Madame Bettencourt fulfills a “despoiled, but colorful” life.
BY DOREEN CARVAJAL
The Left Bank refuge of François-Marie Banier lies hard by an ancient cobblestone lane where gallant musketeers once hatched royal intrigues. Now Mr. Banier, a noted photographer of celebrity portraits, is at the center of an epic feud sundering the family of Liliane Bettencourt, the aging heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, in a drama of intrigue and recriminations worthy of “The Three Musketeers.”
Mr. Banier, 62, whose glossy work has regularly appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, has long traveled between Paris and New York, befriending celebrities since he was a striking youth with the sleek physique of a Jean Cocteau drawing — charming the likes of Salvador Dalí and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1960s and, more recently, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Johnny Depp.
Mr. Banier with Yves Saint Laurent, right in glasses.
By September, though, the peripatetic Mr. Banier will exchange private island sojourns, Mallorca vacations and Caribbean yachts for a spare courtroom in Nanterre outside Paris. He faces criminal charges and a potential prison term of three years for “abus de faiblesse,” essentially exploiting the frailty of the 86-year-old Madame Bettencourt to reap gifts valued at about 1.3 billion euros in cash, life insurance policies and art.
The case has been steady fodder for the French news media, offering a rare glimpse of the gilded life of Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in Europe with a net worth that Forbes estimated this year at $13.4 billion.
Madame Bettencourt lives discreetly behind the high cream walls and towering pines of an Art Moderne mansion just outside Paris. Yet this summer she managed to make Vanity Fair’s best-dressed hall of fame with her smart trouser suits, Swatch watches and a personal style she described to the magazine as “despoiled, but colorful.”
WHEN ONE DESIRES A FRIEND
Footsteps away in her pricey St. James neighborhood of Neuilly-sur-Seine — one of the richest towns in France — is the spacious home of her daughter, Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, 56. But these neighbors aren’t on speaking terms. The break came when Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers, a pianist and writer, filed a criminal complaint in December 2007 against Mr. Banier alleging that he was manipulating her mother for his financial gain, provoking an investigation by the Brigade Financière, the financial investigative arm of the national police. This year the L’Oréal matriarch and her daughter have communicated twice — in the blunt, unforgiving language of newspaper interviews.
“I have known François-Marie Banier for more than 20 years,” said Madame Bettencourt in a rare interview with the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche last December. “My husband knew him for 20 years. What fly has bitten my daughter?”
Jealousy, she suggested, could be the root of the legal conflict. “My daughter is more introverted then someone very sociable like François-Marie Banier,” she said. “That’s a little annoying for her. But in the past she was always a cold child.”
In an interview in July with the news magazine Le Point, the daughter countered that Mr. Banier’s “objective is clear: break away my mother from our family to profit from her. I will not let it happen.”
Today mother and daughter pass each other frostily in the L’Oréal boardroom and shareholder meetings, according to their high-priced lawyers, where a strained silence is maintained by three family directors, Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers; her husband, Jean-Pierre Meyers; and Madame Bettencourt, who ultimately has ceded most of her 27.5 percent of L’Oréal shares to her daughter through the family holding company, Téthys.
Left unspoken is the name of the impish and frenetic Renaissance man — writer, painter photographer, celebrity courtier — who provoked this cold war. Mr. Banier insists that he is nothing but a bystander swept up in a raw family quarrel and denies emphatically that he has manipulated the heiress, who inherited her fortune from her father, Eugène Schueller, founder of L’Oréal, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“I have never sought to influence Madame Bettencourt for my gain or in favor of others who benefited from her generosity,” Mr. Banier wrote in French in answer to written questions from this reporter. “This story distresses me and makes me sad for my friend Liliane Bettencourt. In reality, this is about a mother-daughter conflict in which I am an outsider.”
In most accounts of their platonic friendship, the ties between Madame Bettencourt and Mr. Banier date back to 1987 when the photographer took an elegant photograph of the heiress in tailored pants for a glossy French photo magazine, Egoist. But Mr. Banier says he met the heiress and her husband, André Bettencourt, much earlier — in 1969 — at the home of the prominent magazine editors Hélène and Pierre Lazareff. He would have been about 22, and his debut novel, “Les Résidences Secondaires ou la Vie Distraite” (“Second Homes or Distracted Life”), had just been published.
“When I met Madame Bettencourt, she was 48 years old,” Mr. Banier said in his written responses, noting that he had befriended a number of other celebrities long ago when they were much younger, before age was an issue. “Isn’t there a way to elevate this debate?”
Despite their age gap, the heiress and the photographer found common interests in art. Madame Bettencourt, who is one of the most generous philanthropists in France, created a foundation that in the last three years has contributed more than 30 million euros, or about $42.7 million, for programs supporting artists and scientific researchers. ”We have a very straightforward friendship,” Madam Bettencourt said of Mr. Banier in her interview last December. “I consider him a friend who is charming, cultivated, intelligent. And he helped me a lot when I lost my husband.”
BUT when Mr. Bettencourt died in 2007, his daughter grew suspicious of Mr. Banier’s influence on Madame Bettencourt — particularly after some of the household help reported overhearing conversations between Mr. Banier and the heiress about her taking steps to adopt him, according to Olivier Metzner, Mrs. Bettencourt-Meyers’s lawyer. Mr. Banier emphatically denies this. “I never desired to be adopted by Madame Bettencourt,” he wrote. And the heiress has scoffed at the notion as well.
The daughter’s complaint prompted national police investigators to probe beyond the walls of Madame Bettencourt’s mansion, questioning a retinue of longtime employees: a secretary, chauffeur, doctor and an accountant. From those interviews emerged details that the daughter found more alarming.
The accountant had balked at signing forms that would allow Mr. Banier to empty Madame Bettencourt’s safe deposit box that contained valuable jewels, Mr. Metzner said. Another staff member, he said, described a telephone call from Mr. Banier reminding her to make certain that Mrs. Bettencourt came with her checkbook when she arrived for a lunch date. Their interviews, collected by police investigators, resulted in the prosecutor’s decision to present the case to a tribunal for the trial in September.
There was another result as well. After speaking frankly to investigators, a handful of the household employees were dismissed for “disloyalty,” according to Madame Bettencourt’s longtime lawyer, Georges Kiejman, who said they were suspected of working privately for the daughter.
Investigators charged that Mr. Banier had received about 1.3 billion euros, about $1.86 billion, in gifts, including money covering the taxes.
The gifts included 12 artworks, promised upon Mrs. Bettencourt’s death, which now hang in the Neuilly-sur-Seine mansion, including paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Fernand Léger. Seven life insurance policies in Madame Bettencourt’s name were signed over to Mr. Banier — irrevocably, according to Mr. Metzner, unless it can be proved that they were signed under duress. For Madame Bettencourt’s daughter, the generosity was staggering — even if justified as patronage of an artist.
“Calling Mr. Banier an artist is a grand word,” said Mr. Metzner, her lawyer. “How many artists do you know who are sponsored for a billion euros? You could construct the Louvre with that. And Mr. Banier — with his little photos — he merits that?”
Madame Bettencourt’s lawyer, Mr. Kiejman, says the total amount that has flowed to Mr. Banier is at least 950 million euros, or $1.35 billion. He also said Madame Bettencourt had always listed Mr. Banier privately as a beneficiary of the insurance policies. “For the richest women in Europe, it’s nothing,” he said. “It’s all relative and for Madame Bettencourt it is just a little fraction.”
Financial investigators also started looking into Mr. Banier’s friendships with other aging grande dames on the Left Bank, among them the late Madeleine Castaing, an iconic interior decorator whose family is still simmering over a haunting photograph that Mr. Banier took of her at age 95, without her wig and in a simple nightdress. But that case is not part of the pending trial.
FOR months, Mr. Banier has been silent about the gifts, even as a drumbeat of criticism built in the French news media. His lawyers did not respond to questions about his defense or financial gifts. Mr. Banier also did not address written questions about his gifts, including allegations that two large insurance policies were signed over to him after Madame Bettencourt emerged from hospital stays in 2003 and 2006, when she was more physically vulnerable.
“As for the questions concerning l’áffaire Bettencourt-Meyers,” Mr. Banier wrote in e-mailed responses, “Mrs. Meyers believed the case must go to a tribunal, and so I reserve my responses for then.”
But he does defend himself on other counts. One criticism that stings is doubt raised about his artistic merits. “500,000 photographs, 27 books and catalogues, 27 exhibitions,” he wrote in an e-mail message regarding his accomplishments. “500 paintings, 1,200 drawings, 3,000 painted photographs.”
And in the last few days, Mr. Banier has struck back with defamation suits against the news Web site Bakchich, which posted information from the grandson of Madame Castaing, who accused him of treating his late grandmother like a “doorstop” to buy a property from her at submarket rates. He also filed a similar suit against Le Point magazine for suggesting that he was a former lover of Salvador Dalí.
Mr. Banier’s prominent friends are sympathetic and say that he has long talked about creating a foundation to support artists and writers. And they are rather unperturbed by the notion that he has received large sums from Madame Bettencourt; in their view she is a billionaire with plenty of money to dole out as she pleases.
“He opens up people to new experiences,” said John Richardson, 85, a friend of Mr. Banier and the biographer of Pablo Picasso. “Their life becomes enjoyable and he is enormous fun to be with. He is particularly good with stimulating old people.”
Mr. Richardson noted that Mr. Banier was a great comfort to Jacqueline Picasso, after her husband died in 1973. “He moves in on people and turns up their lives,” he said. “All right, if some cash rubs off on him he deserves every single cent.”
In an interview several years ago with Paris Match, Mr. Banier talked about how his upbringing has influenced his ability to break through to unapproachable celebrities.
“When I was a child I was completely incomprehensible to my parents,” he said in that interview, describing his late parents as a bourgeois couple from the prosperous 16th arrondissement of Paris. He said he had a father who beat him and a mother with an unerring ability to avoid answering questions.
Her retreat, he conceded, probably influenced him to seek out older people. “Yes,” he told the magazine, “with them I can talk.”
For her part, Madame Bettencourt continues to see Mr. Banier frequently. Last week, for instance, they were in Mallorca, said a good friend of Mr. Banier, Amanda Lear, a French singer and actress. She said that in a phone call, he said that friends have abandoned him as legal pressures grow.
Madame Bettencourt is weighing her options. According to her lawyer, Mr. Kiejman, she has refused the investigating judge’s three requests for independent neurological examinations, because the prosecutor could influence the outcome with a choice of an expert.
She met with the French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the fall to ask for intervention. And she has considered challenging the authority of the tribunal to judge Mr. Banier, because she did not make the complaint, according to her lawyer. She has another option: disinherit her daughter by demonstrating a pattern of “ungratitude,” Mr. Kiejman said, noting that Madame Bettencourt does not want to pursue this choice. “What’s happening is a total lack of respect,” he added. “If Madame Bettencourt had given the money to a foundation, what would people have said?”
His words, blunt as they are, reflect the candor of another time in French history. The real 17th century musketeer d’Artagnan, who lived two doors down from Mr. Banier’s house, was well aware of a French proverb that counted on wealthy aristocratic women to supply dashing guards with bags of coins on their saddles:
“The most beautiful girl can only give what she has,” the proverb says. “Such as were rich, gave in addition a part of their money.”
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