Why Did the World’s Richest Woman Give a Gay Artist Nearly a Billion Dollars?

It’s the greatest scandal in 21st century Paris. By one police estimate, $1 billion was given by the L’Oréal heiress to François-Marie Banier, but it came with a very heavy price.

To Francois-Marie Banier’s critics, his only aim was to take the L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for as much money as possible.

Greed was doubtless part of the mix, but theirs was a profound and complex relationship. Whatever material interests motivated him, Banier had a deep and genuine affection for the heiress. She apparently felt something stronger for him. As Liliane described the relationship in a 2008 letter to Banier: “With you, I am like a mother, a lover, all the feelings pass through me. It makes me tremble.” Given the age difference and Banier’s sexual preferences, there was apparently no physical intimacy between them—“good thing I never intended to sleep with François-Marie Banier,” she quipped to her financial adviser. But according to Banier’s confiscated notebooks (now part of the court record), Liliane longed for more physical closeness and wondered why they couldn’t at least hold hands. For nearly a quarter of a century, they carried on a platonic love affair.

That Liliane was in love with Banier seemed obvious to several of her close friends. Lucienne de Rozier, her neighbor and friend for fifty years, said Liliane was like a midinette—a giddy teenager—when she was around Banier. “She fell in love with François-Marie Banier . . . She was fascinated by him to the point of stupefaction.”

Banier’s childhood friend Gilles Brücker, who also developed a close friendship with Liliane, says she was “not only in love with Banier, she was someone who needed to have affectionate relationships and she was seductive with a lot of people. She flattered men with her words and gestures. She cultivated an image. She had an extraordinary physique for a woman of her age. She was a seductive woman who had a need to seduce.” Her relationship with Banier, he says, was “real, affectionate, and loving.”

Banier himself insists that Liliane was “never in love” with him, but it is difficult to deny that there was a powerful emotional attachment between them. The nature of their relationship is documented by the 500-plus pages of selected correspondence, ranging over two decades, that Banier’s lawyers would later place in the court record. They write about literature, travels, art, movies, Banier’s books and exhibitions, Liliane’s health. On Liliane’s side, there are numerous references to her father, criticisms of her daughter and son-in-law, and effusive words of affection for her dachshund Toma—“my beautiful child,” she calls him, something that she would never say about her daughter, Françoise. (Toma, by the way, was fed a diet of fresh fish and Volvic mineral water and sported a silver dog collar by Hermès.) There are frequent terms of endearment: Banier calls her “ma petite chérie”; she writes “I kiss you tenderly.”

Françoise’s lawyers would later point to their voluminous correspondence—totaling in all more than 2,000 letters and faxes—as proof that Banier was seeking to maintain his influence over Liliane through the sheer quantity of these exchanges and the flattering language that he often used. Jean-Pierre Meyers recounted that in 1995, while his family was vacationing with the Bettencourts at Arcouest, Liliane would often leave the swimming pool before lunch and dash into the house to check for new faxes from Banier. “That’s when we realized that the relationship between Madame Bettencourt and Monsieur Banier was deepening.” It was indeed, but it seems strange to reduce the exchanges to a simple vehicle of manipulation by Banier. After all, Liliane was writing him as often, perhaps even more, than he wrote her. The letters and faxes give evidence of a complex relationship that runs the gamut from affection, humor, and intellectual curiosity to flattery, jealousy, and, yes, self-interest. But above all, they are proof of a powerful bond between the correspondents.

For Liliane, it was far more than a friendship: it was a lifeline. Before she met Banier, her social world was confined to L’Oréal meetings, tea with the same old friends, and dinner parties with important people who tended to be business associates, bankers, or André’s political connections. There was little to stimulate her curious mind, no one who shared her unformed but avid taste for art and literature. She was drowning in wealth and luxury, but she longed for something more. “Liliane was rich, she was beautiful, and she was bored to death,” says her former lawyer Georges Kiejman.

Lucienne de Rozier recalls that the heiress was in a state of “grave depression” through much of the 1980s, often staying in bed and complaining of various illnesses “though there was nothing wrong with her.” De Rozier thought her friend’s maladies were psychosomatic, but to Liliane they were very real, particularly the back and hip pains that resulted from no fewer than four separate falls. “My health was bad for ten years,” she later recalled. “I was very much alone and desperate after the fourth accident, fearing I would never walk again.”

When Banier arrived on the scene, he immediately put some spice into her life.

Brash, provocative, iconoclastic, he had none of the kowtowing deference that she was accustomed to. He would criticize her clothes, her hairstyle, playfully call her names at times, even as he flattered her and praised her beauty, her intellect, her sensitivity. Banier also talked to her about books and philosophy and art, things that were not part of André’s dinnertime conversation. And he brought her out of her shell, introducing her to artists, writers, and actors, escorting her to art galleries, museums, theaters, auction houses. As Liliane put it, “he renovated me.”

In the great Parisian tradition, they would spend hours talking together in cafés or dining in fine restaurants. Over twenty years, they frequented most of the capital’s best-known establishments, but they had their particular favorites. Among them was Rech, on the boulevard des Ternes, founded in 1925 by an Alsatian who, like Eugène Schueller’s father, had migrated to Paris after the First World War in order to remain French. Liliane especially liked Rech (now owned by superstar chef Alain Ducasse) because her father had often taken her there as a girl. Laurent, a former royal hunting pavilion located in a park along the Champs-Élysées, was another favorite, both for its elegant décor and its haute-cuisine menu. Not least among their regular eating spots was Le Grand Véfour, with its ornately painted walls and ceilings, nestled under the colonnades of the Palais Royal Garden. The sumptuous interior is virtually unchanged since the late eighteenth century, when the Véfour was a favorite meeting place of the capital’s political and literary intelligentsia. One thing these three establishments have in common is a pricey menu, ranging from €100 to more than €300 per person. (Liliane usually paid.)

Liliane’s “patronage” had begun with the 250,000 francs she paid for the photo book that accompanied his Pompidou exhibition in 1991. Though their friendship deepened over the next few years, the heiress did not offer him any more financial help until she came to lunch one day at Banier’s place on the rue Servandoni. At that time, he owned three apartments in the five-story building, having bought out his former partner Jacques Grange in the mid-1970s. The first time Liliane came to lunch there, she was in a wheelchair suffering from debilitating back pains. Banier had since installed an elevator in the stairwell, largely to spare Liliane the four-flight climb to his dining room. She came two or three times a month, and the ritual was always the same: her chauffeur would park in the delivery zone just across the street and open the rear door. Liliane, elegantly coiffed, impeccably dressed, would emerge from the car holding her purse in one hand and a small bag in the other.

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The bag contained the grilled bread and cheese that she always brought when she lunched with the artist—until he got fed up one day and told her it was rude to bring her own cheese. One day in 1994, over a simple meal provided by Banier’s cook, Liliane leaned back from the round wooden table and peered through the window at an apartment across the courtyard.

“François-Marie, you need more space,” she said. “You like fine things; me too. I have the means to suit your tastes. And to start with, you’re going to buy that apartment across the way.”

“What for?”

“You’ll need it. One day you will put your archives in there.”

Good as her word, Liliane set up a société civile immobilière (SCI), a private real-estate investment company, and started to buy property for Banier, who was the titular co-owner. She later set up two other SCIs with Banier, providing the cash for apartments that were used by the artist for archives and studios. In 1997, she gifted her shares in the companies to Banier, making him owner of the entire building on the rue Servandoni, the same building where I would meet him almost twenty years later.

Between 1994 and 1999, Banier and Liliane cruised the galleries and auction houses in search of master paintings to enliven what he called her “sinister” house. Their purchases—paid by Liliane but chosen on Banier’s advice—hung in the reception rooms, on the walls along the curved staircase, and in the upstairs bedrooms. The family’s collection included other works inherited from Liliane’s father, including a large Monet that Banier considered “hideous,” but these more recent acquisitions had a special meaning for Liliane.

On February 23, 2001, she accompanied Banier to the offices of her notary, Jean-Michel Normand. In the downstairs hallway of Normand’s building, just before entering the elevator, she told her friend the purpose of the visit. “I have decided to give you the paintings that we bought together,” she said. “It’s a road we have traveled together, it’s our history.”

Normand, somewhat surprised, proceeded to register the twelve paintings as nue propriété, meaning the heiress would keep and enjoy the works during her lifetime but Banier would inherit them. The collection, which included canvases by Picasso, Matisse, Lèger, Mondrian, Braque, and Munch, among others, was valued at some €17 million at the time. (It is currently estimated at €90 million.) Liliane paid an additional 60 percent of the declared value in the form of gift taxes so that Banier would not be billed when the works came into his possession. Normand later said that he had no doubt Liliane was a lucid and willing donor: “She knew exactly what she wanted, and she stayed on course.”

In a codicil to her will, the heiress called this extraordinary gift a “token of my gratitude for the moral and affective aid that François-Marie Banier has offered me. I will add that I would never have made this collection of paintings without him. I am indebted to him on an emotional level for his long and constant support—I have been through some difficult moments. As strange as it might seem, he has been a great help even on business matters.”

Liliane’s gratitude apparently knew no bounds. From 1997 to 2002, she named Banier in her will as the beneficiary on five assurance vie contracts. This type of contract is a sort of hybrid between a brokerage account and a US life insurance policy. These instruments tend to gain value dramatically over the years, meaning that the potential payout to Banier down the line was in the hundreds of millions. (It did not endear him to Françoise that one of the contracts had originally been in her name.) Meanwhile, Liliane continued to provide Banier with millions of euros in cash and checks to “permit him to carry out his projects.”

As always, she presented her gifts as a form of patronage to further Banier’s artistic endeavors. But it was more than that. The money she gave Banier was the emblem of her personal liberty, her identity, her free will. Over two decades, she made it clear that this was her own decision and she drew enormous satisfaction from it. To Liliane, the fortune she gave Banier was not just money: it was an act of love that she could not express in other terms. It was also a means of punishing her daughter for real and imagined faults.

Liliane’s largesse financed more than Banier’s artistic activities: it enabled him to acquire a substantial amount of real estate in addition to his compound on the rue Servandoni. Between 1998 and 2003, he purchased four apartments on the rue de Vaugirard, a prime Left Bank location overlooking the stately Luxembourg Gardens, the fifty-six-acre park adjoining the Palais du Luxembourg, former palace of Queen Marie de’ Medici (1575–1642) and currently the home of the French Senate.

In June 2007, Liliane cashed in a life-insurance contract worth €82.9 million (on which she paid €49.7 million in taxes) and gave the proceeds to Banier. He immediately put the funds into three new contracts, one in his name and the other two in the names of Martin d’Orgeval and Pascal Greggory. Using his own policy as a sort of cash machine, he drew large sums from it to buy artworks, a house in Marrakesh, and improvements on his villa in the south of France.

In addition to her personal support, Liliane arranged for L’Oréal to grant two generous contracts to Banier—one that sponsored his international photo exhibitions and books, another that paid him a hefty fee as an “artistic adviser.” It was thanks to L’Oréal that Banier had twenty-eight photo shows from Tokyo, Rome, and Munich to Milan, Budapest, and Paris, among others, each accompanied by a glossy catalogue. Liliane and André would often attend the openings. The heiress looked forward to these events and even took tango lessons before flying to Buenos Aires for Banier’s exhibition there in 2000. On that occasion she showed off her footwork in a confitería, one of the local pastry salons that offer tango dancing along with fancy sweets. That was a long way from the stuffy dinner parties she had known before meeting Banier.

The L’Oréal contracts, first signed in 1994, were eventually worth €710,000 a year to Banier. The business benefit to the company was questionable, but Lindsay Owen-Jones, L’Oréal’s CEO at the time, went along with the sweetheart deal essentially to please Madame Bettencourt, on whom his job depended. “I make money for Liliane, and you make her live,” he told Banier.

Why did the heiress deem it so important to sponsor the work of this little-known photographer? Perhaps it was a means of self-validation. Liliane was fascinated by creative people, starting with her father. But she was not creative herself: she didn’t write poetry or paint or play music, and in fact had only a secondary school education. When she latched on to Banier (and vice versa), she finally saw her chance to be creative: with her money and L’Oréal’s sponsorship, she could “make” Banier as an artist. “What I want is for you to be known,” she wrote him. His success would be her success, his creativity would be a projection of her own—to the point where she would tell friends “we” are putting on an exhibition when talking of Banier’s shows.

Some of Liliane’s close friends were astounded to see her shower such enormous sums on her protégé. They found it totally out of character in a woman who could be generous on occasion, but who was a notorious penny pincher in her daily life. Monique de Libouton, who had known Liliane since 1942, described her as “stingy” and said it was always “a battle” to get her to accept the slightest raises for her employees. Lucienne de Rozier, another intimate, said, “Liliane was quite miserly. Whenever she had to give someone wedding present, she was in turmoil. That’s why I find the level of these donations staggering.” Liliane herself, in her famous 1987 interview with Egoïste, admitted that she “detests overpaying” for anything. “It makes me ill. I don’t like to waste money.” Yet within a few years of giving that interview, she was shoveling millions into the open arms of an obscure artist. What happened?

It wasn’t just that Banier stimulated her, flattered her, and made her laugh. And it wasn’t just that he opened doors to the worlds of art and culture. Beyond all that, Liliane was enthralled by his person, his good looks, his quirky character, his scintillating conversation. She was impressed by Banier’s early literary success and his exotic frequentations. Even his homosexuality must have intrigued and, in some strange way, attracted her.

The French have a colorful term—s’encanailler—which roughly means slumming, hanging out with rakish types from a different social milieu. That was undoubtedly part of the magnetism that drew her to François-Marie.

There was another thing that made Banier immensely attractive to Liliane: he reminded her of her adored father, Eugène Schueller. Over the years, the identification between Banier and Schueller became a leitmotif of their conversation and correspondence. Banier played on this, and even took to ending his letters “HLC”—an acronym for one of Schueller’s favorite expressions: “Haut les cœurs” (keep a stout heart). “It’s obvious that you’re part crazy,” she once told Banier. “So was my father. That’s also a way to be far ahead of the others.” In 2003, Liliane wrote to her notary: “I spoke to François-Marie as I spoke to my father—we went into deep things—which I needed.”

At first glance, it would be hard to find two men more different from each other than François-Marie Banier and Eugène Schueller. Banier is tall and trim; Schueller was short and squat. Banier, at least in his youth, was an Adonis; Schueller, even young, looked more like Charlie Chaplin than a Greek god. Banier is an artist, writer, and romantic; Schueller was a scientist, inventor, and businessman. Banier is a homosexual half-Jew; Schueller was heterosexual, a staunch Catholic, and arguably an anti-Semite. Liliane might say that they were both creative types, but there is a vast difference between writing a novel or taking a photo and building a capitalist empire. Yet in Liliane’s eyes, the two men had some fundamental things in common: a compulsive work ethic, an intellectual curiosity, a charismatic personality, and an outsize belief in themselves and their destiny. But the most important thing they shared was the blind admiration of Liliane Bettencourt.

Of all the things Liliane sought to give Banier, certainly the most exotic was the Seychelles island of d’Arros, a 1.5-square-mile oval of sandy beaches, palm groves, and limpid waters that formerly belonged to a nephew of the shah of Iran. Liliane and André bought the island in 1997 for $18 million then poured some €50 million into upgrading its installations with new bungalows, an enlarged landing strip, and housing for 35 permanent employees. The couple visited d’Arros three or four times a year, often in the company of Banier, Martin d’Orgeval and other friends. Françoise and her family were never once invited there.

Liliane’s determination to keep d’Arros out of Françoise’s hands was at least one motive behind the complicated transfer of ownership engineered by her business lawyer Fabrice Goguel. “In no case did she want the island to go to her daughter,” Goguel explained. “She wanted to give it to François-Marie Banier.” Along with a Swiss colleague, Goguel created a Lichtenstein-based foundation to which ownership of d’Arros was transferred in November 2006. Though the Bettencourts continued to rent the island from the foundation, its ultimate “beneficiaries” were ... François-Marie Banier and three medical associations run by his friend Gilles Brücker.

But Banier never did gain possession of the island paradise, which was finally sold in 2011 to a company owned by a Saudi billionaire. Apart from its monetary value, perhaps, Banier did not seem to be especially attached to the place. Questioned about his links to d’Arros in July 2010, Banier told investigators: “I detest this island, it is full of mosquitoes, it is tiny, and it’s very humid. On top of all that, there are sharks. I hate islands.”

Adapted from The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal that Rocked Paris by Tom Sancton, published on Aug. 8, 2017, by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Thomas A. Sancton.