July 13, 2010

Until recently, I had never heard of Liliane Bettencourt, the sole heiress to the L”€™Oreal fortune and France’s richest woman. I can”€™t say that I care much now that I have, even though it seems like all of France is in a twist over her billions. As it happens, Bettencourt gave away one of her nine billion shekels to her photographer friend, Francois Marie Banier. He produced a beautiful book of his photographs about ten years ago, which I have and still admire. (Johnny Depp is on the cover.) The big brouhaha started when Bettencourt’s daughter, Francoise Meyer, freaked out over the little gift, and filed a suite against Banier, claiming he had taken advantage of Liliane, who Meyer says is gaga. Whether she is or isn”€™t seems irrelevant now, as Bettencourt knew Banier well. They were certainly intimate, the rumor is Banier had been her husband’s lover.

Since Bettencourt was widowed three years ago, she and Banier have been inseparable. According to most sources, Banier’s got a lot of moxie, which probably kept Bettencourt amused while she was grieving. Soon she bought Banier a house, a lot of valuable art, and gave him some cash and insurance policies, totaling about one billion euros. Seems a bit excessive since they weren”€™t related, but when you”€™re that rich, isn”€™t everything excessive? One can see how a homosexual aesthete who was never wealthy, yet spent his life around mega rich people, could become nasty, greedy, and relentless in his pursuit of life’s pleasures. Bettencourt’s generosity could have easily gone to his head. Of course, in his defense, people say not all the money went into his pocket, a lot of it was for the arts, and other causes. Whatever the “€œcauses,”€ I doubt they were protecting tigers from extinction or saving neglected children.

Speaking of, at the heart of this imbroglio is Francoise Meyer, the concerned daughter. When she spoke to Le Figaro last week, Meyer said: “€œThis is a tragic story of which my mother is the victim. It is my duty as her only daughter to protect her.”€ Most newspapers claim the mother and daughter were estranged. So at best, they have a complicated relationship. Meyer is in her 50s now, on the board of L”€™Oreal, and rich in her own right. Why bother going to court, then? Bettencourt hadn”€™t blown all the money on furs and frivolity. Furthermore, the billions are Bettencourt’s, and no one else’s. Therefore, I doubt this is really just a story about a concerned daughter. We all know family fights over money are never really about money. Perhaps Meyer was angry at her mother. She could very well have been forsaken as a child. What else would cause a daughter to open up such a huge can of worms in public? It’s not very smart. Now there are accusations of tax evasion.

“None of them are really suffering, except perhaps, Meyer, the troubled daughter. She should spend her time more productively, perhaps in a shrink’s office, like all poor little rich girls.”

Then the ubiquitous butler got involved, because he was, of course, concerned for Bettencourt’s well-being. Or perhaps hoping to blackmail someone in order to get a palace of his own. He recorded Bettencourt’s telephone conversations. One of his tapes reveals Bettencourt had become frustrated with Banier’s demands, alluding to the possibility that Banier was indeed manipulating her. On another call, Bettencourt’s financial advisor was allegedly heard revealing that his client had 80 million hidden in Switzerland, and that he had met with a presidential aide. There was a subsequent reference to a French minister, whose wife worked for a company that managed some of Bettencourt’s money. And just like that, a full blown political scandale! But this isn”€™t the really juicy part of the story, political corruption is old hat, even if there is something there

Enter: Francois Marie Banier, the recipient of Bettencourt’s munificence. Takimag’s Bunky Mortimer sent me an illustrative email when the story broke on Banier. He has given me permission to share it with you here:

Let me tell you a thing or two about Francois Marie Banier. I first met him during the late 60s in Paris, when my old friend Jimmy Douglas, an American expatriate in the City of Light, brought him to my flat in the Rue du Bac. Banier was a poseur to end all poses. He muttered something about my butler being a stupid dwarf because the poor man dripped some water on his outrageously flared trousers. The “€œTout Paris”€ used to go bananas over Banier’s looks, but I always thought he had the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. He preened like Dorian Gray, pursing his lips and smoldering against his Gitane cigarette smoke, a gay Bogie straight out of Casablanca fame. Actually, he had the crabbed malice of a lesbian witch. He was also memorably rude, but never to me as he knew I would have applied instant sedation with a right cross to his sculptured jaw. He was always on the make, and he once tried his lizard-like charm on my aunt, Nonie Phipps, but got nowhere. Behind his back many of my friends like Jimmy Douglas and Kim D”€™estainville referred to Banier as a painted, perfumed gigolo, who concentrated on old rich ladies. He knew how to bring them in, rudeness being one of his ploys. I can see him actually telling La Bettencourt to buy back the island she gave him while gaga and for 500 million dollars to boot. Banier was and continues to be a hustling gigolo, a talentless spiv whose good looks were embraced by a lot of very rich people with too much money and too few brains. He was and is a semi-trained polecat that feasts on the half-dead bodies of old rich women and men. The quicker he ends up in the clink the better!

Wow! Well, perhaps Banier is capable of such outlandish villainy. But even if he is, I still have trouble finding much empathy for these folks. They live in a world of luxury most people will never know. None of them are really suffering, except perhaps, Meyer, the troubled daughter. She should spend her time more productively, perhaps in a shrink’s office, like all poor little rich girls. The one who really deserves the blame is Bettencourt, even if she’s gaga now. Whatever the truth may be, her problems are of her own making. She should have known what sort of character she was up against, she and Banier had been friends for over twenty years.


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