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.

Sunday, August 27, 2017



How to Spend a Billion Dollars

‘There was a language I created with her that was expressed through this money that she wanted to give me,’ Banier explained. Tobias Grey reviews ‘The Bettencourt Affair’ by Tom Sancton.

By Tom Sancton: Dutton, 396 pages, $28

François-Marie Banier and Liliane Bettencourt in 1992. SYGMA/GETTY IMAGES
By Tobias Grey. 
Updated Aug. 24, 2017 7:29 p.m. ET
The affair involved a prominent French family at war with itself. It featured collusion between private business interests and powerful politicians. Two people connected with the affair committed suicide; several reputations were ruined. As Tom Sancton, former Paris bureau chief for Time magazine, described the saga, it was “Dallas, Downton Abbey and House of Cards rolled into one.” In the case of “The Bettencourt Affair”—Mr. Sancton’s chronicle of the nearly decade- long legal drama surrounding the family behind the L’Oréal empire— the hype is justified. The story centers on how an aging and ailing Liliane Bettencourt, the cosmetics-company heiress, gifted a billion dollars’ worth of artwork, real estate, cash, and life-insurance policies to portrait photographer François-Marie Banier. The matter came to public attention when Ms. Bettencourt’s daughter filed suit against Mr. Banier for allegedly swindling her enfeebled mother out of a fortune. Over the years that followed, Mr. Sancton covered the episode’s many twists and turns closely for Vanity Fair magazine, and the book that has emerged from his reporting on the case is surely the definitive account.
One of the book’s recurring questions is what moved Ms. Bettencourt —according to Forbes, the world’s richest woman, worth nearly $40 billion—to such generosity toward the eccentric Mr. Banier. Their relationship was not sexual: Mr. Banier is gay. According to Mr. Sancton, however, the bond between the friends was nonetheless deep. An only child, hearing-impaired, distant from her only daughter, and locked in a marriage drained of passion, Ms. Bettencourt felt she led a life starved of affection, excitement and beauty. She also lacked the sort of soulful connection she had enjoyed with her beloved father, Eugène Schueller—the ambitious son of a baker who founded L’Oréal in 1909 and built an immense fortune from scratch.
In 1987, Mr. Banier—who has a history of befriending older women— first began cultivating his friendship with Liliane and her husband, politician André Bettencourt. “She gave me the possibility of doing things I could never have done without her,” Mr. Banier has said. “There was a language I created with her that was expressed through this money that she wanted to give me.” Mr. Banier’s “crazy” streak reminded Ms. Bettencourt of her father; she was also, Mr. Sancton reports, flattered by Mr. Banier’s attentions, “and delighted to be introduced into his glittering world of artistic and cultural connections.” Ms. Bettencourt and Mr. Banier’s platonic love affair continued unabated for some 25 years. Many have wondered why the heiress’s husband never intervened. But the couple’s lavish lifestyle, as well as his own political career, were financed by his wife’s vast wealth, and he maintained it was her right to do whatever she pleased with her own money.

Things finally came to a head in November 2007, not long after André Bettencourt’s death, when a family employee told the Bettencourts’ daughter, Françoise Meyers, that she had overheard Mr. Banier trying to persuade Ms. Bettencourt to legally adopt him as a son. A month later, Françoise filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Banier for abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness) of her mother. The accusations and evidence surfaced (and re-surfaced) during the court drama that followed provide some of the most explosive details in Mr. Sancton’s reporting. At many points, these revelations implicate French government officials, widening the scandal’s reach. For example, Mr. Bettencourt’s personal valet, Pascal Bonnefoy, made secret recordings of the Bettencourt family’s business dealings, which allegedly included illegal financing of Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign. The affair also dredged up Eugène Schueller’s unsavory wartime history, which included ties to the Nazis and significant involvement with the French fascist group La Cagoule. During the épuration that followed the collapse of the Vichy regime, Schueller was spared imprisonment and the loss of his company thanks in large part to the interventions of François Mitterrand, the longest-serving president of France.
While Mr. Sancton deserves credit for the depth of his investigation— he interviewed some 60 people, including lawyers, politicians, celebrities, and servants—the Bettencourt affair is treacherous territory, even for a veteran journalist. Mr. Sancton’s account is a bit too taken with idle gossip. Mr. Sancton also seems at times to have fallen under the charming spell of Mr. Banier, noting that, “despite his media image as a dandy and jet-setter, he is in fact an obsessed workaholic and a serious artist.” (Exactly when this “workaholic” found time for the daily expenditures funded by Ms. Bettencourt— which the Meyers’s lawyers assessed at roughly $30,000—is not explained.) Mr. Sancton’s account also suffers from the silence of Ms. Meyer and Ms. Bettencourt, both of whom turned down his requests for interviews. Ms. Bettencourt is now 94 and reportedly afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, so it is likely that her last words on the subject will be those issued in January 2012. Questioned by a French judge about whether Mr. Banier abused her, she said: “Surely a bit, but I don’t care . . . . I accept the consequences of my mistakes.”
Perhaps the greatest of those mistakes was to shatter the convention whereby France’s super-rich are expected to keep a very low profile. “For certain French people, gaining money is worse than pedophilia,” says one attorney involved in the case. Liliane Bettencourt’s largesse brought this taboo topic into the open in spectacular fashion. Readers curious to see where that dangerous foray led will have to find the rest in Mr. Sancton’s riveting, if somewhat tawdry, telling.



Saturday, August 26, 2017


Plus ça change! 

Despite the uproar following Diana’s death, France’s paparazzi continue to stalk the rich and famous

By Tom Sancton
Paris, August 26, 2017

No one can forget the night of August 31, 1997. Pursued at high speed by a relentless pack of paparazzi, the black Mercedes bearing Princess Diana and her lover Dodi Fayed struck the 13th pillar of Paris’s Alma tunnel and crashed into a concrete wall. Fayed was killed instantly. Diana, despite a heroic effort to save her life, died on the operating table four hours later. Blame focused immediately on the paparazzi who had chased the couple on motorcycles then crawled all over their smashed vehicle snapping photos and jostling one another for position. Ten photojournalists were arrested that night and later charged with manslaughter and failing to aid persons in danger.
            But another factor soon emerged:  an autopsy of the Mercedes’s deceased driver, Ritz Hotel security chief Henri Paul, revealed that he was drunk and under the influence of prescription drugs at the time of the crash.  If that fact relieved the photographers of the legal responsibility for the accident—all charges against them were eventually dropped—it did little to change the public perception that these camera-slinging cowboys had hounded the Princess to her death.
            Despite widespread calls to rein in the reckless methods of the paparazzi, little has changed in the intervening 20 years. The French celebrity press—magazines like Paris Match, Voici, Gala, and VSD—continue to thrive on stolen images of the rich and famous, and daredevil photographers keep shooting them. “The paparazzi calmed down for six months after the accident, then they started back up again,” says Alain Toucas, Diana’s former lawyer, who currently represents the royal family of Monaco.  “We hoped the situation would improve, but in fact it’s gotten worse.”
Even before the death of the Princess, France had one of the Europe’s strongest laws against invasion of privacy. The French civil code states that “everyone has a right to respect of their private life” and accords to each individual the right to control his or her own image. The problem is that the celebrity magazines continue to publish paparazzi photos and, when they are sued, simply pay the fines and make up for the cost through boosted sales. Though the law is strict on paper, it has little deterrent effect. “I continue to pursue all those who violate the private lives of my clients,” says Toucas. “But our efforts have little success. We receive minimal damage payments, but we have failed to put an end to these abuses.”
Bruno Mouron, one of France’s best-known paparazzi, agrees that the celebrity stalking continues unabated but laments that the business has changed since he started working in the 1970s. For one thing, it is nowhere as lucrative as it was in the pre-Diana days when a single photo could fetch six figures. “The prices are ten percent of what they were 20 years ago,” he says. “Now you’re lucky if you can get $5,000 for a photo.”
Mouron attributes that precipitous drop to a number of causes. “With Instagram and Smartphones, everyone can be a paparazzi. Celebrity photos are all over the Internet.” Another factor is that the so-called “people” magazines increasingly organize their own photo shoots, often with the express or tacit cooperation of the subject. Then there is the precarious state of print journalism in general: more and more publications are closing down and there is less money to spend on photos and reporting. Finally there is the competition of young, hungry photojournalists attracted by the adventure and willing to work cheap. “You don’t need a diploma to be a photographer,” Mouron grumbles. “With today’s digital cameras, the photos take themselves.”
Mouron waxes nostalgic about the old days. “It used to be a princely profession,” he says. “Travel, grand hotels, fancy restaurants. To photograph celebrities, we had to go to the same places they did. Now it’s a profession for bums—kids riding around on motor scooters and eating fast food. If I was 20 years old today, I’d never choose this profession. It no longer makes one dream.”
Alain Toucas is unmoved by such complaints: “Maybe it is less lucrative for the paparazzi—that’s not my problem—but it is just as bothersome to the people they stalk. And I am afraid that, one day, we will be confronted by another tragedy like Diana’s.”


Tom Sancton and Scott MacLeod's 1998 bestseller is now available in an updated 20th anniversary edition.

 “Sancton and MacLeod…serve as textbook models of methodical reporting.”
             —Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

 “A solid piece of work…Every eyewitness is interviewed; every lead followed up; every theory is explored.”
              —Roy Greenslade, The Guardian

“The definitive book on those final moments, days, hours, minutes and seconds of Diana’s life.”
               —Cindy Adams, New York Post

“[The authors] have done more in-depth reporting on this than just about anyone else.”
                                                           —Anderson Cooper, CNN

                                                    BARNES & NOBLE

Friday, August 25, 2017


‘The Bettencourt Affair,’ a Buffet for Scandal Aficionados

Books of The Times

THE BETTENCOURT AFFAIR: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris 
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