering, even around so charming a character as Jeremy. This morning, Sylvaine stopped in at Octavia Books to sign copies of the book, so future customers can still get an autographed edition even though the event is cancelled.  It's also available on the UL  site (UL.com), as well as the Octavia Books site (octaviabooks.com), Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc. In these stressful times of confinement, it is a soothing and entertaining book for cooped-up kids (and their parents).


Here is the description from the back cover:

Among the moss-draped oaks of New Orleans’s Audubon Park lives young Jeremy Goose. After he hatches from an egg, he learns to walk, eat grass, swim, cross the road, and get along with other animals, all under the watchful eyes of his Mom and Dad. On the banks of the park’s lagoon, Jeremy and his family live with their neighbors, including a squirrel, a snake, and a bad-mannered nutria. Jeremy is a thoughtful and sensitive little goose who sometimes gets into trouble but always feels the love of his family. Through Jeremy’s voice, young readers learn about family, responsibility, having fun, and growing up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

FRENCH UNREST




FRANCE
Can Macron Survive His Nation’s Rage?

As France is roiled by the violence, momentum, and expanding demands of the gilets jaunes,the nation’s princely president may be facing a one-term reign.

TOM SANCTON DECEMBER 11, 2018 6:57 PM


Graffiti with the inscription “Macron resignation” is seen in Aimargues on December 11, 2018. By Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images.


Burning cars. Flaming barricades. Police vans and armored vehicles. Clouds of tear gas. The images of Paris flickering across TV screens and smartphones around the world might give the impression that France is once again on the verge of a revolution. Things have not gone that far—yet—but for the past four weeks, the country has been in the grips of an explosion of anger by hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women fed up with high taxes, low salaries, and, especially, the autocratic governing style of President Emmanuel Macron,who seemed very much in control when I interviewed him this past March for a Vanity Fair profile.

When he won election in May 2017, at the age of 39, Macron was hailed as a young innovator who had promised to modernize the French economy, restore competitiveness, and break with a widely discredited status quo. Now, just 19 months later, his presidency is seriously challenged by an ad-hoc popular movement known as the gilets jaunes,or yellow vests, for the roadside security pullovers they have adopted as a uniform. What began in October as a protest against a gasoline-tax hike has since snowballed into an amorphous, largely leaderless force pushing a smorgasbord of more than 40 demands ranging from across-the-board salary increases and better public services to the dissolution of the National Assembly and the resignation of Monsieur Macron.

Almost from the beginning of his time in the Élysée, Macron, a former investment banker who had never run for public office, was widely perceived as a “president of the rich” because of the tax breaks he gave to French companies and the affluent classes, and especially for his suppression of a long-standing wealth tax, the so-called I.S.F. His top-down approach to governing—“Jupiterian” in his own words—was seen by many as anti-democratic, even as his language sometimes denoted a contempt for la France d’en bas—those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. To make matters worse, Macron was seen as an arrogant product of a Parisian elite that was out of touch with and indifferent to the plight of those in the provinces.
e...
And that’s where the trouble began, out in the economically depressed rural areas and smaller towns where most people are obliged to use their cars to get to work. Angered by the steady rise in gasoline prices, especially an eco tax that had been scheduled to increase in January, groups of protesters began to coalesce via social-media links. By the end of October, yellow-vest squads were sporadically blocking roads and intersections around the country to demand the cancellation of the eco tax, emboldened by polls showing widespread public support. On Saturday, November 17, and for the three successive Saturdays, yellow vests converged on the capital for supposedly peaceful demonstrations that degenerated into violence when radical right- and left-wing groups seized the occasion to smash store windows and attack public monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe. Police responded with tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannon, arresting more than 4,500 for acts of vandalism and aggression.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’sattempts to negotiate with the yellow vests went nowhere, since the largely unstructured grassroots movement had no recognized leaders. On December 5, the government finally announced the cancellation of the planned eco-tax hike. Two weeks earlier, that might have satisfied the protesters, but by this time their demands had proliferated, with increasingly strident chants of Macron, démission!—Macron, resign.
On Monday, after a roughly four-hour consultation with union, political, and business leaders, Macron himself faced the nation in a solemn 13-minute address meant to calm the protests and assuage the nation. His face drawn by fatigue, with a visible stubble on his sunken cheeks, he declared a “state of economic and social emergency.” While calling for an end to the “inadmissible violence,” he voiced sympathy for the “distress” of lower wage earners, and offered a rare mea culpa for having “hurt some of you with my words.”
  
Specifically, Macron offered a set of concessions, including a €100 (about $114) increase in the monthly minimum wage; year-end bonuses to private-sector employees; reduced Social Security taxes on monthly pensions under €2,000 (around $2,264); and the suppression of taxes on overtime pay. But he explicitly ruled out reinstating the I.S.F. wealth tax, a key yellow-vest demand. Government officials estimated the cost of these measures could reach as high as €10 billion (approximately $11.3 billion), and it remained to be seen how they would be funded. Beyond those material incentives, the president called for a national debate on the reorganization of the government, more democratic voting procedures, improved public services, and even the volatile questions of immigration and national identity, a key issue for the French right.

Across the country, the protesters generally greeted Macron’s speech with skepticism and contemptBenjamin Cauchy,founder of a group called the Free Yellow Vests, mocked the president’s proposals as “mini-measures,” saying his refusal to restore the wealth tax proves that he is “the president of the rich.” Christophe Torrent,another activist, called the offers “largely insufficient,” and demanded a referendum on the group’s demands. Others in the movement found Macron insincere and rejected his offers as “too little, too late.” Overwhelmingly, they called for a fifth round of Paris protests this Saturday.

While Macron vowed to “stay the course” on his ambitious plans to reform the French economy, his main focus going forward will be to shore up his waning support in France, where his poll ratings hover in the low 20s. Macron’s political weakness at home also dampens his hopes of emerging as the European Union’s key leader once Germany’s Angela Merkel leaves power.

Despite the negative response from the yellow vests, there are signs that Macron’s speech may have helped him with the public at large: according to an OpinionWay poll, 49 percent found his speech convincing, with approval of his specific measures ranging from 60 percent to 78 percent. Most important for the president, 54 percent want the protests to end. That probably won’t prevent the yellow vests from converging on Paris this Saturday, but it does offer hope that the unrest might settle down by Christmas.

That said, it is difficult to imagine how Macron will survive this over the long haul. The president’s outright resignation seems unlikely: he was solidly elected to a five-year term and his party, La République en Marche (Republic on the Move), holds an overwhelming parliamentary majority until at least 2022. But Macron’s aura of invulnerability has been shattered. From the beginning, he defiantly vowed that, unlike previous leaders, he would never capitulate to street protests in the pursuit of his reforms. Indeed, he coolly rammed through a revision of the labor code and a restructuring of the national railroad in the face of widespread strikes. This time, he blinked, and his ability to put through unpopular reforms is much diminished.

Meanwhile, the populist far-right National Front, recently renamed National Rally, is poised to make big gains in next spring’s European Parliament elections. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, defeated by Macron in 2017, will be itching for a presidential rematch in 2022. Though Macron may well survive in office until then, the real danger is that France might eventually go the way of Italy, Hungary, and Austria in embracing a right-wing populist regime. Steve Bannon must be licking his lips.

© 2018. Reprinted from Vanity Fair

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

BOOK EVENT MARCH 25!

I'm appearing at a book event this Sunday, March 25, alongside fellow authors Mitch Landrieu, Martha Boone, and Jeffrey Round. Place: the Presbytere, Jackson Square, New Orleans.
Time: 1:30-4:30.
It's also my birthday, so there's cake and champagne! Should be fun. It's free, but RSVP so they'll have enough food to feed the multitudes.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

TOM SANCTON PERFORMANCES APRIL-MAY 2018



April 25: Palm Court Jazz Cafe, 1206 Decatur Street, New Orleans. With Lars Edegran band featuring Topsy Chapman,  8 p.m. - 11p.m.

April 26: Palm Court Jazz Cafe, 1206 Decatur Street, New Orleans. With Clive Wilson Serenaders featuring Butch Thompson. 8 p.m. - 11p.m.

April 27: Jazzfest, Economy Hall Tent, with Clive Wilson's Serenaders featuring Butch Thompson. Time TBA.

April 29: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter Street, with the Wendell Brunious Jazz Band. 7-10 p.m.

May 4: Brennan’s on Royal Street, with the Seva Venet trio.
4-7pm.

May 6: Jazzfest, Economy Hall Tent, with New Orleans Legacy Band. 1:40-2:40 p.m.

May 8: Palm Court Jazz Cafe, 1296 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran All Stars, 7-10 p.m.

May 12: Palm Court Jazz Cafe, 1296 Decatur St., with Lars Edegran All Stars, 7-10 p.m.

May 13: Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter Street, with the Wendell Brunious Jazz Band. 7-10 p.m.

Friday, December 15, 2017

INTERVIEW IN ART+DESIGN DECEMBER ISSUE

Artful Author

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…














Tuesday, November 21, 2017

AMERICAN LIBRARY OF PARIS PRESENTATION

Photo courtesy Christopher S. Dickey
On November 15, 2017, I had the honor and privilege of presenting my book The Bettencourt Affair at the American library of Paris. The turnout was good, about 50 book lovers, including Chris Dickey, former Newsweek Bureau Chief in Paris while I was TIME's Bureau Chief. Our old institutional rivalry notwithstanding, we have been good friends for many years. (Chris threatened to heckle me before the program started, but instead snapped this picture to immortalize the occasion.)

The audience was knowledgable about the "affair," and asked excellent questions after sitting through my 45-minute talk and a short reading. On site book sales were handled by Shakespeare & Co., possibly the most famous bookstore in Paris. (Shakespeare's Sylvia Beach published Joyce's Ulysses when nobody else would touch it.) Library patron Leslie de Galbert, a fellow New Orleanian, hosted a reception afterward in her high-rise apartment with a breathtaking view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. Leslie has been a Parisienne since the 1970s, but we had a great time comparing New Orleans memories over champagne and canapés. For those who missed the occasion, I can't do anything about the champagne, but here is a transcript of my talk if anyone is curious. (Not required reading by any means, and there will be no quiz):



Most of you are probably famiar with the Bettencourt Affair. For those who are not, it’s a French scandal involving the world’s richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, her much younger gay protégé, François-Marie Banier, to whom she gave several hundred million euros over 20 years, and Liliane’s daughter Françoise, who in 2007 sued Banier for exploiting her elderly mother and thus launched a decade-long legal battle.

But I tried to tell a much broader story, not in 2007, but in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian war. Don’t worry, I only spent a page on that. But the story as I saw it was far more complex and richer than the legal battle. I called it “Dallas, Downton Abbey, and House of Cards rolled into one.”

In fact it is many intertwined stories that tell us a lot more about modern French history, society, business, and politics than an account of the litigation itself. It’s part corporate history; partly a story about the creation and transmission of one of the world’s biggest fortunes ; partly the saga of a remarkable family over three generations—a family marked by great achievements and haunted by dark secrets. It’s partly a Greek tragedy about a conflicted mother-daughter relationship and a family torn by jealousy and vengeance; partly a political intrigue that contributed to the downfall of a president.

Most of all, it’s a story about people. From the beginning, what attracted me to this subject was not just the enormous amount of money involved but the intriguing characters at the heart of this drama and the interplay between them. With the characters as a centerpiece, I tried to construct my narrative in a novelistic way. It’s all factual and meticulously documented, but in the telling I tried to give it a novelistic feel, with character development, dialogue, description, scene-setting, a sense of place, applying the literary devices of fiction to a work of nonfiction—a technique that Truman Capote called the “nonfiction novel” when he published IN COLD BLOOD in 1966.

So let's take a look at the main characters.There is, first of all, Eugène Schueller, the son of an Alsatian baker and a domestic servant, who became a chemist and invented the synthetic hair-dye that was the origin of L’Oréal. Schueller was a brilliant inventor and businessman, a Horatio Alger-like figure who started L’Oréal in a kitchen laboratory and built it into the world’s number one cosmetics firm.

Schueller was a workaholic who called himself the “6,000-hour man,” because he worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. But he had a serious flaw: a penchant for fascist ideology that led him to fund one of the most notorious far-right groups of the 1930s—La Cagoule—and, during the war, led him to actively collaborate with the Nazis. In his public speeches and radio chats, he called for a revolution to rid France of Republicanism, free-masonry and Jews. He openly praised Hitler’s “dynamism” and denounced what he called “the childish concepts of liberty, equality, and even fraternity.”

Schueller’s collaboration went far beyond his rhetorical support for national socialism. He was an informant of Helmut Knochen, the notorious head of the SS security police in France, a key figure behind the deportations of Jews, and executions of thousands of resistance fighters and hostages. In one document I unearthed in the Archives Nationales, Schueller urged young Frenchmen to join the Légion des Volontaires Français, which fought on the eastern front alongside the Waffen-SS.

Collaboration was also good for Schueller’s bottom line: L’Oréal’s sales quadrupled during the war, Schueller’s personal income increased tenfold, and a paint and varnish company he controlled, Valentine, sold as much of 90% of its wartime production to the German navy.

Like many collaborators, Schueller was caught up in the net of the postwar purge, known as the épuration. He was indicted and investigated, but avoided conviction because of his money and contacts—including a General who swore that Schueller had financed the Resistance, and two young men who had belatedly joined the Resistance: future president François Mitterrand, and Schueller’s future son-in-law André Bettencourt.

Schueller’s narrow escape did not prevent him in subsequent years from welcoming a number of ex-Nazi sympathizers into the ranks of L’Oréal. Among them was a notorious killer named Jacques Corrèze, who had fought with the Waffen-SS and swore allegiance to Hitler. Hired by Schueller in 1950, Corrèze went on to head L’Oréal’s U.S. subsidiary. Another postwar recruit was Jean Filliol, who had carried out more than a hundred assassinations and helped the Waffen-SS prepare their infamous 1944 massacre of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Schueller was never seriously called to task for recycling these and other war criminals, though a spectacular exposé in 1991, years after the founder’s death, created a public relations disaster for L’Oréal and the Bettencourt family.

Another central character in this saga is, of course, Schueller’s heir and only child. Born in 1922, Liliane lost her mother when she was five and grew up under the influence of her father’s domineering personality and manic work-ethic. One of her lawyers, Georges Kiejman, once told me: “You will never understand Liliane’s story unless you realize that she was the adored daughter of a father she adored.” Indeed, she was enamored of her father and lived and breathed L’Oréal business from childhood.

But she was also a lonely girl, raised by an English nanny she did not like—and who eventually married the widowed Schueller. Liliane was packed off to a Catholic boarding school run by Dominican nuns. During her school vacations, she was forced by her father to work as an apprentice at L’Oréal, gluing labels on shampoo bottles and other low-level tasks.

There was never any thought in Schueller’s mind that his daughter would one day run the company. He believed women belonged in the home, keeping house and raising families. When it came time for Liliane to marry, Schueller had a hand-picked candidate in mind: André Bettencourt, the young Vichy supporter-turned Resistance member who had vouched for him during the postwar investigation.

Bettencourt was the son of a prominent provincial family from Normandy. His devoutly Catholic father was a lawyer, and his mother’s family had some aristocratic blood. André Bettencourt was tall, handsome, elegant in manner and speech. To Schueller, the nouveau-riche son of a baker and a domestic servant, Liliane’s marriage to Bettencourt would give her the social status he lacked. And André was more than willing to marry the heiress to the L’Oréal fortune.

But Liliane long resisted André. When she was 20, she fell madly in love with the son of a Moroccan pasha; it was only after that affair broke off that she accepted to marry André on the rebound. And when they chose the ring, she said told the jeweler, “above all, not too tight.” She later told an interviewer, “I detest all the conventions of marriage.” In fact, theirs was a marriage of convenience, not of passion. André had an active private life that didn’t involve women. And Liliane also enjoyed her personal freedom. But it was Liliane who wore the pants and controlled the purse. It was her money that bought André’s handmade suits and Havana cigars and financed his political career.


He held numerous, mostly low-level, cabinet positions after the war, but without his illicit political contributions, he never would have been invited to join a government. He was in fact a mediocre man, who quit school before the baccalaureat, somehow escaped military service in spite of the mobilisation générale, and throughout his long political career, did not leave his name on a single piece of legislation or political initiative. Nor, despite his high-sounding Vice-President’s title at L’Oréal, did he play an important role at the family firm.

His one moment in the spotlight came in 1995, when Le Monde revealed that he had written anti-Semitic diatribes for a pro-German paper in 1941 and 42, before he switched sides and belatedly joined the Resistance. In disgrace, he resigned from L’Oréal and declined to run for re-election to the Senate. It was an inglorious end to an undistinguished career.


Long before that, back in the 1980s, Liliane had gone through a deep depression. All her life she had been the “daughter of” or the “wife of,” but she felt unfulfilled in her personal life, bored with her marriage and dissatisfied with her daughter Françoise, with whom she had a fraught relationship.

She occupied herself with L’Oréal meetings, social events and dinner parties, but in reality she was bored with her codified bourgeois existence and longed for something more exciting. As she told an interviewer for the magazine Egoiste in 1987, “I don’t like blandness, I like salt.” Salt came into her life in the person of François-Marie Banier, who had been assigned to photograph her on that occasion.

Banier is a character out of a Balzac novel—a Rastignac or a Lucien de Rubempré—a relentless social climber intent on conquering le tout Paris. The battered child of a Hungarian immigrant father and an ego-centric French mother, he grew up seeking in others the affection and approval that were lacking in his family. After leaving home at age 16, he struck up intimate friendships with a succession of famous people, including Salvador Dalí, Louis Aragon, Vladimir Horowitz, YSL, François Mitterrand and many others.

But he was no mere celebrity stalker. Charming, seductive, and physically beautiful in his youth, he attracted attention with his witty conversation and his precocious talents as a writer. Aragon even compared him to Stendahl and Turgeniev. The praise was certainly excessive, but Banier had in fact written three successful novels by age 25. A talented dilettante, he also took up painting and photography—which led him to that fateful photo session with Liliane Bettencourt in 1987.

Banier immediately caught her attention that day. Unlike the fawning attitude most people adopted with the heiress, Banier began bossing her around. He didn’t like her hairdo, made her change her clothes, told her where to sit, how to pose. Instead of kicking him out, Liliane fell under his spell. It was the beginning of an intense 25-year relationship. Banier swept Liliane off her feet, taking her to the theater, art galleries, auction houses, introducing her to fascinating writers, artists and actors. As she put it “Banier made me live again.”

So she repaid him the only way she knew how: with money, hundreds of millions, always couched in terms of art patronage. Banier certainly cajoled and manipulated Liliane and encouraged her largesse, but from the beginning, she made it clear that she acted willingly and knowingly to finance his art career.

Liliane’s daughter Françoise, the other main character, of course looked on all this with a jaundiced eye. Less than a month after her father died in 2007, she sued Banier for abus de faiblesse and thus launched the famous legal battle that only ended last year. Françoise claimed to be protecting her ageing mother from Banier’s exploitation, but her motives were more complex. Liliane and Françoise had a terrible relationship. Liliane was elegant, social, passionately interested in the family business; Françoise was dowdy, withdrawn, more interested in her books and piano than the glittering social life of her parents. In Liliane’s eyes, her daughter just never lived up to her expectations. “Françoise was always one lap behind me,” she told one interviewer.

It didn’t help matters when Françoise decided to marry the grandson of a rabbi who died at Auschwitz, and to raise her two sons as Jews. Some have seen this as an act of atonement for her grandfather’s anti-Semitism and wartime collaboration. But it did not sit well with her staunchly Catholic parents. When Banier came into the picture, Françoise was naturally jealous of this brash interloper who usurped her place in her mother’s affections. She called him a ghuru and a Rasputin. Though her suit officially targeted Banier, Liliane took it as a treacherous attack on her. And she never forgave Françoise.

Those are the main protagonists, but there are dozens of secondary figures who are no less intriguing. In fact, Charles Dickens could not have invented a more interesting set of characters or a more convoluted plot. Among them was Olivier Metzner, the legendary criminal lawyer who filed the initial suit but wound up committing suicide before it was over; then there was Pascal Bonnefoy, the handsome butler who secretly recorded Liliane’s conversations with her advisers and broke the case wide open; and Claire Thibout, the accountant, who initially blew the whistle on Banier and wound up being investigated for false testimony; and let's not forget Patrice de Maistre, the smarmy financial adviser who sweet-talked Liliane out of € 12 million and famously begged her to buy him “the boat of his dreams.”

The scandal spilled over into the political arena when Eric Woerth, President Sarkozy’s cabinet minister and campaign treasurer was indicted for collecting illegal donations from the Bettencourts—not to mention conflicts of interest involving a Legion d’Honneur decoration and a cushy job for his wife.

Then there is Sarkozy himself, an endlessly fascinating character for his frenetic energy, ruthless ambition, and ethical lapses that embroiled him in a number of scandals. Prominent among them was the Bettencourt Affair. Early on, Sarkozy offered to mediate between mother and daughter. Then he allegedly urged the prosecutor Philippe Courroy, a personal friend, to quash the case. Finally, Sarkozy found himself under investigation for allegedly soliciting illegal campaign contributions from the Bettencourts.

At the time, the affair did not bring down the president, but it was one of the scandals that contributed to his re-election defeat in 2012 and scuttled his comeback attempt last year. And he’s not done with it yet: in October, the Paris prosecutor ordered him to stand trial in the so-called wiretap affair, involving his attempts to obtain protected judicial information on the Bettencourt investigation.

So those are some of the characters that give a novelistic flavor to this story. I’m not going to walk you through all the twists and turns of the 10-year legal battle—for that you have to read the book. But most of you probably know that outcome: at the appeal trial last year, Banier was convicted of abus de faiblesse and sentenced to four years in prison—but the sentence was entirely suspended, so no jail time. He was fined €375,000 euros—a pittance for him—but the €158 million in damages assessed at the original trial was rescinded. So Banier got off with a relative wrist tap. But at age 70, he is in many ways a broken man. He is a convicted felon, his reputation tarnished, his life tormented by the 10-year legal battle.

Liliane’s last decade was also poisoned by the affair. Lost in the fog of Alzheimers, she finished her days under the guardianship of her daughter—exactly the fate she always dreaded.

The big winner was Françoise. She not only won her suit against Banier, she also inherited her mother’s 33% share of L’Oréal, worth more than $45 billion at last count. And she recently got our from under a legal cloud of her own. For the past year, Françoise was under formal investigation for allegedly bribing her star witness. But in August the Paris prosecutor called for dropping the charges pending final judicial approval. So for all intents and purposes, the legal phase of the Bettencourt Affair is over.

A lot of people have asked me how I first got interested in this subject and chose to do a book on it. Actually the subject chose me in a way. I was in France during the summer of 2010, at a time when the Bettencourt Affair exploded into the headlines. The butler’s tapes had just been leaked and the media were talking about Sarkozy’s involvement and calling it a French Watergate. I emailed Graydon Carter at VF and told him it would make a great piece. He said, “You’re right. Why don’t you do it?” I hadn’t intended to write it myself, but I said okay. In for a penny out for a pound. The piece came out in October 2010.

Two months later, Françoise and Banier signed an agreement that supposedly put an end to the suit. But the pact unraveled and the investigation continued. When it finally went to trial in 2015, my literary agent read a piece about the affair in the NYT and thought it would make a great book for the US market. She called me and suggested I put together a proposal. Well I wasn’t at all sure it would appeal to US readers, but I said, Okay, why not. Again, in for a penny, out for a pound. My agent’s instincts were right: she eventually had six US publishers bidding on the book. We signed with Dutton in May 2015. I delivered the manuscript eighteen months later, and the rest is history as they say.

There’s lots more to say about this multifaceted story, but I’d like to stop here to read a short section from the book. It’s from a chapter called “The Christmas Visitor," describing a dramatic confrontation between one of Liliane's financial advisers and François-Marie Banier...